Sir Alexander Cunningham

Sir Alexander Cunningham

Cunningham, Sir Alexander, 1814-93, English archaeologist and army engineer; son of Allan Cunningham. He retired (1861) as a major general after 30 years of service with the Bengal engineers and then was head (1861-65, 1870-85) of the archaeological survey of India. In 1867 he was knighted. Among his books are Bhilsa Topes (1854), a history of Buddhism based on architectural remains; The Ancient Geography of India (1871, 2d ed. 1924), of which only one volume was written; The Book of Indian Eras (1883); and Coins of Ancient India (1891). His collection of rare coins is in the British Museum.

See study by A. Imam (1966).

Sir Alexander Cunningham (23 January 181428 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 M.E.I Company's Seminary at Addiscombe, and at the R.E.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. One 30th March, 1840, he married Alicia Maria Whish, daughter of Martin Whish B.C.S. He was appointed as Colenol R.E in 1860. Cunningham retired in 1861, having attained the rank of Major General.

Military life

He 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 delimt 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 Chilianwala and Gujrat in 1848. 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 1st 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 30th 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 20th May, 1870 and CIE in 1878. In 1887, he was awarded the title of Knights 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.

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.

Cunningham died in London on November 28th, 1893; today, his collection of rare Indian coins is displayed in the British Museum.

Books written by him include

  • 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

External links



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