Alexander Cunningham KCIE CSI (23 January 1814 – 28 November
1893) was a British army engineer with the
Bengal Engineer Group
Bengal Engineer Group who
later took an interest in the history and archaeology of India. In
1861 he was appointed to the newly created position of archaeological
surveyor to the government of India; and he founded and organised what
later became the Archaeological Survey of India. He wrote numerous
books and monographs and made extensive collections of artefacts. Some
of his collections were lost, but most of the gold and silver coins
and a fine group of Buddhist sculptures and jewellery were bought by
British Museum in 1894.
1 Early life and career
2 Military life
4 Numismatic interests
5 Family and personal life
6 Awards and memorials
Early life and career
Cunningham (fourth from the right) at an unknown date.
Cunningham was born in
London in 1814 to the Scottish poet Allan
Cunningham (1784–1842) and his wife Jean née Walker (1791–1864).
Along with his older brother, Joseph, he received his early education
at Christ's Hospital, London. Through the influence of Sir Walter
Scott, both Joseph and Alexander obtained cadetships at the East India
Company's Addiscombe Seminary (1829–31), followed by technical
training at the Royal Engineers Estate at Chatham. Alexander joined
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 on 9 June 1833, he met James Prinsep. He was
in daily communication with Prinsep during 1837 and 1838 and became
his intimate friend, confidant and pupil. Prinsep passed on to him
his lifelong interest in Indian archaeology and antiquity.
From 1836 to 1840 he was ADC to Lord Auckland, the
India. During this period he visited Kashmir, which was then not well
explored. He finds mention by initials in Up the Country by Emily
Leh Palace, Ladakh. Illustration from Ladak: Physical, Statistical,
In 1841 Cunningham was made executive engineer to the king of Oudh. In
1842 he was called to serve the army in thwarting an uprising in
Bundelkhand by the ruler of Jaipur. He was then posted at Nowgong in
India before he saw action at the
Battle of Punniar
Battle of Punniar in
December 1843. He became engineer at Gwalior and was responsible for
constructing an arched stone bridge over the Morar River in 1844–45.
In 1845–46 he was called to serve in Punjab and helped construct two
bridges of boats across the Beas river prior to the Battle of Sobraon.
In 1846 he was made commissioner along with
P. A. Vans Agnew
P. A. Vans Agnew to
demarcate boundaries. Letters were written to the Chinese and Tibetan
officials by Lord Hardinge, but no officials joined. A second
commission was set up in 1847 which was led by Cunningham to establish
Tibet boundary, which also included Henry Strachey and
Thomas Thomson. Henry and his brother
Richard Strachey had trespassed
into Lake Mansarovar and Rakas Tal in 1846 and his brother Richard
revisited in 1848 with botanist J. E. Winterbottom. The
commission was set up to delimit the northern boundaries of the Empire
First Anglo-Sikh War
First Anglo-Sikh War concluded with the Treaty of Amritsar,
Kashmir as war indemnity expenses to the British. His
early work Essay on the Aryan Order of Architecture (1848) arose from
his visits to the temples in
Kashmir and his travels in
his tenure with the commission. He was also present at the battles of
Chillianwala and Gujrat in 1848–49. In 1851, he explored the
Buddhist monuments of Central
India along with Lieutenant Maisey, and
wrote an account of these.
In 1856 he was appointed chief engineer of Burma, which had just been
annexed by Britain, for two years; and from 1858 served for three
years in the same post in the North-Western Provinces. In both
regions, he established public works departments. He was therefore
India during the Rebellion of 1857. He was appointed
Colonel of the Royal Engineers in 1860. He retired on 30 June 1861,
having attained the rank of Major General.
Cunningham had taken a keen interest in antiquities early in his
career. Following Jean-Baptiste Ventura, general of Ranjit Singh, who
inspired by the French explorers in Egypt had excavated the bases of
pillars to discover large stashes of Bactrian and Roman coins,
excavations became a regular activity among British antiquarians.
In 1834 he wrote to the Journal of the
Asiatic Society of Bengal, an
appendix to James Prinsep's article on the relics in the Manikyala
Tope. He had conducted excavations at Sarnath in 1837 along with
Colonel F.C. Maisey and made careful drawings of the sculptures. In
1842 he excavated at Sankissa and at Sanchi in 1851. In 1854 he
published The Bhilsa Topes, an attempt to establish the history of
Buddhism based on architectural evidence.
