Sir Alexander Cunningham KCIE CSI was a British army engineer with the Bengal Engineer Group who later took an interest in the history and archaeology of India. In 1861 he was appointed to the newly created position of surveyor to the government of India. He wrote numerous books and monographs and made collections of artefacts. Some of his collections were lost, but most of the gold and silver coins, Cunningham was born in London in 1814 to the Scottish poet Allan Cunningham and his wife Jean née Walker. Along with his brother, Joseph, he received his early education at Christs Hospital. Alexander joined the Bengal Engineers at the age of 19 as a Second Lieutenant and spent the next 28 years in the service of British Government of India, soon after arriving in India on 9 June 1833, he met James Prinsep. He was in communication with Prinsep during 1837 and 1838 and became his intimate friend, confidant. Prinsep passed on to him his lifelong interest in Indian archaeology, from 1836 to 1840 he was ADC to Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India. During this period he visited Kashmir, which was not well explored. He finds mention by initials in Up the Country by Emily Eden, in 1841 Cunningham was made executive engineer to the king of Oudh. In 1842 he was called to serve the army in thwarting an uprising in Bundelkhand by the ruler of Jaipur and he was then posted at Nowgong in central India before he saw action at the Battle of Punniar in December 1843. He became engineer at Gwalior and was responsible for constructing a stone bridge over the Morar River in 1844–45. In 1845–46 he was called to serve in Punjab and helped construct two bridges of boats across the Beas river prior to the Battle of Sobraon, in 1846 he was made commissioner along with P. A. Letters were written to the Chinese and Tibetan officials by Lord Hardinge, a second commission was established in 1847 which was led by Cunningham to establish the Ladakh-Tibet boundary, which also included Henry Strachey and Thomas Thomson. Henry and his brother Richard Strachey had trespassed into Lake Mansarovar and Rakas Tal in 1846 and his early work Essay on the Aryan Order of Architecture arose from his visits to the temples in Kashmir and his travels in Ladakh during his tenure with the commission. He was also present at the battles of Chillianwala and Gujrat in 1848–9, in 1851, he explored the Buddhist monuments of Central India along with Lieutenant Maisey, and wrote an account of these. In 1856 he was appointed engineer of Burma, which had just been annexed by Britain. In both regions he established public works departments and he was therefore absent from India during the Rebellion of 1857
Image: Alexander Cunningham of the ASI 02
Cunningham (fourth from the right) at an unknown date.
Leh Palace, Ladakh. Illustration from Ladak: Physical, Statistical, and Historical
Letter dated 31st January, 1862, appointing Cunningham as Surveyor General