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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Prof Raymond Allchin, the academic who fell for India's ancient charms

For many years the only cultural historian of ancient India working in Britain, he wrote a number of definitive volumes on its archaeology: his first began with the memorable line, "This is a book about cow dung."

Prof Raymond Allchin applied his indefatigable enthusiasm to a little studied field of academia at the time, and made it his own. For many years the only cultural historian of ancient India working in Britain, he wrote a number of definitive volumes on its archaeology: his first began with the memorable line, "This is a book about cow dung." Allchin was introduced to the country that inspired his lifelong interest when posted to India with the Royal Corps of Signals in 1944. He had hoped to be sent to Italy, but found himself instead stationed first in Mhow, and later in Agra.

His interest in archaeology was piqued on seeing the imposing structures of Sanchi, located along the Grand Trunk Road; now a Unesco world heritage site, it comprises the best-preserved group of Buddhist monuments in India, dating back to mid-third century BC. Later, while posted at Mhow, he explored the region on a bicycle and discovered the hilltop fort at Mandu, built by Hindu princes and later added to by the Afghans.

After his Indian sojourn, Allchin was sent to Singapore where he applied himself to the question of what to do next with himself. Architecture was not an option due to his dislike of modern building styles. On the piece of paper that he had at hand, he listed various alternatives. A subscriber in childhood to the Illustrated London News, he had read accounts of several archaeological sites, including Mohenjodaro and Chanhudaro, and the details had remained with him. When in India, he had been struck by how many similarities there were between the lives of villagers in the 20th century and their forebears, dating back to the Indus civilisation. This, coupled with his basic liking for the country, suggested a viable career path.

Newly returned to England in 1950, he enrolled at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), graduating with a first in Hindi and Sanskrit. He remained at Soas working for his PhD in Indian archaeology and taught there until 1959. At the time, the study of the Middle East commanded far more attention than South Asia, rendering Allchin's a lone voice, but he persuaded others to his cause. By the time of his death, together with his wife and fellow scholar, Bridget, he had championed the need to conserve India's cultural heritage at all costs. "Monuments at the national, state and local levels must be preserved," he insisted in an interview in 1997. "There is a dire need to decentralise responsibility and to arouse interest at the local level."

After Soas, he moved to Cambridge University, where he remained for the rest of his career, becoming a Fellow of Churchill College in 1963 and Reader in Indian Studies in 1972. Born on July 9, 1923, he died on June 4. He is survived by his wife, a son and daughter. * The National