Web Exclusive: How British Explorers Helped Put India Back on the Buddhist Map
The story of Buddha has an English connection. Orientalists – long before it became a shortcut for exoticism – were men who came to India to build railroads, do office work but became obsessed with discovering India. They have spent their lives reading languages, working on the history of kings – many, most of them curiously tragically died – and are credited not only for finding Ashoka, but also for putting back the importance of India. on the Buddhist map.
“In the early decades of the 19th century there was considerable confusion and debate among Western scholars over a number of questions – the place of origin of Buddhism, the historicity of Gautama Buddha dates, whether Buddhists had or not a story before Gautama. and the relationship between Buddhism and other philosophical doctrines and religions of India, ”writes historian Upinder Singh in Discovery of ancient India: the first archaeologists and the beginnings of archeology.
It is knowledge of ancient languages, as well as coins, excavation of buried stupas – striking history during surveying roads or building railroads and stumbling over caves like Lt. James Alexander who went to look for the shikar on the hill of Aurangabad in 1824 to discover Ajanta hidden in a forest. All of this formed the first pieces of the “discovery” of the story of Buddha in India in the 19th century for the West. This was for a time the answer to the greatest mystery of modern times.
The evidence was there, but in languages that hadn’t been accessible for a while: Brahimi and Koshati. Buddha’s revolution had been tamed in all-encompassing and absorbing Hinduism. (Bodh Gaya was a temple of Vishnu, with the tradition of two priests offering prayers). Ashoka’s story and his public Dharma proclamation was in a script that had been forgotten or how central India was to export this powerful idea of salvation. It was the British who established the GI label for the world, long before this concept existed.
It was a puzzle to be solved by men who were stationed in India with different day jobs. Colin Mackenzie, the surveyor general of India, stumbled upon Amravati, a Buddhist site that has spanned centuries. His collection was acquired by the East India Company at the highest price. He was “one-minded in using his purse and position to secure … every curiosity that came his way,” writes Charles Allen in Buddha and the Sahibs or ensure a sketch for anything that could not be taken away.
There is also Captain Fell who, probably at another location in Shikar walking north towards Gwalior, saw a cluster of mounds. He noted what was published in the Calcutta Journal in 1819, “On a table of dirt from a detached hill, there is an ancient cloth of hemispherical shape, built of freestone …” The monument, as he called it, is known by the name of Sanchi. Then there is Ventura serving at the court of Ranjit Singh who unearthed pieces of John the Baptist Bactrian in stupas in Peshawar.
But more than just accidental discoveries, it is the rigorous research to unravel the mystery of Ashoka’s polished stone pillars that has provided the link to the origins of Buddhism in India. “It is extraordinary for us today to realize how much the Indianity of Buddhism was forgotten in the 19th century,” said famous historian William Dalrymple.
“Buddhism was born out of Indian culture, and as Buddhism traveled to Asia, it brought with it a vast array of different types of learning, forms of civilization, art and culture. But by the 19th century, the center of Buddhism had left eastern India. It was only through the work of men like Charles Masson and James Prinsep, who first translated to read, in 1,000 years Brahmi and Khorasti, who rekindled the knowledge that Buddhism was an Indian religion and at heart of Indian culture and civilization.
Prinsep, who died young at 40 from overwork, who worked at the Mint, painstakingly deciphered the Ashokan script. Once the code broke – he got help from others – he opened up a whole new world. It is thanks to its decryption that the edicts of Ashokan could be read. He transformed the Asian Society, which under him became an intellectual center. He was also the mentor of Alexander Cunningham, who first discovered the history of India.
But he couldn’t have done it without help and without people like Charles Masson. Masson was the first to leave an imprint on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Literally. In the 1930s, when a French archaeological delegation to Afghanistan visited the caves, they found scribbled above the Buddha “If anyone is crazy, this high samootch is exploring”. Charles Masson has been here before, making his first what could have been one of the earliest examples of graffiti. But Masson was more than a simple monument marker.
Explorer, archaeologist and intelligence agent, as the British Museum describes it, Masson has truly lived a thrilling life of “series worthy of a frenzy”. He was imprisoned as a spy. Born James Lewis in 1800 in London, he went to India to enlist in the Bengal artillery in 1822, only to desert five years later. He chose to create a new identity, and thought was an American born in Kentucky and set out to explore the edges of the Empire straight out of a Le Carré novel, existing in the dark world of espionage.
He was hired by the British East India Company and the Bombay government to excavate and record finds in Afghanistan. In his passage, he excavated 50 Buddhist sites in the region of Kabul-Jalalabad. He also collected a reserve of 60,000 pieces, demonstrating the extent of the spread of Buddhism in the 1st century AD, linking the history of India to that of Afghanistan forever, long before the advent of Islam.
He is also credited with discovering the golden coffin of Bimaran Stupa – now the pride of the British Museum – which is considered one of the earliest images of the Buddha. The coins are said to play a major role in helping to reconstruct the political history of the Kushans and the Gandhara dynasty who are today credited with the most recognizable face of Buddha. While studying the coins, Masson discovered that Greek legends were written on the observation coin in reverse script, which was the key to unlocking a different language, Kharoshthi. Masson, died almost penniless, back in Britain.
Decoding aside, it was Cunningham, with his painstaking digs into the past, who helped make sense of the remains. He has searched the stupas – Sanchi, Sarnath – and is credited with Taxila’s exact location. He also found the reliquaries of important disciples of the Buddha who changed history forever.
Considered the father of Indian archeology, Cunningham’s contribution in this area is very important.
While the role of the English in piecing together the intricate puzzle of Buddhist history for the West is now widely recognized, Indian scholars, who have often worked quietly on the sidelines, have yet to find a place. It is a notion that Indian historians like Singh hope to reconstruct again.
“The great discoveries and breakthroughs of these various Europeans could not have been made without the help of traditional Indian scholars,” Singh writes in his book. “All the same, the Orientalist enterprise appears to a large extent as the discovery of India’s past by European scholars, using the intellectual and interpretive apparatus of the West.” “Native” informants, Singh writes, have remained anonymous. The names, however, that survive are Pandit Ramlochan, Rajendralal Mitra, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, and Ramamaya Tarkaratna.
Towering above a white building with fluted columns with their golden edging – Princep Ghat – is the sparkling silver Vidyasagar Setu. The oldest cable bridge, it changed Kolkata’s skyline forever in the 1990s, offering a glimpse of modernity in a city happily stuck in the past. But it also linked – visually, even if the connection is only for history obsessed – two great male mathematicians, both essential to piece together who did what in India’s past.
In a way, the bridge should eclipse the Prinsep monument. The solid establishment of Buddhism and its origins in India have been attributed to Orientalists, a word both loaded and now abbreviated for the narrow prism of the “exotic.” But it could not have been done without the help of the Indians who helped. In a country obsessed with the past – and a glorious past – it is time for those who helped to write history to find their name there too.