The early development of the historical study of Buddhist art and architecture in India is definitely closely linked to the British discovery of Buddhism. It began with the reports of the explorations of the Buddhist sites in northern India conducted by Alexander Cunningham and his colleagues under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India, during the 1880s.
Contributions of the British in rediscovering Buddhism:
- Sir William Jones, the brilliant polymath who contributed more than any other individual to India’s national cultural renaissance.
- Alongside his day job as a judge in Calcutta, Jones studied and mastered Sanskrit, rescued it from a narrow Brahmin monopoly, translated its classics and used the language to unlock the glories of our long-forgotten Hindu and Buddhist past.
- James Prinsep’s labours produced the biggest breakthrough in Indian historiography, the deciphering of the long-forgotten Brahmi script and through it the discovery of the Mauryan empire that had united the subcontinent in the 3rd century BC.
- Ashoka’s edicts had announced the emperor’s conversion to Buddhism, but little was yet known about this obscure religion or the man who had founded it.
- The discovery of the Buddha’s Indian connections was again the work of dedicated British explorers.
- In the late 1790s, a British naturalist, who had heard reports in Burma that the Buddha was a Bihari, tracked down the Bodh Gaya Buddhist ruins.
- In the following decades, the Buddha’s Indian roots were confirmed by the excavation of a series of mysterious, dome-like stupas.
- First came the discovery in 1819 of Sanchi by a British army officer. Sanchi had long lain buried in forests, thus escaping destruction by either the Brahmanical Hindu revival that wiped out Indian Buddhism or by the Muslim invasions that shattered so many temples.
- The stupas became the focus for further excavations by the man regarded as the father of Indian archaeology, Lieutenant Alexander Cunningham of the Royal Engineers.
- In 1834, Cunningham used his engineering skills to drill deep down into the main stupa at Sanchi, where he discovered evidence that Buddhism had been widespread for several centuries from the Mauryan period down to the Gupta empire.
- Cunningham unravelled the mighty Dhameka Stupa at Sarnath in 1835, which was cylindrical and quite unlike other hemispherical stupas. It marked the spot of the ‘Deer Park’, where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining his enlightenment.
- Cunningham’s last major discovery was the Bharhut stupa, full of Mauryan Buddhist treasures which he sent off to Calcutta Museum, to be restored by the enthusiastic antiquarian Viceroy, Lord Curzon.
- By using the bearings and distances mentioned by travellers like Fa Xian and Xuan Zang, Cunningham succeeded in fixing the locations of many of the famous sites mentioned in ancient Indian texts and thus rediscovering them.
- Cunningham’s doggedness led him to rediscover and re-excavated Bodh Gaya in 1861 that Hamilton Buchanan had reported half a century ago as a place covered by a thick forest.
- Cunningham’s further discoveries in 1862-63 were as important in the treatment of historical amnesia.
- He identified Ramnagar as the ancient ‘Ahich-chatra’; Kosam as the great ‘Kausambi’ and Sahet Mahet as the historic ‘Sravasti’.
- Captain John Smith was the first European to stumble upon the Ajanta caves in 1819. The caves consist of Buddhist rock-cut temples dating back to the time between 2 BC and 6 BC.
- The Amaravati stupa, that Col. Colin Mackenzie had stumbled upon first in 1798 is a major discovery in the British Archaeology.
- A Scottish revenue official, Sir Walter Elliot, excavated the site of Mauryan stupa at Amaravati in Andhra in the 1840s and carted off some of the finest sculptures to the Madras Museum, whence some later found their way to the British Museum.
- The next significant discovery after Amaravati and Ajanta was in 1830, General Ventura uncovered the Manikyala Stupa at Taxila.
- More interesting is the fact that British scholars and archaeologists utilised Indian or Chinese texts, mainly Buddhist, to provide them with valuable clues to many historical sites.
Buddhism had survived and prospered outside its homeland, but in its cradle and nursery, its existence was forgotten. Thus, within just eight decades, Buddhist architecture was suddenly brought back into our memory and served to stoke a strong sense of pride among Indians who were thoroughly demoralised by the systematic campaign of British rulers to belittle their past. Despite the Britishers being colonizers, they helped in rediscovering some of the treasures of Buddhism which were in a deplorable state.