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‘The World of India’s First Archaeologist: Letters from Alexander Cunningham to J.D.M. Beglar’ review: Discovery of ancient sites through an archaeologist’s eyes

“All my Books in Nos. 3 & 4 Boxes are destroyed — The Camel sat down in the middle of the Ahsin River with them — & nearly killed my cook also.” From Shekohabad on February 28, 1877.

“No bread at Kutnee! One of my Servants is going to Jabalpur by tonight’s train for bread and meat...” From Camp Sleemanbad, December 8, 1876

These two snippets are among the various bits of news — both professional and personal — that form part of Alexander Cunningham’s letters to his assistant J.D.M. Beglar. Apart from archaeological discoveries, the first Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India talks about the travails of travel and camp life, makes enquiries of friends and family, and a lot more.

190 letters

Historian Upinder Singh has carefully put together around 190 letters from what seems to be a voluminous correspondence in The World of India’s First Archaeologist: Letters from Alexander Cunningham to J.D.M. Beglar. These span a period of 15 years from 1871, when he took over the ASI. The first is his offer to Beglar to work under him for “Rs.100 a month in addition to present allowances and travelling allowance of Rs.5 a day while in camp.”

Cunningham also explains what he wants: “The general work would be to visit ancient places, and make reports on all the buildings, sculptures and other antiquities, together with ground plans and sections (to be returned to you), according to exact measurements. Of course, if you could photograph any of the remains, both architectural and sculptural, so much the better. All information regarding the remains that could be picked up from the people would also be required as well as copies of the inscriptions”.

In her Introduction, Singh sets out the context for the letters and offers explanations where necessary. Cunningham came to India in 1833 as a 19-year-old Second Lieutenant with the Bengal Engineers and spent the next 46 years in India, though he retired from the army in 1861. Thanks in part to his military postings, he was able to indulge his interest in “antiquarianism”. This term, Singh explains, was “an umbrella term used for the study of India’s early past”.

She also gives a quick sketch of the interest in Indian history during the 19th century and why the British government of India wanted to encourage such studies. She touches upon criticism of Cunningham’s work but admits that, in the final analysis, his contributions were critically important. “Our first images of many major ancient Indian sites are through the eyes of Alexander Cunningham and his Assistants,” she writes.

Diverse worldview

While the letters are arranged in chronological order, it is rather fascinating to dip into them at random. Letter No. 45 (October 15, 1875) combines his views of the Russian occupation of Armenia, education for lowers classes in England, information on his family and an exposition of his work on Asokan inscriptions. Letter No. 100 (August 12, 1878) opens with setting Beglar right about the story of a swindler in England and goes on to talk about photography. A marginal note will make readers smile: all your drawing paper is bad. The ‘bad’ is underlined. Letter No. 145. (May 22, 1881) talks about fixing dates, photography plates and ends with news of “two scented geraniums of different kinds”.

Not only does the reader get a ringside view of exciting archaeological discoveries and a sense of the hard work that went into them but also the mistakes and frustrations of archaeologists. Instead of the serious individual his portrait makes him out to be, Cunningham emerges as an emotional and even highly strung personality, judging by the copious underlined words and exclamation marks. Now, if only we could have had Beglar’s side of the correspondence.

The World of India’s First Archaeologist: Letters from Alexander Cunningham to J.D.M. Beglar; Upinder Singh, Oxford University Press, ₹2,495.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 3:04:35 AM |

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