India is a country of deep historical heritage. Multiple empires and kingdoms have called the subcontinent home. From the Mughal empire to the Ashoka empire, the Indus valley civilization to the Kingdom of Vijayanagar, India has seen the rise and fall of important parts of world history. In addition, the country has witnessed the birth of Hinduism and Buddhism, two major world religions. Collectively, these historical events have left behind equally impressive monuments. The question remains: how does a country go about protecting such a rich cultural and archaeological heritage? Enter the Archaeological Survey of India, also known as the ASI. The ASI is an agency of the Indian government that spearheads the protection of the monuments created throughout the subcontinent’s long history. Keep reading our article for an overview of the Archaeological Survey of India and its work.
The History of the ASI’s Founding
The Architectural Survey of India’s story begins nearly a hundred years before its official founding in 1861. From 1608 to 1947 CE, the British governed India through both economic and political colonization. During their extended stay on the subcontinent, the Crown’s deputies were a driving force in the beginnings of cataloging Indian cultural history. William Jones, a British Indologist, was the founder of the Asiatic Society and conducted the first rigorous and Western academic research into the country’s past. Among their primary achievements was the English translation of the Bhagavad Gita in 1785 by Charles Wilkins and the decipherment of the Brahmi script by James Prinsep in 1837. The decipherment of the Brahmi script allowed the founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, Alexander Cunningham, to carry out his detailed study of Buddhist monuments across the country. As he continued his (often self-funded work) over many years, he began to realize the scope of India’s archaeological history and the need for a dedicated body that could take over this critical work. His proposal for the Archaeological Survey of India (despite being initially rejected) was approved and allowed to form in 1861. At its founding, Cunningham was named the ASI’s first surveyor (Archaeological Survey of India – Wikipedia, n.d.).
From then till the early 1900s, the ASI’s position in the British Raj remained in constant flux. Multiple changes in leadership and falsification scandals plagued the institution, making many in the British government question its relevance. However, as the country continued to yield discoveries of greater and greater importance, the ASI’s place in the Raj became understood. As partition took place in 1947, the ASI and its assets were split to create separate agencies tending to the archaeological sites of Pakistan and India. From partition onwards, the ASI’s director generals and heads of the survey were local Indian archaeologists (Archaeological Survey of India – Wikipedia, n.d.).
The ASI’s Notable Past Works
Indian history spans from the paleolithic era of humanity (also known as the hunter-gatherer phase, where humans were nomadic bands rather than settled groups) to the modern day. Consequently, the body of work protected by the Archaeological Survey of India is vast and incredibly impressive. Indeed, from their body of work, the ASI themselves has designated 3,684 monuments as being of national importance. There are, however, notable highlights in the ASI’s history (Archaeological Survey of India – Wikipedia, n.d.).
One of the most notable highlights in the ASI’s work is the discovery and excavation of the Indus Valley sites Mohenjodaro and Harappa by John Marshall in 1921. The Indus Valley civilization was one of the three first major human civilizations in world history aside from Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. The civilization existed from approximately 2500 BCE to 1700 BCE. Both of its two most influential sites – Harappa and Mohenjodaro – were based around the Indus river in the Indus river in the Punjab region of the subcontinent. The two sites are well known for their meaningful urban planning and their expansive collection of artistic works. Among these works, one of the most famous is the Dancing girl, a bronze sculpture of a woman in motion adorned in jewelry across her arms and neck. The civilization was also well known for its seals that remain encrypted from our understanding (Indus civilization – Craft, technology, and artifacts, n.d.).
Earlier but still important work in the ASI’s history is the discovery of the Nigali Sagar inscription, the remains of a pillar with an Ashokan inscription in present-day Nepal. The pillar’s inscription reads: “His Majesty King Priyadarsin in the 14th year of his reign enlarged for the second time the stupa of the Buddha Kanakamuni and in the 20th year of his reign, having come in person, paid reverence and set up a stone pillar”. The inscription is noteworthy in that it is the first recorded mention of the word “stupa”, and in the way it supposedly references the birthplace of Kanakamuni Buddha. The pillar is also significant considering it is one of the Ashoka Pillars, a model of which is the iconography for the Indian government, including the insignia on the country’s passport (Nigali Sagar – Wikipedia, n.d.).
Even earlier than this, Cunningham’s work excavating stupas was deeply significant. The stupas (Buddhist temples) excavated by the society allow historians to correctly date and understand the progression of Buddhism as a religion and include some of the oldest surviving structures on the subcontinent. Important amongst Cunningham’s discoveries are the Sarnath stupa (one of the most important shrines in Buddhism) and the Sanchi stupa (one of the oldest intact buildings in India). Indeed, Cunningham himself was instrumental to the documentation of Buddhist history in the country, publishing The Bhilsa Topes in 1854, a book that aimed to understand the progression of Buddhist history through the religion’s archaeological remains (Sir Alexander Cunningham | British army officer and archaeologist, n.d.).
The ASI Today
Post-partition, the Archaeological Survey of India has continued to flourish. Notable discoveries by the ASI include further Indus Valley sites including Lothal and Dholavira, and archaeological research into whether or not a ram temple existed in Ayodhya at the site of the Babri Masjid. While the findings of the ASI might not necessarily continue to be as high profile as they progress, the scale of these findings has significantly grown. Indeed, the ASI is today divided into 34 circles that center around areas of archaeological significance in the country. Beyond their archaeological work, the ASI has also established museums to house artifacts from their excavation sites, usually right next to the original sites. The ASI also maintains a library in New Delhi, with over 100,000 books, rare plates, and original drawings. Beyond these projects, the ASI also publishes a few periodicals, including Indian Archaeology: A Review, which functions as the ASI’s primary bulletin (Archaeological Survey of India – Wikipedia, n.d.).
In a region as historically and culturally rich as the Indian subcontinent, the task of preserving archaeological heritage is undoubtedly massive. The Archaeological Survey of India, created under the British Raj, continues to take on this mammoth role admirably, helping us gain insight into the region’s history. The ASI’s work is critical in understanding the physical truth behind how the Indian subcontinent has come to be in its current form.
En.wikipedia.org. n.d. Archaeological Survey of India – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeological_Survey_of_India> [Accessed 31 August 2022].
En.wikipedia.org. n.d. Nigali Sagar – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigali_Sagar> [Accessed 31 August 2022].
Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Indus civilization – Craft, technology, and artifacts. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Indus-civilization/Craft-technology-and-artifacts> [Accessed 31 August 2022].
Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Sir Alexander Cunningham | British army officer and archaeologist. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-Cunningham> [Accessed 31 August 2022].