Alexander Cunningham: The man who recovered ancient India

Alexander Cunningham

Today – January 23rd is the 200th birthday of Alexander Cunningham, who is the solely responsible for uncovering the greatness of Ancient India.This is a mini account of the life and times of Alexander Cunningham.

At the age of 21, he led an archaeological exploration at Sarnath near Varanasi at his own cost, opening up a hitherto unknown chapter of India’s history. Years later, he institutionalized his legacy in the form of Archaeological Survey of India or ASI (estd.1861). His painstakingly produced reports of the ASI remain a testimony to his stupendous labor and research. The rock solid reputation of his works could not be undermined even by the modern ‘nationalist’ critics of Orientalism.  They might criticize William Jones and Max Muller but leave Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893) alone without criticism, but also without praise.

Alexander CunninghamMajor-general Alexander Cunningham was born on January 23, 1814 in London. He was the second of the three sons of Scottish poet Allan Cunningham. His elder brother Joseph Davey Cunningham (1812-1851) is best known as the author of History of Sikhs (1849). Alexander Cunningham arrived in India in 1833 as second lieutenant of Bengal Engineering Corps. Those were the last days of Orientalism in India, initiated by  Warren Hastings in 1782. Many ill-informed critics of British today accuse that the British tried to ramrod westernisation in India. The reality is that from Warren Hastings to William Bentick, the British had promoted an elitist Sanskrit education. The British established Government Sanskrit College (1791) in Varanasi and Sanskrit College (1823) in Calcutta, both of which continue to function till date. English education colleges like Hindu College (estd.1817) in Calcutta and Elphinstone College (1834) in Bombay, contrarily, were founded on Indian initiative with Indian money.

The British Orientalists like William Jones, Horace Hyman Wilson, Henry Thomas Colebrooke, Brian Hodgson, Jonathan Duncan etc. were linguists/philologists who tried to reconstruct the various aspects of Indian history. James Prinsep was a numismatist and antiquarian who first deciphered Brahmi/Kharoshti script, paving the way for reading the rock and pillar edicts of Emperor Ashok (third century BC). Alexander Cunningham who apprenticed under James Prinsep plunged into archaeology. Archaeology was then a new discipline in India, which was destined to reshape the historiography.

In 1835, Macaulay’s Anglicism had triumphed over Orientalism in education policy. The British found it prudent to promote English language for which groundswell existed in India. The official support to the study of Indian heritage virtually ended. It was during this time that Major Markham Kittoe (1808-1853) and Alexander Cunningham acted as the keepers of the flame. In 1847, Alexander Cunningham acted as the Chief of Commission on Ladakh-Tibet boundary with Captain Henry Stratchey and Dr Thomson in 1847. Alexander Cunningham visited Kashmir’s temples and was also in active service of the engineering corporations. He was a part of the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1845) and the battles between Chilianwala and Gujarat (1848). He was the chief engineer of Burma (1856-58) and the North-West Province, now called Uttar Pradesh (1858-1861). But, archaeology remained his obsession.

During 1840-42, Alexander Cunningham worked coins of Greek and Indo-Scythian kings of Bactriana, Ariana and India. In 1851, with Lieutenant Maisey, he explored a large number of Buddhist stupas in Bhilsa (Madhya Pradesh). In 1854, Alexander Cunningham published a notice on “Coins of Indian Buddhist Satraps with Greek Inscription”. He was also in touch with James Ferguson whose monograph ‘Illustrations of Rock-Cut Temples of India’ (1845) was path breaking. The catastrophic Muslim invasions during the medieval ages had razed scores of temples and Buddhist monasteries. Buddhism, unlike Jainism, had completely been lost in mainland India. Alexander Cunningham set out to rediscover that gilded age. Building on his findings at Sarnath, he travelled across northern and central India to find the remnants of ancient edifices/structures below the soil. He recapitulates their history in combined four volumes of reports (1862-63-64-65) which was published after ASI was established.

In November, 1861, a new phase began in Cunningham’s career as an Archaeological Surveyor. Lord Canning commissioned the establishment of the ASI. In the ensuing years, a string of ancient cities like Taxila and Saugala in Punjab, Srughna, Ahichchatra, Kaushambi and Sravasti in Uttar Pradesh and Nalanda in Bihar were discovered.

Between 1866 and 1870, Cunningham stayed in England during which he published an account “Coin of an Indian Prince Sophytes, a contemporary of Alexander”. He returned to India as the Director General of ASI on January 1, 1871. During the following 15 years he produced 11 volumes of report of archaeological survey. He retired on September 30, 1885 after a service of around 50 years in India. But even in the remaining eight years of life, he produced several more volumes of ASI report. Alexander Cunningham placed ancient Indian history on terra firma with his Herculean efforts. He left behind the ASI to take his pursuit of exhuming Indian history ahead. It is, however, a pity that no biography of the great antiquarian hero has written till date. As Indians, we owe it to him.

Reference and Source: Priyadarshi Dutta – NitiCentral

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I am Ajithkumar, an entrepreneur and a karma yogi. I live by the principle: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do". So I do all the things I like with a willingness to accept responsibility for my actions. Connect with me on Google+