To some readers, The Buddha and Dr Führer will appear to be about a thrilling treasure hunt and the intriguing aftermath of its conclusion – a tale peppered with intrepid explorers, nefarious archeologists and wily Indologists intent on deciphering ancient puzzles. This would be the unkindest reading of all: there is far more to Charles Allen’s book than the event it holds at its centre – the discovery of the mortal remains of the Buddha and the scandal that followed.
The controversy involved who exactly unearthed the reliquary casket containing the ashes, Willie Peppé, the landowner on whose estate the casket was found in January 1898 or the government archeologist Anton Führer, who had dispatched a letter to a Buddhist monk a year earlier, claiming to have made the discovery then.
Other readers may treat the book as a scholarly treatise on near-contemporary archaeology and history. After all, the book features the intertwined lives of the various dynasties that ruled the kingdom of Kosala (in modern-day Uttar Pradesh) in the third and fourth centuries BCE during the time of the Buddha and the similarly complex stories of the men who sought to settle in and control the same region under British rule in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A third view, the most balanced one, would locate the story of the discovery within the larger context of the social, cultural and political changes that the subcontinent was witnessing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In so approaching The Buddha, the reader is treated to a narrative that both informs and entertains as it presents several accounts of how the East India Company came to dominate one of the largest and most inhospitable swathes of the subcontinent.
Allen delves into the minutiae of life in colonial India, placing it within the larger context of how the subcontinent was being brought under complete British rule: the machinations of the Company, the calculus of bureaucracy, the subjugation of native tribes and the everyday practices of the colonisers. Allen has createda scholarly work contained within a thriller – a Da Vinci Code for Mensa candidates.
By Jaideep VG on February 04 2011 6.55am