Off the shelf
Archaeologists and monuments
V. N. Datta

The Discovery of Ancient India, Early Archaeologists and the Beginnings of Archaeology
by Upinder Singh. Permanent Black, New Delhi. Pages XIX + 318. Rs 695

The Discovery of Ancient India, Early Archaeologists and the Beginnings of ArchaeologyWhy this discovery of India's past? I think that the primary purpose of this enquiry is to describe and illuminate the rise, the scope and the methods adopted in the study of the 18th and 19th century Indian archaeology not as a branch of literature, but as a component of scientific discipline.

The main intention is to provide examples of the varied ways in which archaeological historiography may be approached by those who wish to carry the study further into the region of fresh discovery. That is why the focus in this work is on the variety of the ways the archaeologists have viewed the past. And it is Alexander Cunningham, according to the author, who had the principal share in the development of archaeological tradition in the country.

Upinder Singh was somewhat piqued and provoked by James Fergusson's violent polemic on the Ilbert Bill controversy which reflected his pronounced racial bias against Indians. Fergusson's hostile comments and his assistant J.D. M Beglar's marginal notes on Fergusson's Archaeology in India made her undertake a journey in the rarefied of the 18th and 19th century Indian archaeology. While completing her study, Upinder Singh wrote that "a critical appreciation of the founding phase of Indian archaeology seems the most cogent reason" for writing this work.

In other words, the main object of this book is to illuminate the history of Indian archaeology, focus on the intellectual contributions of archaeologists, and underline the debates relating to various archaeological problems.

The opening chapter From Antiquarianism to Archaeology shows that in the early East India Company rule, the British administrators, missionaries and European travellers, animated by the spirit of curiosity, adventure and administrative exigencies, extolled the antiquity and richness of Indian culture as reflected in their literature, sculpture and architecture and for reconstructing and restoring India's past, the contributions of Sir William Jones, H. T. Colebrooke and H. H. Wilson were substantial. The Asiatic Society of Bengal was set up on June 15, 1784, leaving a profound impact on the cultural history of India.

In this study from first to last, Upinder Singh seems to have regarded that behind the whole archaeological development through its successive stages, there stands at the centre of things the towering figure of the first of technical archaeologists, Alexander Cunningham, who perceived himself far superior to that system of prejudices and ignorance that greatly prevailed. We meet Cunningham at every step, and author presents his astonishing career in India, and his profoundly awe-inspiring publication of 23 volumes, which evinces his erudition, assiduity, restless energy and his passionate zeal in exploring and understanding the antiquity of Indian history and culture. The author divides Cunningham's career into two parts, firstly as an archaeologist working for the Archaeological Survey of India (1861-66), and later, as Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (1870-1885).

Cunningham's investigation showed that stone architecture was known in India before sculpture was learnt from the Greeks. During the Cunningham era there took a decisive shift in archaeological methodology from closet and scholastic archaeology to "fielded archaeology". In sum, Upinder Singh thinks that due to Cunningham's bold and daring initiatives, greater part of North India was explored.

Upinder Singh states that during Lord William Bentinck's Governor-Generalship there was a plan to demolish the Taj for its marble, but luckily this was not executed. This charge has no basis. A canard was floated by Bentinck's critics, who were offended by his frantic drive to reduce civil and military expenditure for which they called him a "Clipping Dutchman".

Upinder Singh asserts that archaeological research was not the monopoly of a colonising elite-there were quite a number of Indians such as P.C. Mukherji, Rajendralala Mitra and Ram Raz (whom she regards the first Modern Indian Archaeological scholar), who through their writings made a substantial contribution to archaeological scholarship. Rajendralala Mitra's critique of Fergusson's work reflects a clash of ideas in the realm of historical knowledge. Mitra had edited a number of ancient texts and left his mark on the field of epigraphy and moments.

Some of the places, where prominent monuments lay, were outside the British territory such as Jhansi in Bhopal state, Bharhut in Nagod, Ajanta in the Nizam's dominion and Mandu in the princely state of Dhar. Due to the encouragement of some of the British Political Agents, rulers in 'Native States' transcending their sectarianism, began to take interest in the repair and restoration of monuments; while others like the Maharana of Marwar and ruler of Kashmir resisted any interference in their affairs which they thought their own right to manage.

With the disappearance of Alexander Cunningham from the scene in 1885, the archaeological progress received a serious setback, and field archaeology was abandoned. The post of the Director General of the Survey of India was abolished. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy (1889-1905), lamented: "The beautiful remains are tumbling into irretrievable ruin simply for want of a directing hand and a few thousand rupees." The author emphasises that Curzon took bold measures and infused a new spirit in the system of the archaeological development. He appointed John Marshall as Director General, who formulated definite principles on methodological archaeology and the conservation of archaeological sights. The Monument Act was passed, and quite a number of Indians were appointed to high positions conducting surveys.

The work shows that the history of archaeology in India comprises the story of individuals, establishments, institutions, and policies of the government. By carrying out a prodigious amount of original research on a wide scale, Upinder Singh has explored with assiduity the context, development and growth of Indian archaeology by British and Indian archaeologists, and other agencies that have dealt with it at first hand. This unpretentious work would go down as a standard work on Indian Archaeology written with verve in the detached spirit of a true historian.