At its height, the British empire covered about three-fifths of the subcontinent; the rest was ruled by Indian princes. The colonial stereotype of the “ignorant natives” was extended to these princes, in spite of the fact that some of them had readily agreed to take measures to preserve the historical heritage in their domain, often in collaboration with British officers.

The nature of the political relationship between the British and the princely Durbars varied from state to state, and the Political Agents and archaeologists played important roles in the interface with them. The Maharaja of Dhar agreed to contribute toward conservation work at Mandu, Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior toward the Jaina buildings in the Gwalior fort, and the Nizam of Hyderabad toward the Ajanta caves.

Shahjahan Begum (r 1868-1901), the ruler of Bhopal, was a cultured and learned woman whose scholarly interests were reflected in the book she wrote in Urdu on the history of Bhopal.

The book included a description of the ruins of Sanchi and the Begum contributed financially toward the conservation work at the site. Her successor, Sultan Jahan, continued to provide substantial financial support for the work and it is for this reason that John Marshall’s volumes, The Monuments of Sanchi, are dedicated to her.

However, in spite of evidence to the contrary, there was a constant complaint in British official correspondence that the “native princes” were uninterested in preserving the historical remains in their dominion, and that they could not be expected to contribute toward the conservation of monuments associated with religions other than their own.

The princes were seen as unenlightened, stubborn adversaries, who had to be persuaded to part with precious antiquities located in their principalities in the interest of the protection of those antiquities.

Bharhut, located in the territory of the Raja of Nagod in central India, presented such a challenge and required delicate negotiations. The remains of the Bharhut stupa [in present Madhya Pradesh] were discovered by Cunningham in November 1873. News of the discovery created quite a sensation within scholarly circles and was reported in the London newspapers. It created an even greater sensation in the larger Buddhist world.

“All the Buddhist Priests in Ceylon are in a great state of excitement about the Bharhut Tope. They hope that an actual relic of the ‘sacred teacher’ has been found, and that they may get it!” 

No relics were found, but Cunningham and Beglar [Cunningham’s Archaeological Assistant] spent considerable time at the site, documenting and studying the material. Beglar’s responsibility was to take detailed photographs of all the sculptures according to precise scale, while Cunningham busied himself preparing a detailed account of the stupa. In July 1874, he wrote to Beglar:

“We must begin with the Bharhut Tope [ie stupa] – and make a complete business of it – say finished by 15th November.”

The letters of 1874-5 show how involved Cunningham was during these months with Bharhut – reading the inscriptions and trying to understand their purport, poring over photographs and packing sculptures for transportation. By April 1875, he had reduced all the Bharhut inscriptions in four folio plates and had sent about 25 or 30 photographs to James Fergusson and the British Pali scholar Robert Caesar Childers; more were to follow.

Bharhut brought Cunningham face to face with the Jataka stories and this initiated a steady communication between him and scholars working on Buddhist Pali texts.

Viggo Fausboll (a Danish scholar of Pali texts) and Childers sent Cunningham the text and translations of the stories at a rapid pace: as many as 16 translations were expected daily from them. Bharhut had attracted attention in Europe and Childers proposed to write a detailed account of the archaeologists’ work for the London Academy. Cunningham was pleased by all this attention.

“It is well worth while working hard in the cold season, when our work attracts the attention of such men as Max Müller and Childers.” 

Cunningham also obtained translations of the Jataka stories from his “friend Subhuti, the high priest of Ceylon”. Subhuti’s translation helped him identify the story of the Latuva Jataka on a Bharhut relief, which had puzzled him a great deal. The Russian scholar, Minayeff, too helped identify some of the Jataka scenes.

“I have not been to Russia, but Russia kindly came to me – in the shape of the Pali scholar JP Minayeff, who actually came to Simla to pay me a visit. He recognised several of the Jâtakas – both of those without names as well as those with them.” 