By 1851 he also began to communicate to
William Henry Sykes
William Henry Sykes and the
East India Company
East India Company on the value of an archaeological survey. He
provided a rationale that could earn the funding needed for the
venture stating that:
...would be an undertaking of vast importance to the Indian Government
politically, and to the British public religiously. To the first body
it would show that
India had generally been divided into numerous
petty chiefships, which had invariably been the case upon every
successful invasion; while, whenever she had been under one ruler, she
had always repelled foreign conquest with determined resolution. To
the other body it would show that Brahmanism, instead of being an
unchanged and unchangeable religion which had subsisted for ages, was
of comparatively modern origin, and had been constantly receiving
additions and alterations; facts which prove that the establishment of
the Christian religion in
India must ultimately succeed.
Letter dated 31st January, 1862, appointing Cunningham as Surveyor
Following his retirement from the Royal Engineers in 1861, Charles
John Canning, then viceroy of
India appointed Cunningham
archaeological surveyor to the government of India. He held this
appointment from 1861 to 1865, but it was then terminated through lack
Most antiquarians of the 19th century who took interest in identifying
the major cities mentioned in ancient Indian texts did so by putting
together clues found in classical Graeco-Roman chronicles and the
travelogues of travellers to
India such as
Xuanzang and Faxian.
Cunningham was able to identify some of the places mentioned by
Xuanzang and counted among his major achievements the
identification of Aornos, Taxila, Sangala, Srughna, Ahichchhatra,
Bairat, Sankisa, Shravasti, Kaushambi, Padmavati, Vaishali, and
Nalanda. Unlike his contemporaries, Cunningham would also routinely
confirm his identifications through field surveys. The identification
of Taxila, in particular, was made difficult partly due to errors in
the distances recorded by Pliny in his
Naturalis Historia which
pointed to a location somewhere on the Haro river, two days march from
the Indus. Cunningham noticed that this position did not tally with
the itineraries of Chinese pilgrims and in particular, the
descriptions provided by Xuanzang. Unlike Pliny, these sources noted
that the journey to
Taxila from the Indus took three days and not two
and therefore, suggested a different location for the city.
Cunningham's subsequent explorations in 1863-64 of a site at
Shah-dheri convinced him that his hypothesis was correct.
Now as Hwen Thsang, on his return to China, was accompanied by laden
elephants, his three days' journey from Takhshasila [sic] to the Indus
at Utakhanda, or Ohind, must necessarily have been of the same length
as those of modern days, and, consequently, the site of the city must
be looked for somewhere in the neighbourhood of Kâla-ka-sarâi. This
site is found near Shah-dheri, just one mile to the north-east of
Kâla-ka-sarâi, in the extensive ruins of a fortified city, around
which I was able to trace no less than 55 stupas, of which two are as
large as the great
Manikyala tope, twenty eight monasteries, and nine
— Alexander Cunningham, 
After his department was abolished in 1865, Cunningham returned to
England and wrote the first part of his Ancient Geography of India
(1871), covering the Buddhist period; but failed to complete the
second part, covering the Muslim period. During this period in
London he worked as director of the Delhi and
London Bank. In
Lord Mayo re-established the Archaeological Survey of India,
with Cunningham as its director-general from 1 January 1871.
Cunningham returned to
India and made field explorations each winter,
conducting excavations and surveys from
Taxila to Gaur. He produced
twenty-four reports, thirteen as author and the rest under his
supervision by others such as J. D. Beglar. Other major works included
the first volume of Corpus inscriptionum Indicarum (1877) which
included copies of the edicts of Ashoka, the Stupa of Bharhut (1879)
and the Book of Indian Eras (1883) which allowed the dating of Indian
antiquities. He retired from the Archaeological Survey on 30 September
1885 and returned to
London to continue his research and writing.
Cunningham assembled a large numismatic collection, but much of this
was lost when the steamship he was travelling in, the Indus, was
wrecked off the coast of
Sri Lanka in November 1884. The British
Museum however obtained most of the gold and silver coins. He had
suggested to the
British Museum that they should use the arch from the
Sanchi Stupa to mark the entrance of a new section on Indian history.
He also published numerous papers in the Journal of the Asiatic
Society and the Numismatic Chronicle.
