Sir Alexander Cunningham KCIE CSI (23 January 1814 – 28 November 1893) was a British archaeologist and army engineer, known as the father of the Archaeological Survey of India. Both his brothers, Francis Cunningham and Joseph Cunningham became well known for their work in British India.
Early life and career
Born in London to the Scottish poet Allan Cunningham, he had his early education at Christ's Hospital, London. He later studied at the East India Company's Addiscombe Seminary (1829–31), and at the Royal Engineers Estate at Chatham. He joined the Bengal Engineers at the age of 19 as a Second Lieutenant and spent the next 28 years in the service of British Government of India. Soon after arriving in India in June 1833, a meeting with James Prinsep sparked his lifelong interest in Indian archaeology and antiquity. He was ADC to Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India from 1836 to 1840. On 30 March 1840, he married Alicia Maria Whish, daughter of Martin Whish B.C.S. He was appointed Colonel of the Royal Engineers in 1860. Cunningham retired in 1861, having attained the rank of Major General.
Cunningham saw action at the Battle of Punniar and was with the Army of Sutlej in 1845-46. He later became the Chief of Commission of Ladakh-Tibet boundary with Richard Strachey, then a captain in the British Army and Dr. Thomson in 1847. The Commission was set up to delimit the northern boundaries of the Empire after the First Anglo-Sikh War concluded with the Treaty of Amritsar, which ceded Kashmir as war indemnity expenses to the British. He was also a member of a previous commission to chart the border of Ladakh under R.A. Vans Agnew. His early works are from his visits to the temples in Kashmir and his travels in Ladakh during his tenure with the Commission. He was also present at the battles of Chillianwala and Gujrat in 1848–9. In 1851, he explored the Buddhist monuments of Central India along with Lt. Maisey, and wrote an account of these. He was appointed as the Chief Engineer of Burma in 1856 for two years, and later for three years from 1858 he served in the same post in the North-western Provinces.
The Archaeological Survey of India was set up following a correspondence between Cunningham and Charles John Canning, then the viceroy of India. Cunningham was appointed the first director of the project, which operated from 1861 to 1865. He published the first two volumes of the Archaeological Survey of India during his tenure here. In 1865 the Archaeological Survey was halted and he left India in February 1866 to join the Delhi and London Bank at London as its Director till 1870. In the year 1867, Cunningham was knighted. Upon the resumption of the Archaeological Survey in 1870, he returned to India to take up the position of Director-general of the ASI on 1 January 1871 maintaining his post until 1885. He was the author of 11 volumes of the ASI, while the rest were written under his supervision. He retired on 30 September 1885 and returned to London, and continued to write books on the Buddhist excavations and on ancient coins. He also published numerous papers in the Journal of the Asiatic Society and the Numismatic Chronicle.
He was awarded the CSI on 20 May 1870 and CIE in 1878. In 1887, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire.
Work on Buddhist stupas in central India
General Cunningham had visited Bharhut stupa, located in present Satna district in Madhya Pradesh in 1873 on his way to Nagpur. He was fascinated to find such a heritage site like Bharhut but at the same time pained at its ignorance by the people and the government. He left some guards behind to look after the site and came back in February 1874. He collected the scattered pieces of sculptures and records and tried to understand its design and lay out. He came third time in November 1874 with some legal rights. He carried some of the sculptures to Kolkata and started a Bharhut gallery in the National Museum at Kolkata. After a detailed study of Buddhist literature and the sculptures from the site, he published in 1876 a book titled "The Stupa of Bharhut", which is still an authentic book about the Bharhut stupa. The famous 8 Buddhist stupas have been built on the relics of Buddha in his honour. Bharhut is not in that list. It is still not clear about on whose relics this stupa is built. General Cunningham had found in 1874 excavations a small box carrying the "Rakh Phool (ashes)", which could not be identified but he handed it over to the Raja of Nagod for safe custody. This could be because of the ashes belonging to ancient Buddhist monks.
Cunningham was associated with the excavation of many sites in India, including Sarnath, Sanchi, and the Mahabodhi Temple. In the case of Mahabodhi, Cunningham's work of restoring the Temple was completed by the pioneer of Buddhist revival in India, Anagarika Dharmapala.
Books written by him include:
- LADĀK: Physical, Statistical, and Historical with Notices of the Surrounding Countries (1854).
- Bhilsa Topes (1854), a history of Buddhism
- The Ancient Geography of India (1871)
- The Book of Indian Eras (1883)
- Coins of Ancient India (1891)
- The Stupa of Bharhut : A Buddhist Monument Ornamented with Numerous Sculptures Illustrative of Buddhist Legend and History in the Third Century B.C. Reprint. First published in 1879, London. 1998
- Cunningham, A. (1871)The Ancient Geography of India, Vol. 1, p.xiii. Trübner and Co.India. pp. 589
- NOORANI, A.G. (2003) Facts of history: A survey of the treaties and engagements that have dealt with the status of the western sector of the Sino-Indian boundary in Jammu and Kashmir, Frontline Vol. 20(18)Available online
- Cunningham, A. (1848) Essay on the Aryan Order of Architecture, as exhibited in the Temples of Kashmir, Calcutta
- Cunningham, A. (1854) Ladak, Physical, Statistical and Historical. London
- Cunningham, A. (1854) The Bhilsa Topes, or Buddhist Monuments of Central India. London
- Neeraj Jain, Bharhut Stoopa Gatha (Hindi), Ed. Ramnarayan Singh Rana, Satna, 2007, p. 51-52
- Cotton, J.S.; Lunt, James (reviewer) (2004). "Cunningham, Sir Alexander (1814–1893)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/6916. (subscription required)
- Vibart, H.M. (1894). Addiscombe: its heroes and men of note. Westminster: Archibald Constable. pp. 455–9.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press