Around 150 years ago, when Alexander Cunningham and his team were clearing land around the Bharhut Stupa in present-day Madhya Pradesh, local villagers grew alarmed and suspicious. They thought the white man had come to dig for gold. Cunningham, a world-famous archaeologist and the father of Indian archaeology, was digging up an even greater treasure. He had stumbled upon a Buddhist stupa whose art and sculpture were among the earliest and finest examples of what came to be known as ‘Bharhut sculpture’.
You would never have guessed it if you saw what Cunningham was looking at when he stood at the base of a small mound of bricks on a grassy plain with a gentle hill as its backdrop. When he found it in 1873, the Bharhut Stupa was almost completely destroyed. All that was visible were three uprights of the vedika or railing that once circled the stupa, with its coping stones, and one pillar of the adjacent (eastern) torana or gateway. To Cunningham, these fragments seemed vaguely familiar. Then the penny dropped – he had seen parts of the stupa railing and gateways adorning the houses in many villages in the vicinity!
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