Also known as the Elliot Marbles, the Amaravati Marbles are a collection of 120 sculptures and inscriptions housed in the British Museum in London that were recovered from the Amaravati Mahachaitya in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.
Although there is no archaeological record of the site being directly associated with Ashoka, doner inscriptions from the monument have indicated that the Stupa was probably established sometime in the 3rd century B.C. It is thought the Stupa had two main construction phases spanning over 400 years, with the monument being in continued active use into the 13th century.
The first formal record of the site by westerners occurred in 1797, when Major Colin Mackenzie reported discovering a large Buddhist construction built of bricks and faced with limestone slabs. He returned to the site 19 years later in 1816, and was shocked to find much of the site had been destroyed. Many of the Stupa bricks had been excavated and reused to build local houses. Mackenzie recognised that the monument was rapidly disappearing, so undertook his own rudimentary excavations on the site to record and draw a plan of the Stupa.
A further 29 years passed before Sir Walter Elliot of the Madras Civil Service visited the site and undertook his own excavations in 1845. Sculptures he recovered were transported to the Madras (now Chennai) Museum after a short period being left at a local college. In 1853 the curator of the museum, Dr. Edward Balfour, raised concerns about the deteriorating sculptures due to them being exposed to the elements, and questioned whether they were of sufficient artistic merit to warrant transportation to London.
At the time India was run by the East India Company, and in 1855 Balfour enlisted the help of the Indian artist P. Murugasa Moodaliar to draw the sculptures, although Balfour was so dissatisfied with the result that he persuaded Dr. A. J. Scott to also take a series of photographs. These were both forwarded to London prior to Captain Linnaeus Tripe taking a further 75 photographs in 1858. The following year, in 1859, the sculptures were moved to London.
The plan in London was to house the sculptures at the “India Museum”, an institution established in 1801 to showcase various artifacts and items that had been collected by officers of the East India Company. Unfortunately, the arrival of the sculptures in London coincided with the dissolvement of the company, so they were temporarily stored in Southwark before being moved to Fife House in Whitehall, which opened to the public in 1861. Conditions at Fife House were poor, certainly not an environment that would be kind to the carvings, and as a result the sculptures received further damage due to the weather conditions.
Having published a book on Amaravati in 1868, James Fergusson recognised the perilous situation the sculptures were being subjected to and expressed his concerns to Augustus Wollaston Franks, arguably the most important collector in the history of the British Museum, and one of the greatest collectors of his age.
It took a further 12 years before the Amaravati Marbles were finally deposited in the British Museum in 1880. Initially they were installed in the main stairwell of the museum, before being removed for safekeeping during World War II. In 1950 they were brought out of storage, but the poor atmospheric conditions raised further concerns that they were damaging the sculptures, resulting in them being moved to an air-conditioned basement for the next 33 years in 1959.
Finally, in 1992, the sculptures were moved to their current exhibition space; Room 33A, a purpose built room with controlled humidity and air conditioning, annexed to Room 33 which features antiquities from east and south Asia.
Amaravati art is considered one of the three major styles of ancient Indian art along with the Mathura and Gandharan style. It had great influence on the art of Sri Lanka and south-east Asia, a 14th century inscription in Sri Lanka even records repairs made specifically to the Amaravati stupa after a period of neglect.
The Great Shrine of Amaravati was one of the oldest, largest and most important Buddhist monuments in ancient India. Stupas developed from the ancient Indian idea of constructing mounds over the cremated ashes of important people. The shrine, with its solid, domed structure, probably contained a relic, perhaps of a famous teacher. Devotees honoured the enshrined relic by walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction. While doing so, they could also benefit by viewing scenes from the Life of the Buddha sculpted on the railing that surrounded the walkway. Some devotees gave money for the decoration of the stupa and these gifts are recorded in inscriptions.
Of the sculpture recovered from the Amaravati site, approximately one third is in London with the vast majority in the Government Museum in Chennai. Having said that, fragments from the stupa are housed in a total of 10 museums throughout India, in addition to 7 other museums across France, Singapore, United Kingdom and United States.
Also known as the Elliot Marbles, it’s all too easy to draw comparisons between the Amaravati Marbles and the far more renowned Elgin Marbles (Parthenon Marbles) that are also on display at the British Museum. Controversy over custodianship the Elgin Marbles continues unabated. The British Museum quite rightly claims that the removal of the objects from Athens saved them from destruction, as they were not being protected at the time.
The same argument could also be applied to the Elliot Marbles from Amaravati. In many respects we should be thankful that despite all the mining and destruction on site that occurred prior to their removal in 1845, and the subsequent damage that occurred through inadequate storage over 114 years, it’s staggering that they have survived in the condition they can be seen today.
Indians comprise about 1.4 million people in the UK (not including those of mixed Indian and other ancestry), making them the single largest ethnic minority population in the country. One could argue that housing the sculptures in the British Museum provides an unrivalled opportunity for those of Indian ancestry to see some spectacular examples of art from their country that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to see.
The counter argument is of course that they should be returned to their place of origin and displayed in a bespoke building along with the various sculptures from Amaravati that exist across the globe in 16 other museums. At the fear of sitting on the fence, I really do appreciate both sides of the argument on this one. But at the very least we should all be thankful that they are both safe, and after 174 years of mismanagement, they are now being adequately cared for.
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