Indian Artifacts at the British Museum

Indian Artifacts at the British Museum

A couple of years ago I made a trip into London to specifically see and document the Amaravati Marbles at the British Museum. The partial remains of the this stupa are located in an annex to the main Asian Gallery in the museum, and perhaps unsurprisingly I was drawn to the Indian artifacts on display and took the opportunity to record a few of the highlights. With my usual travel plans this year abandoned thanks to the global pandemic, I have now taken the opportunity to review the photos I took and present them here.

What follows is a short virtual tour of some of the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist Indian artifacts on display in the museum

Hindu

My attention was immediately drawn to a set of Hoysala carvings halfway down the gallery, which were perfectly presented allowing a 360 degree view of these amazing works of art at eye level.

The Hoysala dynasty ruled the south-western Deccan between 1006 and 1346 C.E. Inscriptions record the construction, renovation and maintenance of many temples by the Hoysala kings, their wives and ministers. Most of these temples were dedicated to Hindu deities such as Shiva and Vishnu, and famous examples can be seen at Halebidu, Belur and Somnathpur in Karnataka.

Among the distinctive features of Hoysala temples are the voluptuous female bracket figures that decorate the roof struts. These sculptures typically comprise of an ornate tree canopy above a main figure flanked by attendants.

Although the pieces in the British Museum are unsigned, a number of Hoysala sculptures were signed by individual artists. Such inscriptions reveal that some sculptors worked on multiple temples, perhaps part of an artisan group that traveled from site to site applying their trade. The signing of sculptures appears to be more common in Hoysala works of art than in other schools of Indian art.

Next is an image of the elephant-headed deity Ganesha, often invoked to remove obstacles that might obstruct new ventures, and is the embodiment of all that is auspicious. Here Ganesha is in his tantric form, with five heads and ten arms, with his consort on his knee . At the base is the rat on which he rides, clearly showing that he is not constrained by the laws of physics !

Next to Ganesha (above) is a much earlier sculpture from Kashmir of Lakshmi. The pleated drapery of the Goddess is a clear reminder of Gandhara and its links with provincial Roman sculpture.

A grand processional image of Shiva Vishapaharana follows next, depicting a dramatic moment in one of the Hindu creation stories, when Shiva saves the universe by swallowing a deadly poison. This image is thought to originate from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, and was probably a bronze that was processed through the streets during festivals.

Next to Shiva (above) is a wonderful carving of Durga and the demon Mahisha. Durga was adopted by many rulers as their guardian. King Narasimhadeva I (1238 – 1264 C.E.) referred to himself as the ‘son of Durga’ and sculptures from the Sun Temple at Konark depict him worshipping the Goddess. In the carving above Durga is impaling the demon Mahisha with her trident.

The next carving was for me probably one of the highlights at the British Museum…

This sculpture from Konark represents the astrological god Surya, one of the navagraha (nine planets) that are believed to influence people’s lives. King Narasimhadeva I built the Surya (Sun) Temple in Konark between 1241 and 1258 C.E. to appease the sun god and ensure prosperity.

The modern capital of Bhubaneshwar in Odisha is thought to have once boasted over a thousand Hindu temples, as well as ancient Buddhist and Jain caves. Even today the city has an impressive collection of sites that are well worth exploring. My Guide to the Temples and Monuments In Bhubaneshwar gives an account of over 80 such monuments that can be easily visited today.

Kanchipuram was once the capital of the Pallava kings, and the next frightening image comes from towards the end of their rule. The cult of independent and horiffic godesses has been powerful in India for many centuries, and here the Yogini is depicted with earings in the form of a snake and a severed hand.

Next to the Yogini (above) is an image carved from the green chlorite of Kashmir, and depicts the god Shiva in his all encompassing form. This is indicated by his three heads, each suggesting a different aspect of his personality. On his right right side (left on the image) his face is demonic (with severed hands and skulls decorating the crown), and his left side depicts a peaceful female face. The central face represents the god in whom all opposites are reconciled.

Moving away from large carvings, the next object is an example of ornamental bricks. This example comes from Ahichhatra, and may have come from a temple dedicated to Shiva. Ornamental bricks were often carved with various designs to further enhance the decorative scheme of the temple structure.

