Tree and Serpent Worship

James Fergusson (1808-1886), Tree and Serpent Worship, or, Illustrations of Mythology and Art in India in the First and Fourth Centuries after Christ (London: India Museum … , 1868). Graphic Arts Collection (GAX) Oversize 2004-0934Q

Tree and Serpent Worship was compiled by the self-taught historian James Fergusson (1808-1886), who made his fortune at a young age in Calcutta and then devoted the rest of his life to his passion for Indian architecture. Fergusson befriended a number of the British officers who spent their time in India practicing the new art of wet-plate photography, such as Major Robert Gill (1804-1879) whose albumen prints were used to illustrate Fergusson’s 1864 edition of The Rock-Cut Temples of India (Graphic Arts Collection (GAX), 2007-2590N).

Another of Fergusson’s associates was James S. Waterhouse (1842-1922), who never used a camera before arriving in Calcutta. He became so accomplished that he was ultimately named surveyor-general to the monumental Survey of India. Under the sponsorship of the Indian government, Waterhouse spent eleven years—from 1864 to 1875—documenting the ethnic diversity of the people of India; work later replicated by Edward Curtis and others who joined the international mania for mammoth ethnographic studies.

During that same period, Waterhouse provided Fergusson with a group of images depicting the ancient Buddhist monuments in Sanchi, a small village in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The frontispiece of Tree and Serpent Worship shows Waterhouse’s image of the Northern gateway to the Great Stupa at Sanchi. This is the oldest of the religious stupas, or mounds, constructed in the third century BCE to hold the remains of the Buddha.

Along with 20 photographs by Waterhouse are 36 by W. H. Griggs (1832-1911), depicting Amravati sculptural fragments from the collection we now know as the Victoria & Albert Museum.