Foucher, Alfred

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FOUCHER, ALFRED (18651952), was a French Indologist and specialist in Buddhist archaeology. Alfred C. A. Foucher studied in Paris, under the guidance of Sylvain Lévi, and in India (18951897), where he combined philosophical training at the Sanskrit College of Banaras with "militant" archaeology through extensive pilgrimages to several places of historical interest.

Foucher was a pioneer in the area of religious archaeology with his study of the relation between artistic representations and their doctrinal and literary background. His field of predilection was the area known as Gandhara (roughly, those portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Indus River), where the Indian and Greek worlds had been in contact at around the beginning of the common era. The publication of Foucher's L'art gréco-bouddhique du Gandhâra: Étude sur les origines de l'influence classique dans l'art bouddhique de l'Inde et de l'Extrême-Orient extended over half a century and comprised three volumes: volume 1, Introduction; Les édifices; Les bas-reliefs (1905); volume 2, Images (1922); and volume 3, Additions et corrections; index (1951). Though criticized for some of its conclusions regarding chronology and style, this work remains the most accurate sourcebook on early Buddhist iconography.

Foucher's interest in Gandhara received a new impulse when Afghanistan opened its frontiers to archaeological investigation. Foucher, who was then working at the Archaeological Survey of India (19191921), was immediately à pied d'œuvre as the first director of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (19211925). In Afghanistan, as previously in Northwest India, his habit of methodically following the itinerary of Xuanzang, his natural gift for observation, and his archaeological insight led Foucher to remarkable discoveries in Haa, Kāpiī-Bēgrām, Bāmiyān, Balkh, and the Lampaka-Laghmān region. The gist of these discoveries is expressed in a work accomplished with the collaboration of his wife, Eugénie Bazin-Foucher, La vieille route de l'Inde de Bactres à Taxila (2 vols., 19421947). Foucher also collaborated with John Marshall in editing the three huge volumes of The Monuments of Sanchi (1939), a work focused on the main Buddhist site of central India.

The clear-sightedness of Foucher as an archaeologist was no doubt the result of his deep penetration of the Indian tradition. Foucher, who used old texts as guides in his archaeological researches, in turn used monuments for a better understanding of Buddhism and especially of its founder, Śākyamuni Buddha. Foucher's best-known book, La vie du Bouddha (1949; English trans., 1963) is, significantly, subtitled D'après les textes et les monuments de l'Inde. Foucher was aware of all the difficulties of such a biography. In 1894 he had translated from German into French Hermann Oldenberg's study of the Buddha's life (Le Bouddha, sa vie, sa doctrine, sa communauté, 2d ed., 1903), which remains the best "positive" history of the Buddha following the Pali sources. At the same time, Foucher was much in contact with Émile Senart, who had proposed a mythical interpretation of the life of the Buddha. In the 1930s, Foucher had also witnessed the brilliant attempt at a new interpretation of Buddhism through archaeology and sociology made by his young contemporary Paul Mus. It was only at the end of his life that Foucher's own biography of the Buddha came to maturation. This book shows the geographical (centers of pilgrimages) and historical (superposition of hagiographical patterns) influences on the tales surrounding Śākyamuni. It remains the most satisfactory approach toward the personality of the historical Buddha as he has been seen through the Asian tradition.

Though deeply original in his method and his achievements, Foucher cannot be isolated from a golden age of French philological studies of which he is a typical representative. Even if different in spirit, his La vie du Bouddha recalls the much earlier Vie de Jésus (1863) by Foucher's fellow Breton, Ernest Renan. Foucher's systematic inventory of architectural remains and iconographical documents as an approach to an understanding of Buddhism has a parallel in the encyclopedic research on Christian symbolism done by his contemporary Émile Mâle.

Besides his already mentioned sojourns in India and Afghanistan, Foucher lived for a time in French Indochina (1901 and 19051907), where he succeeded his friend Louis Finot as the director of the École Française d'Extrême-Orient, and in Japan (19251926), where he established with Sylvain Lévi the Maison Franco-Japonaise.


In addition to the writings mentioned above, Foucher's The Beginnings of Buddhist Art and Other Essays in Indian and Central-Asian Archaeology (London, 1917) should be noted. Although outdated, it remains a testimony to his exactitude, clarity, and elegance. For bibliographic data, see Shinshō Hanayama's Bibliography on Buddhism (Tokyo, 1961); Bibliographie bouddhique, 32 vols., compiled by Marcelle Lalou (Paris, 19281967); and Henri Deydier's Contribution à l'étude de l'art du Gandhâra (Paris, 1950). A biographical sketch of Foucher can be found in Alfred Merlin's "Notice sur la vie et las travaux de M. Alfred Foucher," in Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres: Comptes rendus (Paris, 1954), pp. 457469.

Hubert Durt (1987)

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Foucher, Alfred

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