Posted on: 17 January 2013

Alexander the Great
By Nayanjot Lahiri
Hindustan Times - August 10, 2011

It was 10.30 in the morning, the first Monday of August. I was on a routine visit to the library, tracking references for an article that I was writing. The library, that of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), happens to be my favourite one. The ambience of the place is ordinary and down-at-heel. But it has an extraordinarily rich collection of old books and journals which once made it the most famed archaeological library of South Asia.

That day, in its reading room, I happened to see three notebooks of an unknown writer. Satpal Singh brought these to me, hoping to solve the mystery of their authorship. In a place that is awfully short-staffed, Satpal happens to be one of those exceptional old-time officers who is quick to recognise rare books and unfailingly draws the attention of interested readers to them.

The notebooks that he asked me to examine were hand-written in black ink and pencil, in the same flowing hand. They were thick and hardbound with spines that bore dates and volume numbers. The writer had simply omitted to imprint his name on them. Handwritten notebooks in an archaeological library are unusual enough, and as I riffled through their pages, my curiosity about this singular set of volumes very quickly turned into astonishment. These were no ordinary journals. They were the jottings of an intriguing individual as his travels and learning made evident.

The index at the beginning of each notebook that records the places that he visited and the thousands of miles that he covered, reveals an explorer of enormous vitality. As he travelled around, he made notes on all kinds of archaeological sites, accompanied by pencil sketches of sculptures, coins and monuments. That he was not simply doing this out of an antiquarian interest was obvious from the cross-references in the notebooks to the coordinates of places that were visited and described by the Chinese pilgrims Fa Hsien and Hsuan Tsang. He actually seemed to be moving around the countryside with the journals of those pilgrims in hand. The notebooks are also peppered with delightful asides that this writer-explorer picked up in the course of his travels — village names which could be derived from trees, the demons and ghosts that ‘peopled’ all kinds of places, even the ‘pipal’ tree roots that he found in the sandy soil at Mahabodhi where the Buddha had attained enlightenment. Usually, such notebooks form the basis for later publications and, as I realised that morning, can be useful long after the lives and times of their authors.

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.

Read more:

Alexander Cunningham (seated, centre)
Source: © Eka Cultural Resources & Research

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Thank you very much.


I want to see more....any idea of a new published version? Please keep us informed.

The story of Alexander the Macedon is perhaps the finest example of re-creationist projects of historical nature undertaken by the British colonialists.

satyakam pl read d details before u jump to conclusions

ASI through John Keay took the cue few months later. Thanks Lahiri in the introduction note. This book costing mere Rs 160, published by ASI, is an excellent tribute to Cunningham & a readable history of the ASI (see - )

Did these people do nothing but lay around for photographers?

They also posed with the hundreds of tigers they had hunted and killed!

oh.....Nayanjoh Lahiri was my teacher in college.......good to see her write up here !!!