Sir Alexander Cunningham

Alexander Cunningham, a military engineer, offered a scheme of archaeological investigations to the Government of India. This eventually led to the state sponsored Archaeological Survey of India. Cunningham had always demonstrated interest in the subject. Before becoming Surveyor, and later Director, of the Archaeological Survey Cunningham had studied early coins, published a monograph on Buddhist remains at Sanchi, amongst other archaeological endeavors.

Cunningham was interested in learning more about ancient historical geography of India through the study of actual sites and monuments. Even today Cunningham's reports constitute essential reading for those interested in Indian archaeology.

Buddhism disappeared in India in the 11th century, due to its own decline and the fatal blow by invaders from today’s Afghanistan. Jungles swallowed all the thousands of its monuments. The Buddha was all but forgotten in the land of his birth.

Cunningham and his two brothers went to India to seek fame and fortune. He joined the Bengal Engineers in 1833 and was first stationed in Benares. Outside the city and across the Ganges was Sarnath, a quiet retreat from the crowded Hindu city. Here, among ancient trees and overgrown grasses, was an imposing 145ft-high domed edifice, with superbly crafted sculptural ornaments on its surface.

The general belief in Benares was that it held the ashes of the “consort of some former rajah or prince”. Cunningham decided to do a little exploration. Being an engineer, he built scaffolding as high as the dome and sank a shaft, 5ft in diameter, from the top all the way down to the foundations. After 14 months of labour and an expenditure of more than 500 rupees, he found nothing but a stone with an inscription he could not read. He sent it to James Princep, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, who finally deciphered it as a standard homage to the Buddha, whose followers still practised his teachings in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Tibet. But it was not clear where the Buddha was born, or where he preached and died.

All was to be made plain by the publication in English of the eyewitness accounts of two Chinese monks, Fa Xian’s Record of Buddhist Countries in the 1840s and Xuanzang’s Record in the 1850s. Copies of both books had always existed in China and now they were “discovered” by European orientalists and translated for the first time into French and then English. Between the two of them, they had mapped out the whole of Buddhist India, with all the main sites, their locations, their importance, their histories, and details of the monasteries and the monks who inhabited them.

Cunningham conceived an ambitious plan: to use them as his guide and throw light on more than 1,000 years of this history. He had to wait almost three decades before realising his dream. In 1861, now aged 47 and retired from the army with the rank of Major-General, he landed the job he wanted: he would head the new Archaeological Survey of India, a grandiose name for him and his two assistants. He was ecstatic.

One by one the Buddhist sites were uncovered and identified by Cunningham and his men. The magnificent monument that he had drilled through in Sarnath marked the spot of the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment. The Mahabodhi Temple as we see it today in Bodh Gaya was restored by him, meticulously following Xuanzang’s descriptions. Perhaps most dramatically, Cunningham recorded how he read the monk’s account of the temple that marked the spot where the Buddha died. Within it, Xuanzang said: “There is a figure of the Buddha. His head is towards the north and he looks so serene he might be asleep.”

Cunningham sent his assistant Archibald Carlleyle there in 1875 to supervise the dig. The place was covered in jungle. When it was cleared away, the ruins were found 10ft deep in the ground, complete with the reclining Buddha - exactly as Xuanzang had described it 1,200 years before.

Cunningham’s reaction reveals his excitement: “To the west of the stupa we found that famous statue of the Buddha’s Nirvana, as recorded by the Chinese pilgrim. I have no doubt this is the statue that Xuanzang had seen personally.”

Xuanzang and Cunningham together gave us back this place, returning it from the graveyard of history, into the light, into recognition, into worship. It really is an astonishing story.

Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud by Sun Shuyun