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Alexander Cunningham’s diaries

When Nayanjot Lahiri found three notebooks by an unknown writer at the ASI library he was intrigued. This colonial explorer had traveled across India using the texts of Fa Hsien and Hsuan Tsang as reference.

But who could this archaeological explorer be? The intrepid explorer was a colonial, there was no doubt about it, as his quaint spellings of place names and the people that he mentioned, made clear. That he was not John Marshall, my favourite archaeologist of colonial India, I already knew because this is not his handwriting. Besides, Marshall was born a year after the first of these notebooks began, dated as they were from 1875 to 1881. From those dates, I guessed that these were also unlikely to be James Prinsep’s journals. Prinsep died in 1840 and while he was an outstanding discoverer of ancient scripts and dynasties, he hardly moved out of Calcutta, after he became the secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Could it be James Burgess, the architectural scholar who is known to have conducted surveys from the 1860s till the 1880s? He too had to be eliminated from the list of probables, since he mainly worked in western and southern India while this explorer was busy surveying north India.

Following this process of elimination, it dawned on me that these could only be the hitherto undiscovered notebooks of one man: Alexander Cunningham. He was the one archaeological explorer in India who, in the latter part of the 19th century, traversed and published on the sites that are recorded in the notebooks — Mahabodhi, Sarnath, Mahasthan and so many others. In 1861, Cunningham was appointed as India’s first archaeological surveyor by Lord Canning. Eventually, he became the first director general of a government department of archaeology, better known as the Archaeological Survey of India, when it was created in 1871. These three notebooks seem to have been penned by him during his ‘director general’ years.[Alexander the Great (H/T Yashwant)]

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