National Museum, New Delhi – Pre-Gupta Sculpture

Continuing my series of blog posts showcasing the highlights of the National Museum in New Delhi, it’s time to turn our attention to the pre-Gupta sculptures that are housed in the museum.

The museum is of course famous for its Harappan Gallery, and in terms of Gupta and medieval sculpture there is an abundance of pieces on display in the museum. For this specific time period however, in particular from the Mauryan Empire, there is not much on display to the public. I can only assume this is largely because such pieces are housed in the local museums near to specific sites across the country.

The highlight for me has to be the 2nd century Buddha carved from dark grey Schist, quite unlike any other piece in the museum and wonderfully executed. For me this the standout masterpiece of the entire museum.

The galleries containing sculptures are a little mixed up in places from a chronological perspective, so I have ordered the following broadly by time periods. Therefore, what follows showcases works from the Maurya, Shunga, Satavahana, Kushana and Ikshvaka periods. Click on any of the images below to view them in a larger format.

Maurya (321 B.C. – 185 B.C.) and Shunga (185 B.C. – 75 B.C.)

I found this “woman in grief” carving somewhat curious, as I had seen the exact same fragment of carving at the State Museum in Bhubaneswar just a week previously, which you can compare here. I can only conclude that this one in Delhi is the original, and the one in Odisha is a copy)

Satavahana (Late 2nd Century B.C. – Early 3rd Century A.D.)

I was happy to see the National Museum has some pieces recovered from the Amaravati Stupa in Andhra Pradesh. 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 and carved limestone 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 large proportion of the carved limestone slabs were subsequently removed, and now reside in 16 museums across the globe. The British Museum in London has a dedicated gallery to the Amaravati Stupa, and whilst it’s likely some of these works of art have been saved from destruction, it’s a great shame that much of it now resides outside India. So I was extremely happy to see these pieces, and hopefully one day a few more may return home.

Kushana (30 A.D. – 375 A.D.)

It is during the Kushana period that we first see Buddha being represented in human form, the two main artistic centers being at Mathura and Gandhara. With Gandhara being situated right next to the eastern border of Alexander’s empire, many of these early sculpted Buddha’s in human form clearly show influences from Greco-Roman iconography, in both form and the costumes being worn.

The influences did not stop there either, apparently the official language of the Kushana period was Greek. This sculpture, incredibly carved from dark grey schist, had to be one of the standout masterpieces of the museum.

Ikshvaka (3rd – 4th Century A.D.)

That concludes my short virtual tour of the pre-Gupta period sculptures at the National Museum in Delhi. Further posts on some of the other galleries (e.g. bronzes and paintings) will be appearing over the next few weeks, which combined will hopefully give a reasonably comprehensive account of what can be seen there.

If you are planning on visiting this museum, I would suggest at least a full day is set aside and that you arrive early.

The National Museum opening times are usually :

Tue – Fri (10:00 AM to 6:00 PM)
Sat & Sun (10:00 AM to 8:00 PM)
(Closed on Mondays and National Holidays)

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9 replies »

  1. Wonderful work. I visited only one time this museum, 13 years before, during my first trip in India (since, I visited India 15 or 16 times !) Next time i’ll be in Delhi, I will take time for a new visit, insteed to visit again and again the Craft museum. Did you visit the craft museum, an incredible place ?
    Thanks for your blog, always interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting about ‘Woman in grief’ – Can’t tell which would be original. I suppose the Sarnath one. Thanks for all of these, Dr. Standage.

    Liked by 2 people

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