The next carving is a sculpted display of music and devotion reflecting the tenderness between the divine couple, Shiva and Parvati. Below Shiva is the sage Bhringi. According to myth, he was devoted to Shiva but neglected to worship Parvati. When Bhringi attempted to circle around Shiva as part of his worship, Parvati sat on Shiva’s lap to stress their unity

At the couples feet are their animal attendants, Shiva’s bull and Parvati’s lion. Surrounding the couple are musicians and garland bearers. Interestingly the donor for this carving also appears along with his wife and children, offering lotus bugs.

Next to Shiva and Parvati (above) is Vishnu and his consorts within an arched temple niche. Vishnu is often depicted as (or compared to) an Indian king, and here he is depicted wearing a crown. Alongside Vishnu are the attendant goddesses of knowledge (Sarawati) and prosperity (Lakshmi). Hundreds of sculptures like this were made during the Pala dynasty (circa 750 – 1199 C.E.). It is thought this piece once resided on the outer wall of a temple.

The next artifact is thought to be one of the earliest surviving bronze sculptures in this form, with archaeo-metallurgical tests supporting a very early date in the mid 9th century.

Shiva as Nataraja is possibly one of the most famous Hindu images from India. The Nataraja dances with one leg across the other and within a circle of flame. This is called Anandatandava, the Dance of Bliss.

The next two images are Varaha rescuing Bhu, and a Dvarapala (door guardian).

Mathura was an important religious, political and trading centre in northern India, with Buddhist, Jain, and early Hindu devotees representing religious figures and gods during the Gupta period (320 – 550 C.E.). Locally produced sculptures adorned stupas, temples and shrines in Mathura, and many examples were exported to other sites across India. The Varaha carving depicts Vishnu’s third avatar, having plunged into the ocean to rescue the earth from a cosmic flood. A very similar early carving of this can be seen in-situ at Udayagiri Caves in Madhya Pradesh.

In Indian temples, especially in the south, fierce guardians stand at the entrance to the main building in a temple complex. In the example above (right), the distinctive pose with one leg placed across the other is very typical of the dvarapalas that can be seen in Tamil Nadu. Note how this carving lacks some of the fine detail one would perhaps expect, due to the large-grained granite with quartz inclusions that is difficult to carve.

The next carving takes us back to the Hoysala rule of 1006 – 1346 C.E.

As we have already seen, temples constructed under the Hoysala dynasty were richly embellished with highly ornate carvings and elaborate sculptures. This carving was probably part of a series decorating a temple base and shows a non-devotional subject – an elephant and riders.

The next two objects (above) are far apart in time. Brick temples were often decorated on the exterior with large terracotta relief panels during the Gupta period, and are the earliest examples of freestanding temples in India. The panels often depict deities in narrative scenes from Sanskrit epic literature, such as the Ramayana. This panel of a hunter with matted locks may be representing the god Shiva.

The Ramayana narrates the adventures of prince Rama, who was banned from the kingdon of Ayodhya after a successful plot against him. Later, his wife Sita was abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. This ivory figure of Ravana once carried a different weapon in each of his many hands, almost all of them have now sadly been lost.

Decorated wooden chariots for parading bronze images of the gods through the streets at festival time are a feature of south Indian Hindu tradition. These two panels (above) come from the lower part of such a wooden chariot, mostly likely attached to a Shiva temple.

Continuing the Shiva theme, next is a stone sculpture depicting Shiva as Bhairava.

Shiva is the one of the most popular Hindu gods, and also one of the most complex. He has many names and takes many forms, including Bhairava (‘terrible’) as depicted above. Here we can see Shiva with wild matted hair, holding a sword, two-headed drum, a severed head, a skull cup, and a trident.

The final objects in this Hindu section are clay figures of Balabhadra and Subhadra, the brother and sister of Jagannatha. These figures may have once been clothed in vibrant fabrics, with their pillar-like bodies, large eyes and stumps for hands suggesting their tribal origins in tree worship. They were later adopted as Hindu deities by the eastern Ganga dynasty (1077 – 1435 C.E.). These may have once been souvenirs by pilgrims after a visit to Puri, and later worshipped at home.