As he tried to connect the texts and images, Cunningham realised the existence of various textual versions of the Jataka stories.

But he was not only preoccupied with the identification of the narratives. He asked Beglar to see whether there were any shaven heads (that is, monks) in the sculptures…He repeatedly asked Beglar to send him photographs of custard apples so that he could compare them with fruits depicted in Bharhut reliefs. He was also aware of the extraordinary beauty of the sculpture he was studying.

As Nagod state lay outside the formal jurisdiction of the British Government of India, gaining control over the Bharhut material required skillful negotiations. Major Bannerman, Political Agent

in Baghelkhand, had to persuade the Nagod Durbar to hand over the sculptures to the colonial government. The negotiations were successful and the deal was clinched in November 1874. The Thakur of Batanmara, a local potentate, too had a few sculptures, which he was persuaded to present to Cunningham. This called for a celebration.

“The last victory has been gained – over the Baniya, who has yielded up his Alligator – I hope you will kindly dine with me tonight, and celebrate, in a mild way, the successful termination of shall not starve.”

In the early period of colonial rule, explorations and excavations were often extremely unprofessional in nature, geared largely towards the removal of valuable relics and antiquities, and sometimes led to irreparable damage, and even the wholesale destruction, of sites. The great stupa at Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh is a classic example of this.

Officers of the East India Company routinely carried off Indian antiquities to Europe, either for their personal collections or to sell in the antiquities market; some antiquities were “officially” despatched to the India Museum in London.

Railway and road contractors bore a great deal of the responsibility for the wanton destruction of valuable archaeological remains, but the archaeologists themselves—including Cunningham – were not blameless. Their hunger to discover was not equally matched by a desire to preserve.

During the 1860s, there was a vigorous debate within government circles over whether Indian antiquities should be preserved in situ [at their original site] or moved to museums and, if the latter, whether to museums in England or in India. Some sort of policy gradually emerged and it involved a preference for keeping Indian antiquities in India, either in situ or in Indian museums.

A great deal hinged on the archaeologists’ assessment of the state of a site. Sanchi was in fairly good condition and was a good candidate for in situ preservation. Bharhut, on the other hand, was in a ruinous state and a decision had to be made about where its remains should be housed. Cunningham was in favour of moving them to the Indian Museum in Calcutta, although he initially seemed to hope that the restored eastern gateway could be sent to London. The removal of the Bharhut sculptures to the Indian Museum in Calcutta was approved by the colonial government in 1875 and, in 1878, the Museum opened a special gallery for their display.

When Cunningham was asked to recommend someone to arrange the Bharhut sculptures in the Indian Museum, he suggested Beglar.

He was soon sending his Assistant peremptory instructions on how the Bharhut rail should be arranged in the museum under a glass shed and how certain other collections (for instance, coins) should be housed in separate rooms. He was contemptuous of the museum’s natural history display.

“These Buddhist Remains if lost or injured cannot be replaced – A disembowelled skunk can be got any day.”


“We must bring some pressure to bear upon the Arsenical Soapists. They want to put the Stinking Tripes of fetid preparations in every part of the Museum, with the skeleton of a 90 feet whale under a glass house in the Courtyard – I confess that I hope that they may succeed in sending the Bharhut Gateway to England which is by far the best place for it. But Fishguts [a code name for someone, probably James Fergusson] must not be allowed to have his own way.” 

Cunningham could not get Bharhut out of his mind. In September 1876, he was trying to identify a scene in one of its reliefs and comparing it with a story in the Duttavamsa. He was still asking Beglar about custard apples in order to compare them with the fruits in Bharhut sculptures. He wanted him to ask German botanist WS Kurz to help identify the fruits. He told Beglar to inquire from the geologist WT Blanford about the stone of the Bharhut. He longed to return to the site.

Excerpted with permission from The World of India’s First Archaeologist: Letters from Alexander Cunningham to JDM Beglar, edited by Upinder Singh, Oxford University Press.