Empires Featured

How the British saved India’s classical history

The Ajantha Caves
Zareer Masani
Written by Zareer Masani

In India, a generation has been brought up on the academic Edward Said’s unhistorical prejudices towards the British and what he called the ‘colonial gaze’. In his eyes, British Orientalists were guilty of what is now termed ‘cultural appropriation’. To his followers it therefore may come as a surprise to learn that it was British Orientalists who in fact rediscovered India’s classical history and heritage and made it available to the rest of the world.

Sir William Jones, a brilliant polymath, contributed more than any other individual to India’s national renaissance. Alongside his day job as a judge in Calcutta, Jones mastered Sanskrit, translated Indian classics and used it to unlock the glories of India’s long forgotten Hindu and Buddhist past.

Jones said he found Sanskrit: ‘more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either…the warriors of the Mahabharata appear greater in my eyes than Ajax or Achilles appeared when I first read the Iliad.’

Unlike ancient Greece and Rome, India’s classical past had left behind no written histories, so it had to be reconstructed from ruins and buried treasures. In 1784, with the patronage of the first British Governor-General, Warren Hastings, Jones founded the Asiatic Society to take on this giant task. It became the beacon for a huge volunteer army of amateur antiquarians across the subcontinent. They were enthusiastic British civil and military officers who scoured the mofussil (countryside) for ruins and artefacts, wrote articles about them and sent their findings to be studied in the cities.

When Jones’s health was shattered by overwork, the Asiatic Society was taken over by his protégé, James Prinsep, another polymath, whose day job was at the East India Company’s Benares mint. Prinsep’s labours produced the biggest ever breakthrough in Indian historiography, deciphering the long-forgotten Brahmi script and through it discovering the Mauryan empire that had briefly united the subcontinent in the third century BCE.

The task began with the mystery of enormous, polished granite pillars that had been popping up all over northern India. The most famous is the pillar a British official unearthed with its triple lion capitol that’s now the official emblem of the government of India.

Prinsep, aided by local British officials in places as diverse as Nepal, Punjab, Rajasthan and Bihar, spent many years painstakingly transcribing hundreds of coins and inscriptions and then collating them with the writing on the pillars, before he finally broke the code and discovered the Brahmi script, from which modern India’s Devanagari script has evolved.

The stick figures on the pillars were found to be edicts of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. Prinsep announced his discoveries in a paper to the Asiatic, then suffered a physical and mental breakdown brought on by overwork and had to be shipped home to England in 1838, where he died soon after.

The Ashokan edicts announced the emperor’s conversion to Buddhism, but little was yet known about this then obscure religion and the man who had founded it. There were rumours that he had been Egyptian or perhaps even Ethiopian.

The discovery of the Buddha’s Indian roots was again the work of dedicated British explorers. In the late 1790s, a British naturalist heard reports that the Buddha was a Bihari from India, explored Bihar and discovered the Bodh Gaya Buddhist ruins.

In later decades, the Buddha’s Indian roots were confirmed by the excavation of a series of stupas or reliquary temples. First came the discovery in 1819 of the great stupas at Sanchi by a Captain Fell. Bemused by their dome-like shapes, never seen before, he wrote in a Calcutta journal that he felt unable to give ‘even a very faint idea of the magnificence of such stupendous structures and exquisitely finished sculpture’.

ornate gateways at the Stupa of Sanchi in India

One of the four ornate gateways at the Stupa of Sanchi in India (photo:Richard Harrington/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Sanchi had long lain buried in forests, thus escaping destruction by either Hindu Brahmins or Muslim invaders. The stupas became the focus for further excavations by the man regarded as the father of Indian archaeology, Lieutenant Alexander Cunningham. Like many British Indian officers, he came from a modest Scottish family. He arrived in India in 1833, served the Royal Engineers in various military campaigns and used his military travels to remote places to collect antiques.

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 onwards. He went on to excavate a large collection of Buddhist sculptures at Sarnath in Bihar, the best of which he shipped off to Calcutta.

On a later visit, Cunningham was dismayed to find that many of the sculptures he had left behind were being used to dam a nearby river. It was typical of the constant battle British archaeologists fought to rescue their finds from the Indian habit of using old stones for new buildings. Forty years later, when Cunningham discovered the 2,000-year-old Indus Valley ruins at Harappa, he found bricks from the site being used nearby to lay a new railway line. Much later, in the 1920s, it was British archaeologists who linked Harappa to Mohenjodaro in the Sind desert and identified both as belonging to a pre-Aryan civilisation.

After retiring from the army, Cunningham spent the rest of his long life leading the newly established Archaeological Survey of India, which still administers the country’s artistic heritage. His last major discovery was the Bharhut stupa, full of Mauryan Buddhist treasures which he sent off to the Calcutta museum, to be beautifully restored by the enthusiastic antiquarian Viceroy, Lord Curzon.

Cunningham was struck by the fact that the large crowds of locals who watched his excavation at Bharhut were deeply disappointed that he unearthed no buried treasure. He grumbled in his diary ‘…few natives of India have any belief in disinterested excavations for the discovery of ancient buildings… Their only idea of such excavations is that they are really intended as a search for hidden treasure…’ As at Sarnath, when he returned three years later, every remaining stone of the Bharhut stupa had been cannibalised by locals to build their own homes.

