'The World of India's First Archaeologist'Edited by Upinder Singh, throws light on the place of archaeology in the politics of colonial India

Upinder Singh
This book opens a third, remarkable window, revealing unknown facets of the life and career of Alexander Cunningham and the history of Indian archaeology during its crucial formative stage. In 2005, Victoria Memorial Hall, a premier museum and cultural institution in Kolkata, acquired a set of handwritten letters, mostly written by Cunningham to his Archaeological Assistant Beglar between 1871 and 1886. These letters do not represent the entire correspondence between Cunningham and Beglar.
Beglar seems to have received other letters as well, and we do not have Beglar’s letters to Cunningham. But what we do have is exciting enough. The 192 letters published for the first time in this book, arranged in chronological order, reveal the progression of Cunningham’s ideas and experiences and tell the story of the history of Indian archaeology in the 1870s and 1880s in the voice of the chief protagonist.
Cunningham usually spent winters in the field and most of the letters were written while he was on the march or camped at sites. In summer, he hastened to the cool of the hills to write his reports; several letters were written from Fir Hill in Simla. Some were written from Calcutta, the political centre of the British Government of India, from places such as the Great Eastern Hotel (now The LaLiT Great Eastern Kolkata) and 15/2 Chowringhee (the site is now occupied by the Oberoi Grand Hotel). Others were penned in Roorkee, where Cunningham’s son Allan taught in the Thomason College of Civil Engineering (now the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee).
The last few letters were written after he returned to his home in Cranley Mansion on Gloucester Road in South Kensington, London.
The first letter is dated 28 January 1871, soon after Cunningham took over as Director General of the newly established Archaeological Survey of India. It was a formal invitation to Beglar—who was at the time working with the Public Works Department of the Bengal Government—to join his team. Cunningham pointed out that the job of Archaeological Assistant would be much more interesting than the duties of a PWD engineer.
I feel satisfied that to any one who has a taste for Ancient Buildings the work will be a pleasant one. (Letter no. 1)
The salary offer was Rs 100 per month, in addition to allowances, and a travelling allowance of Rs 5 when in the field.
A man ‘who showed zeal and an aptitude for the work’ could look forward to a swift pay increase and prospects of permanent employment. Cunningham had heard of Beglar’s interest in photography and asked him to send across some of his photographs.
The letter had an urgency to it.
(To be contd)