Family and personal life
Two of Cunningham's brothers, Francis and Joseph, became well known
for their work in British India; while another, Peter, became famous
for his Handbook of
Cunningham married Alicia Maria Whish, daughter of Martin Whish,
B.C.S., on 30 March 1840. The couple had two sons, Lieutenant-Colonel
Allan J. C. Cunningham (1842–1928) of the Bengal and Royal
Engineers, and Sir Alexander F. D. Cunningham (1852–1935) of the
Indian Civil Service.
Cunningham died on 28 November 1893 at his home in South Kensington
and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, London. His wife had
predeceased him. He was survived by his two sons.
Awards and memorials
Cunningham 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
Books written by Cunningham include:
LADĀK: Physical, Statistical, and Historical with Notices of the
Surrounding Countries (1854).
Bhilsa Topes (1854), a history of Buddhism
The Ancient Geography of
Archaeological Survey Of
India Vol. 1 (1871) Four Reports Made During
the Years, 1862-63-64-65, Volume 1 (1871)
Archaeological Survey Of
India Vol. 2
Archaeological Survey Of
India Vol. 3 (1873)
Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum. Volume 1. (1877)
The Stupa of Bharhut: A Buddhist Monument Ornamented with Numerous
Sculptures Illustrative of Buddhist Legend and History in the Third
Century B.C. (1879)
The Book of Indian Eras (1883)
Coins of Ancient
Mahâbodhi, or the great Buddhist temple under the Bodhi tree at
Coins of Medieval
^ a b c d e f g h i j Cotton, J. S. & James Lunt (reviser) (2004).
"Cunningham, Sir Alexander (1814–1893)". Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography. Oxford University Press.
British Museum Collection
^ Buckland, Charles Edward (1906). Dictionary of Indian Biography.
Swan Sonne schein. p. 102. access-date= requires url=
^ Kejariwal, O. P. The
Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of
India's Past 1784–1838 (1988 ed.). Oxford University Press.
p. 200. ISBN 0-19565089-1.
^ Vibart, H. M. (1894). Addiscombe: its heroes and men of note.
Westminster: Archibald Constable. pp. 455–9.
^ Waller, Derek J. (2004). The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet
and Central Asia. University Press of Kentucky. p. 13.
^ Strachey, Henry (1854). Physical Geography of Western Tibet. London:
William Clowes and sons. pp. iii.
^ Cunningham, Alexander (1854). Ladak, physical, statistical and
historical. London: W. H. Allen.
^ Cunningham, A. (1854) The Bhilsa Topes, or Buddhist Monuments of
Central India. London
^ a b "Sir
Alexander Cunningham (1814–1893): the first phase of
Indian archaeology". Journal of the Royal
Asiatic Society of Great
Britain and Ireland (3–4): 194–207. 1963.
^ Cunningham, A (1843). "An Account of the discovery of the Ruins of
the Buddhist City of Samkassa". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society:
^ Cunningham, Alexander (1871). Archaeological Survey of India: four
reports made during the years 1862–63–64–65. Simla: Government
Central Press. pp. i–iii.
^ Cunningham, Alexander (1848). "Verification of the Itinerary of the
Chinese Pilgrim, Hwan Thsang, through Afghanistan and
India during the
First Half of the Seventh Century of the Christian Era". Journal of
Asiatic Society of Bengal. 17 (2): 13–60.
^ Singh 2008, p. 265.
^ Cunningham 1871, p. 105.
^ a b Cunningham, Alexander (1871). The Ancient Geography of India. 1.
India: Trübner and Co.
^ Iman, Abu (1966). Sir
Alexander Cunningham and the beginnings of
Indian archaeology. Dacca:
Asiatic Society of Pakistan.
^ Mathur, Saloni (2007).
India by Design: Colonial History and
Cultural Display. University of California Press. p. 146.
^ Cunningham, Joseph Davey (1849). Cunningham's History of the Sikhs.
John Murray. pp. xii–xiv.
Singh, Upinder (2008). A history of ancient and early medieval
India : from the Stone Age to the 12th century. New Delhi:
Pearson Education. ISBN 9788131711200.
Cunningham, Alexander (1871). The Ancient Geography of India: The
Buddhist Period, Including the Campaigns of Alexander, and the Travels
of Hwen-Thsang. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Pres.
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