There comes to our mind many names, when we talk about the Buddhist revival in India – but Sir Alexander Cunningham generally isn’t one of them. However, he was instrumental in discovering and restoring major Buddhist sites in India, including Sarnath, Sanchi, Kushinagar, Taxila, and Mahabodhi Vihar.
Sir Alexander Cunningham was a British army engineer born on January 23, 1823. He took an interest in history and archaeology. At the age of 21, he was posted at Benaras (now Varanasi). Outside the city was Sarnath, a quiet retreat from the crowded city. He discovered a 145 feet high dome like structure, which he thought belonged to some maharaja. As an engineer, intrigued by the monument, he started exploring it. Spending from his own pocket, he started the explorations – but all he found was a stone with an inscription which he could not understand. So he sent the stone to James Princep (famous for deciphering Ashoka’s edicts), the then secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society. James Princep deciphered it as a homage to Buddha. This marked the place where Buddha delivered his first sermon, the Dhamek stupa. Thereafter, he came in contact with James Princep, and his interest in archaeology developed even further.
After Sarnath, he excavated Sanchi, where he discovered Buddha’s relics from the Sanchi stupa and also those of Buddha’s disciples, Sariputta and Mahamogollan. He continued exploring the region around Sanchi and Sarnath, and published a book called “The Bhilsa Topes” in 1854.
Sir Alexander Cunningham was mainly guided by the travel accounts of the Buddhist travellers, Fa-Hien and Hsuan Tsang – the latter’s observations being more precise.
In 1846, Cunningham sent a proposal to the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, and later submitted a petition in 1860 to Lord Canning, the then Governor-General, for the establishment of a department for a systematic exploration of historical sites and their proper preservation. Due to his efforts, the Archaeological Survey of India was set up in 1861 with Cunningham as its head. He published “The Ancient Geography of India” in 1871, which was the first collection of the edicts of the 3rd-Century-BC Indian emperor Aśoka, and “The Stûpa of Bharhut” in 1879.
Again, by following Hsuan Tsang, he rediscovered Kusinara – the place where bhagwan Buddha attained mahaparinirvana (the ultimate state of nirvana) – and unearthed a 1500 years old statue of Buddha. To his surprise, the same statue had already been described by Hsuan Tsang.
Sir Alexander Cunningham visited the Mahabodhi Vihar, and was saddened by the its dilapidated state. Under his personal direction, he began the restoration works. He writes, “In February 1881, I paid another visit to the (Mahabodhi) Temple, and I was present when the discovery of Relics of the Buddha was made under the front of the Vajrasana Throne.” On dating the railings and the Vajrasana to 250 BC, he adds, “the first, and perhaps the most interesting discovery was the remains of the original temple of Asoka, with the polished Vajrasana Throne , exactly as portrayed in the Bharhut Basrelief with the view of the Bodhi tree of Sakyamuni. Close by on the north side of the temple was found the remains of the Cloistered Walk with its 22 pillared bases still in situ each marked with a letter of the Indian alphabet of Asoka from a to the cerebral t.”
Just like almost every other Buddhist site, the Nalanda University had also been forgotten. Francis Buchanan discovered it in 1812 – but it was Sir Alexander Cunningham who identified it as Nalanda. The official survey was carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Again by tracing Hsuan Tsang’s travelogue, in 1863-64 and 1872-73 he discovered another famous Buddhist university, the Taxila University. This work was continued by other officials of the ASI, who over a 20-year period completely exposed the ancient site and its monuments.
Sir Alexander Cunningham conducted a survey in Ayodhya, which was limited in its nature because of the existing temples and mosque. According to him, Gautama Buddha spent six years at this place. Although Ayodhya is mentioned in several ancient Hindu texts, Cunningham found no ancient structures in the city to substantiate the claim. According to him, the existing Brahmanical temples at Ayodhya were of a relatively modern origin. The view that the existing mosque and temples were built upon a Buddhist site is cemented by many other excavation reports of the time as well. Another report by Patrick Carnegie, in 1870, suggested that the Kasauti pillars at the Ayodhya site strongly resemble the ones at Buddhist viharas in Sarnath and Varanas. Some results of the 2003 ASI report suggest that a Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) culture existed at the mosque site between 1000 BC and 300 BC. A round signet with a legend in Ashokan Brahmi and terracotta figurines of female deities with archaic features, beads of terracotta and glass, wheels and fragments of votive tanks have been found. This affirms the view that there existed a Buddhist vihara even before the temples (if there had been one at the time).
The life and works of Sir Alexander Cunningham are too great to be covered in one article and there should be far more studies of his writings and works. Undisputably, he was one of the greatest archaeologists and historians to live, because he resurrected an entirely lost history from the dead. Saluting this great personality on his 203rd birth anniversary!