Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, material culture acquired new meaning and significance through the discursive and institutional rise of scientific archaeology, which led to the creation of heritage sites and museums across South Asia. Scholars have noted colonial archaeology’s partiality towards Buddhism in its formative years. As it identified, classified and documented to produce an authoritative ‘textual and visual archive’[1] of the forgotten sacred geography of Buddhism in India, colonial archaeology placed Buddhism at the apex of Indian civilization. This study examines how archaeology provided the material basis for ‘civilization’ as a category of culture and history, and shaped debates around the meaning and content of ‘Indian civilization.’  

With a particular focus on Gandhara, Greco-Buddhist archaeological sites and objects, located on the Indo-Afghan borderlands, I track the emergence of archaeological knowledge, in relation to ethnographic and art historical knowledge, to construct an Indian civilization to which Muslims became invasive outsiders, responsible for the ruin of this rich Buddhist landscape, despite evidence of Buddhism’s decline centuries before the coming of Islam. This study then tracks the debates that ensued in the twentieth century as a diversity of nationalist claims on Gandharan sites and objects re-made the meanings of ‘Indian civilization’ in a geography of nation-states.

[1] Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, Objects, Histories, Columbia University Press: 2004, p. 12.