Indian neglect for antiquity extended not merely to the distant classical past, but also to far more recent Mughal monuments. Emperor Aurangzeb’s mosque in the Delhi Red Fort, still under Mughal rule, was found dilapidated with foliage growing through it in the early 1800s. It was restored by the British Resident, as was Emperor Humayun’s crumbling tomb and the imperial Jama Masjid. British visitors to the later Mughals at the Red Fort were appalled to find the imperial halls of audience turned into slums, their semi-precious, inlaid stones stolen from their marble friezes.

The Taj Mahal at Agra, described by Kipling as ‘the ivory gate through which all dreams pass’, was the Mughal monument most beloved of the British, who repaired it from the 1780s onwards. Lord Curzon restored its gateway, gardens and surrounding buildings and declared: ‘If I have never done anything else in India, I have written my name here, and the letters are a living joy.’ Curzon had a passion for Mughal gardens and also restored them at the Agra and Delhi forts and at Humayun’s and Akbar’s imperial tombs. He brought a British romantic sensibility for wild gardens to the more formal Mughal layout, producing the wonderful synthesis we see today.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal (photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Cunningham’s Buddhist excavations coincided with various British discoveries of important Hindu temple ruins, ranging from Mahabalipuram in the south to the Elephanta and Kanheri caves near Bombay, and Khajuraho, with its then shocking eroticism, in Central India. The most influential discovery was of the Ajanta caves, with their wonderful frescoes dating back to the first century BC.

A young British cavalry officer stumbled on Ajanta during a hunting expedition in the wilds of Berar. He braved fierce tigers and even fiercer Bhil tribals, then the main occupants, to explore the caves. In 1836, the Asiatic Society published his report on Ajanta’s wonders, and it provoked much debate as to whether the frescoes were Hindu or Buddhist and why sites like this had been abandoned in such remote places. Some even wondered if they were the work of Greek settlers left behind from Alexander’s invasion.

As the frescoes were deteriorating, it was decided to copy as well as conserve them. A Major Robert Gill, an artistic soldier, arrived at Ajanta and spent the next 27 years copying the paintings. His entire collection was sent off to be exhibited in London, but was tragically destroyed in the Crystal Palace fire of 1866. Gill returned to Ajanta undeterred and started all over again, but died a year later, an unsung hero of art conservation. His work was continued for the next 13 years by John Griffiths of Bombay’s British-led School of Art. The results were displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and, in an extraordinary run of bad luck, again destroyed by fire. But luckily this time they had been photographed first and went viral in London, with photo features in the Burlington Magazine and Illustrated London News and an Ajanta-style ballet at Covent Garden performed by the great Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova.

The Ajantha Caves

The Ajantha Caves (photo: AFP via Getty Images)

As important as archaeological finds was the emergence of an entirely new approach to Indian art, giving it equal status with its western counterparts. The pioneer here was the art historian Ernest Havell, who came to India in 1890 as principal of the Madras School of Art and left 20 years later as head of the Calcutta School of Art. He saw the Indian aesthetic as being conceptual, rather than representational, its images stylised, not naturalistic as in Greco-Roman art, its emphasis on anonymous spirituality, rather than the individuality of its subject or the identity of the artist.

In 1910, at a stormy meeting of the Royal Society of Art in London, Havell clashed with his opponents, who maintained that India only excelled at decorative rather than fine art. He argued that multi-limbed and many-headed Hindu deities, so alien to the Western eye, were allegorical representations of divine attributes and no more physiologically impossible than Christian angels. He emphasised the continuity from ancient Ajanta down to recent Mughal miniatures of a distinctively Indian aesthetic, crediting the Indian artist with the ability ‘to see with the mind, not merely with the eye, to bring out an essential quality, not just the common appearance of things; to give movement and character in a figure, not only the bone and muscle; to reveal some precious quality or effect in a landscape, not merely physiographical or botanical facts; and above all to identify himself with the inner consciousness of the nature he portrays…’

In recent times, the artistic discoveries of the Raj have raised questions of cultural ownership. The Indian equivalent of the Elgin Marbles demanded by Greece are the so-called Elliot marbles, also housed in the British Museum in London. The marbles are in fact pale limestone friezes from the Mauryan stupa at Amaravati in southern India, intricately carved with scenes from the life of the Buddha. A young Scottish surveyor, Colin Mackenzie, first stumbled on them in 1798. Half a century later, another Scotsman, Sir Walter Elliot, returned to excavate the site, rescued it from being pillaged by locals and carted off some of the finest sculptures to the Madras Museum, whence some later found their way to the British Museum. Elliot’s career was typical of many Orientalists. While serving for 40 years as a revenue official in Madras, he was also a linguist, naturalist, ethnologist and numismatist and wrote learned books on everything from cobras and exotic birds to rare coins.

Today Elliot’s Marbles are displayed in a climate-controlled gallery specially created for them at the British Museum, admired by millions from around the world. Back in India, the stupa at Amaravati is sadly neglected, while the Madras museum’s collection of its sculptures is one of its least visited rooms. That hasn’t stopped the Archaeological Survey of India from demanding the return of the BM’s collection, a request politely declined in 2010. It’s hard to imagine that they would really be better appreciated or conserved in the land of their birth. The cultural treasures the British took home with them are, after all, only a tiny fraction of what they salvaged, protected and left behind for us Indians.

Dr Zareer Masani is a historian and the author of Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist. He is on the advisory panel of Policy Exchange’s History Matters Project.

This article was first published by The Spectator (29 Jan. 2023), and we are grateful to post it here.   

About the author

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani is an author and broadcaster, whose books include Indira Gandhi: A Biography (1976), Indian Tales of the Raj (1990) and Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (2013).