Alexander the Great

Figuring out the writer of a cache of notebooks on a 19th century archaeological survey was exciting, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Aug 11, 2011 12:23 IST

It was 10.30 in the morning, the first Monday of August. I was on a routine visit to the library, tracking references for an article that I was writing. The library, that of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), happens to be my favourite one. The ambience of the place is ordinary and down-at-heel. But it has an extraordinarily rich collection of old books and journals which once made it the most famed archaeological library of South Asia.

That day, in its reading room, I happened to see three notebooks of an unknown writer. Satpal Singh brought these to me, hoping to solve the mystery of their authorship. In a place that is awfully short-staffed, Satpal happens to be one of those exceptional old-time officers who is quick to recognise rare books and unfailingly draws the attention of interested readers to them.

The notebooks that he asked me to examine were hand-written in black ink and pencil, in the same flowing hand. They were thick and hardbound with spines that bore dates and volume numbers. The writer had simply omitted to imprint his name on them. Handwritten notebooks in an archaeological library are unusual enough, and as I riffled through their pages, my curiosity about this singular set of volumes very quickly turned into astonishment. These were no ordinary journals. They were the jottings of an intriguing individual as his travels and learning made evident.

The index at the beginning of each notebook that records the places that he visited and the thousands of miles that he covered, reveals an explorer of enormous vitality. As he travelled around, he made notes on all kinds of archaeological sites, accompanied by pencil sketches of sculptures, coins and monuments. That he was not simply doing this out of an antiquarian interest was obvious from the cross-references in the notebooks to the coordinates of places that were visited and described by the Chinese pilgrims Fa Hsien and Hsuan Tsang. He actually seemed to be moving around the countryside with the journals of those pilgrims in hand. The notebooks are also peppered with delightful asides that this writer-explorer picked up in the course of his travels — village names which could be derived from trees, the demons and ghosts that ‘peopled’ all kinds of places, even the ‘pipal’ tree roots that he found in the sandy soil at Mahabodhi where the Buddha had attained enlightenment. Usually, such notebooks form the basis for later publications and, as I realised that morning, can be useful long after the lives and times of their authors.

But who could this archaeological explorer be? The intrepid explorer was a colonial, there was no doubt about it, as his quaint spellings of place names and the people that he mentioned, made clear. That he was not John Marshall, my favourite archaeologist of colonial India, I already knew because this is not his handwriting. Besides, Marshall was born a year after the first of these notebooks began, dated as they were from 1875 to 1881. From those dates, I guessed that these were also unlikely to be James Prinsep’s journals. Prinsep died in 1840 and while he was an outstanding discoverer of ancient scripts and dynasties, he hardly moved out of Calcutta, after he became the secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Could it be James Burgess, the architectural scholar who is known to have conducted surveys from the 1860s till the 1880s? He too had to be eliminated from the list of probables, since he mainly worked in western and southern India while this explorer was busy surveying north India.

Following this process of elimination, it dawned on me that these could only be the hitherto undiscovered notebooks of one man: Alexander Cunningham. He was the one archaeological explorer in India who, in the latter part of the 19th century, traversed and published on the sites that are recorded in the notebooks — Mahabodhi, Sarnath, Mahasthan and so many others. In 1861, Cunningham was appointed as India’s first archaeological surveyor by Lord Canning. Eventually, he became the first director general of a government department of archaeology, better known as the Archaeological Survey of India, when it was created in 1871. These three notebooks seem to have been penned by him during his ‘director general’ years.

How, though, could I completely sure of this? For the next half-hour, I moved back and forth from Cunningham’s published surveys to the notebooks. Comparing them, I was profoundly thrilled to discover that my hunch was correct. For one, Cunningham frequently uses identical sentences in his publications and his notebooks, for instance while describing Deo Barnarak or the meteorite worship that he witnessed at Andhara in 1880-81. For another, there are cross references in his publications to nuggets of information that are available in his notebooks. Cunningham’s published report on Kurkihar makes this clear. He tells his readers that he is not providing all details but mentions the “record in my notebook of 37 figures now collected together at and near the temple of Bageshwari... also ten inscriptions of about AD 800 to 1000 of which one was set up by two Sakya mendicants from Kanchi (Kanchi-vasika) or Conjeevaram.” Sure enough, in his 1879-80 notebook where Kurkihar is documented, there is a descriptive list of those 37 images and inscriptions including the one that records the donation of those bhikshus who describe themselves as residents of Kanchi.

During the decades that I have spent researching and writing on ancient India and its explorers, this is the first time that I have experienced the exhilaration of providing a name, and one as illustrious as that of Alexander Cunningham, to a cache of what, till now, were nameless notebooks. I have discovered this, thanks to Satpal, in the 150th year of Cunningham’s appointment as archaeological surveyor, and in the very institution that is mounting the celebration of that anniversary — without realising that it has for all these years harboured these notebooks.

My advice now to the ASI is this: celebrate Cunningham in the most appropriate way, by preserving and publishing those precious notebooks.

( Nayanjot Lahiri is professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi )

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 10, 2011 21:47 IST