Mackenzie: The man who found Amarāvatī

A very long time ago, in the 3rd Century BCE, Buddhism in India was in its Golden Age. Asoka the great, a powerful Indian Emperor had converted to Buddhism after a life changing event and sent missionaries to spread the religion far and wide. But something strange happened to Buddhism in India while it thrived in its neighbouring countries. By the 13th century AD, the religion had almost disappeared. All the grand art and architecture it had inspired was forgotten and buried under layers of dust.

One of the victims was the Amarāvatī Stupa in present day Andhra Pradesh in South Central India. Built during Asoka’s reign it was one of largest Stupas ever built, standing at almost a 100 ft tall. The structure and its surroundings, after the fall of Buddhism in India had turned into a forgotten ruin. And it may have remained forgotten if not for Colin Mackenzie.

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Above: Ruins of the Amarāvatī Stupa Image Credit: Nandign [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Born in an obscure Scottish town, Mackenzie discovered that mathematics fascinated him. Chewing his way through mathematical tomes he discovered the mathematics of the ancient Hindus and was spellbound. Only a trip to its roots in India would satisfy him.

He joined the army of the British East India Company and because of his flair for numbers was appointed to the Engineering Corps. He arrived in India at Madras (Chennai) in 1783. India fascinated him even beyond mathematics, and he became hooked to Indian art, culture and history. He was neither a historian nor an archaeologist but in India, he became the best of those. He travelled throughout the Indian subcontinent documenting its history, literature and architecture. He recorded everything he saw through sketches. He also managed to collect and store important artefacts. In 1797, he travelled to Amarāvatī and discovered a Stupa. By now Buddhism had practically disappeared from India and Mackenzie at first thought the ruins belonged to the Jain faith.

He notified his superiors about the find and moved on to other things. In 1815, Mackenzie was appointed the very first Surveyor General of India.

Amarāvatī called to him again. He spent four years between 1816 and 1820 studying the ruins and deploring the neglect that had befallen them after his discovery. Bricks from the precious ruins had been carried away for building work and irresponsible excavations had ruined the structure. Painstakingly Mackenzie further excavated the site and drew sketches and plans of what the original structure must have been like.

But he didn’t manage all this on his own. Early in his career, he recruited Cavelly Venkata Boraiah, an Indian scholar who knew Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit; and spoke impeccable English as well. Boraiah was a fine researcher with a knack for getting inside information from the locals. Unfortunately, he died suddenly and his shoes were filled by his brother Cavelly Lakshmaiah. Mackenzie’s team had at least 17 Indian scholars like the Cavelly brothers. Together they amassed more than 1568 literary manuscripts, 8076 inscriptions, 79 plans, 2630 drawings, 6218 coins and many other antiquities.


Above: Colonel Colin Mackenzie and his Indian pandits: Mackenzie in red with Cavelly Lakshmaiah to his right. Image Credit: Thomas Hickey (1741–1824) [Public domain]

Mackenzie probably dreamt of returning to Scotland someday and studying his vast collection at leisure. Sadly, that never happened. He fell ill and died in his adopted country in 1821. The bulk of his estate was left to his wife but 5% was bequeathed to his trusted deputy, Lakshmaiah. His wife sold his entire collection to the East India Co. for Rs.100,000.

Today most of Mackenzie’s collection is in the British Museum or owned by the British Library. His discoveries from Amaravati however, were moved some years after his death to Madras (Chennai). Today, you can see some of these beautiful treasures in the form of limestone carvings at the Sculpture Gallery of the Government Museum in Chennai.

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Above: Amaravati Maha Stupa relief at Government Museum in Chennai, India. Image Credit: Soham Banerjee [CC BY 2.0]

Wondering what these carvings were all about? Download the Storytrails App and try and the Stone Sculpture Galleries Audio Tour.

Main Image Credit: Buddha Preaching in Tushita Heaven. Amaravati, Satavahana period, 2d century AD. Indian Museum, Calcutta. G41rn8 [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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