Ideas Empires Featured

The British role in the restoration of Buddhism in India

Buddhism in India
R P Fernando
Written by R P Fernando

Zareer Masani’s recent article gives a fascinating account of how the British saved India’s classical history. Yet the consequences were not only of benefit to architecture- and heritage-lovers, but also for Buddhists throughout the world: this British achievement resulted in no less than the restoration of Buddhism in India.

The Buddha lived in north India from 563 BC to 483 BC and there are dozens of sites associated with his life, the most important being Lumbini, where he was born; Buddha Gaya, where he attained enlightenment; Sarnath, where he delivered his first sermon; and Kushinagara, where he passed away. Following the death of the Buddha, the first expansion of Buddhism took place during the reign of Emperor Ashoka (272–232BC). Ashoka personally visited all the holy places associated with the life of the Buddha. He built thousands of temples throughout India. He erected a large number of stone pillars containing the Buddha’s edicts and took a keen interest in the welfare of Buddhist monks and pilgrims.

Following Ashoka’s death, Buddhism thrived for several centuries. During the Gupta period (320–550AD) Buddhism flourished side by side with Hinduism. Most of the kings of the Pala dynasty were also supporters of Buddhism. It spread to China in the first century AD. When the Chinese explorer Fa-Xian came to northern India in the 4th century AD, Buddhism was flourishing, but when the later Chinese explorer Hiuen-Tsang came in the 7th century AD, Buddhism was beginning to decline. It was not capable of withstanding the assimilative influence of Hinduism or the violence of Islam, and by the 13th century the religion had almost disappeared from the land of its birth.

At the time of the arrival of the British, there were practically no written records in India of the life of the Buddha, the holy places associated with his life or the reign of Emperor Ashoka. As Zareer Masani describes, Buddhism gradually became an object of British academic interest. This followed the discovery of Buddhist texts in neighbouring countries. The British established the Archaeological Survey of India in 1862 and its first Director-General, Sir Alexander Cunningham, played the most important role in the rediscovery and restoration of the Buddhist sites. It is impossible to overestimate the value of Cunningham’s great pioneering work in the field of Indian archaeology. Cunningham was succeeded as Director-General of the Archaeological Survey in 1902 by Sir John Marshall who also undertook extensive restorations at many important Buddhist sites.

Lumbini, which is in Nepal, was first identified as a site of Buddhist importance by Dr L A Wadell, a British Army medical officer and Dr Alois F ührer, a surveyor working for the Survey Department in 1893. The latter then excavated the site. Buddha Gaya was originally discovered by Francis Buchanan, an official of the East India Company who was surveying Bihar in 1811, but the excavations were started by General Cunningham in 1861. Early excavations were started at Sarnath, near Varanasi, by Colonel C Mackenzie in 1815 but the main excavations were undertaken by Cunningham from 1835 and by Marshall from 1907 onwards. Kushinagara was identified by Cunningham in 1861 and the excavations were mainly undertaken by his assistant, A C L Carlleyle, from 1876 onwards. Cunningham also discovered other important Buddhist sites at Sanchi and the great Buddhist university at Nalanda in 1861. Cunningham and Marshall both undertook extensive excavations at the two sites.

Cunningham and Marshall’s achievements were eloquently summarised by Daya Ram Sahni, the first Indian Director-General of the Indian Archaeological Survey, in the following speech given in London in 1935:

‘During the palmy days of Buddhism, the sacred places were maintained with care and adorned with religious edifices of various kinds. They fell to ruins about the 12th century AD and became buried and forgotten until the Archaeological Department took up the task of their exploration and resuscitation. The sites were first identified by that talented pioneer of Indian archaeology, Sir Alexander Cunningham, and how successful he was in that task with the meagre facilities available in his time was apparent from the fact that although some of his identifications were severely criticized and even rejected by the late Dr Vincent Smith, their correctness had now been conclusively established by architectural, sculptural and epigraphical records brought to light by systematic exploration. Buddhists throughout the world might well be grateful to the Government of India and to Sir John Marshall and other officers of the Department whose researches had enabled the Buddhist to resume their holy pilgrimages which had been interrupted for several centuries’.

It is interesting to consider that the first expansion of Buddhism took place during the reign of Emperor Ashoka, and the second during the period of the British Empire. This is one of the few times in history when people of one religion enabled another religion to return to the land of its birth, and it must constitute one of the British Empire’s greatest achievements. It is probable that the hundreds of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims and tourists who visit these sites annually today are unaware of the British role. It should be better known.

About the author

R P Fernando

R P Fernando

The author was born in Sri Lanka and is a scientist with a first degree and doctorate from Cambridge. Extensive correspondence and some articles of his have been published in the national press in the UK and in Sri Lanka. He has published Selected Writings – W A de Silva (2009) and Buddhist Heritage in India and Sri Lanka – Rediscovery and Restoration (2017).