Alexander Cunningham

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Author: Laxman Burdak IFS (R)

Alexander Cunningham (अलेक्ज़ैंडर कन्निघम) (1814 1893) was director general of archaeological survey of India. He was a British army engineer with the Bengal Engineer Group who later took an interest in the history and archaeology of India which led to his appointment in 1861 to the newly created position of archaeological surveyor to the government of India. He founded and organized what later became the Archaeological Survey of India.

As Author

He wrote numerous books and monographs and made massive collections of artefacts. Some of his collections were lost but most of the gold and silver coins in his collection were bought by the British Museum. Two of his brothers, Francis Cunningham and Joseph Cunningham became well known for their work in British India while another, Peter Cunningham, became famous for his Handbook of London (1849). Joseph Davey Cunningham (1849). Cunningham's History of the Sikhs. John Murray. pp. xii–xiv.

Archaeological Survey of India

Cunningham had taken a keen interest in antiquities early in his career. Following Jean-Baptiste Ventura, general of Ranjit Singh, who inspired by the French explorers in Egypt had excavated the bases of pillars to discover large stashes of Bactrian and Roman coins, excavations became a regular activity among British antiquarians.

  • In 1834 he wrote to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, an appendix to James Prinsep's article on the relics in the Manikyala Tope.
  • He had conducted excavations at Sarnath in 1837 along with Colonel F.C. Maisey and made careful drawings of the sculptures.
  • In 1848, he identified some of the places mentioned in the travels of Hwan Thsang.[1]
  • In 1854 he published The Bhilsa Topes, an attempt to establish the history of Buddhism based on architectural evidence.
  • By 1851 he also began to communicate to William Henry Sykes and the East India Company on the value of an archaeological survey.
  • In 1861, Charles John Canning, then the viceroy of India appointed Cunningham as archaeological surveyor to the government of India. This position was held from 1861 to 1865 but this was terminated due to lack of funds.
  • Cunningham returned to England and wrote the first part of his Ancient Geography of India (1871) to cover the Buddhist period but failed to complete the second part to cover the Muslim period. During this period in London he worked as director of the Delhi and London Bank.
  • In 1870, Lord Mayo re-established the Archaeological Survey of India with Cunningham as its director-general from 1 January 1871.
  • Cunningham returned to India and made field explorations each winter, conducting excavations and surveys from Taxila to Gaur.
  • He produced twenty-four reports, thirteen as author and the rest under his supervision by others such as J. D. Beglar.

Other major works included - the first volume of Corpus inscriptionum Indicarum (1877) which included copies of the edicts of Asoka, the Stupa of Bharhut (1879) and the Book of Indian Eras (1883) which allowed dating of Indian antiquities. He retired from the Archaeological Survey on 30 September 1885 and returned to London to continue his research and writing.[2]

Cunningham made a large numismatic collection, but much of this was lost when the steamship he was travelling in, the Indus, was wrecked off the coast of Sri Lanka in November 1884. The British Museum however obtained most of the gold and silver coins. He had suggested to the British Museum that they should use the arch from the Sanchi Stupa to mark the entrance of a new section on Indian history. He also published numerous papers in the Journal of the Asiatic Society and the Numismatic Chronicle.[3]

The Books written by him

  • LADĀK: Physical, Statistical, and Historical with Notices of the Surrounding Countries (1854).
  • Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum. Volume 1. (1877)
  • The Stupa of Bharhut: A Buddhist Monument Ornamented with Numerous Sculptures Illustrative of Buddhist Legend and History in the Third Century B.C. (1879)
  • The Book of Indian Eras (1883)
  • Coins of Ancient India (1891)
  • Mahâbodhi, or the great Buddhist temple under the Bodhi tree at Buddha-Gaya (1892)

See also

External links


  1. Cunningham, Alexander (1848). Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal 17 (2): 13–60.
  2. Cotton, J. S. & James Lunt (reviser) (2004). "Cunningham, Sir Alexander (1814–1893)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press
  3. Mathur, Saloni (2007). India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display. University of California Press. p. 146.

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