Posted on: 22 October 2015

The Amaravati Album

This album of drawings is a landmark in the history of archaeology in India. The pictures were made in 1816 and 1817 by a team of military surveyors and draftsmen under the direction of Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1757-1821), the first Surveyor-General of India.

The album contains maps, plans and drawings of sculpture from the stupa at Amaravati. A stupa is a Buddhist monument that usually takes the form of a burial mound. Relics connected with the life of the Buddha are buried at the centre of the stupa.

Mackenzie first encountered the remains of the Buddhist stupa at Amaravati in 1798. At that time, Buddhism was not a prominent religious system in that part of India and Mackenzie speculated that it was a Jain monument rather than a Buddhist one. His decision to return to the site in 1816 with a survey team was motivated by his belief that the monument and its sculptures were of profound historical importance, even though he was unaware that it was a second-century Buddhist stupa. He arranged for some of the sculptures to be removed from the site, but it appears that most of them remained at Amaravati.

Within a few decades of Mackenzie's survey of the site, the true sectarian function and antiquity of the stupa at Amaravati was recognised. Bizarrely, this recognition coincided with a series of further excavations that were not as carefully documented as the survey instigated by Mackenzie in 1816.

The Mackenzie Amaravati Album is an extremely valuable document for archaeologists, art historians and museum professionals today, as it provides a reliable record of how the monument's foundations looked before they were disturbed and where the sculptures were positioned.

The drawings also reliably depict 84 of the sculptures that once adorned the sides of the stupa and the stone railing that surrounded it. Of the 84 sculptures documented in the Mackenzie Amaravati Album, only 27 of them have been identified.

This means that 57 of the sculptures drawn in 1816-1817 are missing. Perhaps some of these missing sculptures will be located in museums and private collections, and the history of their removal from the site can be more clearly understood.

Adoration of the Buddha Begging Bowl

The adoration of the Buddha's begging bowl. Drawing by Henry Hamilton of a carved limestone medallion unearthed at Amaravati in 1817.

Text and image credit: © The British Library Board

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