Jain

Artifacts from the Jain religion are perhaps a little under-represented at the British Museum, but there are a couple of standout pieces to document.

I don’t think anyone could be failed to be impressed by this stone sculpture of the Tirthankara Chandraprabhu. An inscription on the base of the sculpture identifies the seated nude figure as Chandraprabhu. He was the eighth Jain Tirthankara (‘ford maker’), with the shrivatsa symbol on his chest identifying him as a Tirthankara. When this sculpture was made, the Digambara (‘sky clad’) Jain sect were the most prominent Jain community in the Deccan region.

The next inscribed sculpture (left) depicts a central Tirthankara (enlightened teacher) flanked by his yaksha and yakshi nature spirit attendants, surrounded by other Tirthankaras. Early rulers of the Hoysala dynasty (1006 – 1346 C.E.), whose kingdom centered on Karnataka, followed the Jain religion. King Vishnuvardhana (ruled 1108 – 1142 C.E.) was the first Hoysala ruler to convert from Jainism to Vaishnavism, a branch of Hinuism. From this period onwards patronage of the Jain religion declined in the southern Deccan.

On the right (above) is an image of Parshvanatha, the penultimate of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras who is believed to have been a real historical figure. Tirthankaras are always depicted seated or standing in meditation, and can be identified by their emblems. In the above example, Parshvanatha’s emblem is the snake, which forms a canopy over his head. His attendants, Dharanendra and Padmavati, sit by his knees. The triple parasol above him and the fly whisk bearers both indicate his spiritual sovereignty.

Buddhist

Opening the Buddhist section of the gallery is a lion capital from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. An inscription in Prakrit is written in the ancient Kharoshthi script around the bodies of the two lions. It records the donation of a monastery and Buddha relic by Yasi Kamui, the main wife of Rajuvula, the Indo-Scythian Great Governor. The inscription also records a gift of land by Sodasa, Rajuvula’s son. This capital was discovered in 1869 by Bhagwanlal Indraji.

The next artifact is a small fragment of an Ashoka pillar. Ashoka ruled the vast Maurya Empire between about 268 and 232 C.E. He issued edicts about dharma (living a moral life), which were inscribed on rocks and pillars near trade routes and religious or administrative centres across South Asia. This fragment of an Ashokan edict is written in Prakrit, an everyday language, using Brahmi script, the ancestor of all modern Indian scripts.

The sandstone Ashokan pillars were monolithic. Some were erected close to important Buddhist sites, including Sanchi and Sarnath. They were topped with capitals carved with a lotus petal base supporting an animal, such as a lion or elephant. When India became a republic in 1950, the four lion capital from Sarnath was adopted as the state emblem. That specific lion capital can be seen today at the Archaeological Museum in Sarnath.

I have visited a number of sites that have an Ashokan edict written on a rock or pillar, thus far my travels have taken me to examples in Sanchi, Sarnath, Delhi, Feroz Shah Kotla (also Delhi) and Dhauli. This particular fragment comes from the third example now in Delhi, which was originally erected at Meerut in Uttar Pradesh but was moved in the 14th century to the capital by Feroz Shah Tughlaq. The pillar was damaged in an explosion during the rule of Farrukshiar (1713–19), and whilst it has largely been pieced back together and re-erected in Delhi, some fragments of the pillar have ended up in museums around the world.

The next artifacts are a collection of terracotta figures from the Ganges Valley.

In about 300 B.C.E, moulding technology was first used to produce terracotta figures in the Ganges Valley. While faces were often moulded, bodies continued to be handmade. The female figures have broad hips and wear large discs on their heads. The male figures display characteristic turban-like knots of hair.

The next two artifacts takes us back to the time when the Emperor Ashoka was erecting stupas all over the India. On the left is a sandstone architectural bracket in the form of a Shalabhanjika Yakshi, which most likely adorned one of the four gateways of the Great Stupa at Sanchi. This example was probably carved during the later Satavahana dynasty.

Alongside this is another sculpture of a Yakshi, this example is thought to have come from a stupa railing at the Buddhist stupa at Goli. This Yakshi holds a cluster of lotuses in her raised hand and arrows project from her hair. The exact meaning of this imagery remains unknown.

The next few sculptures were yet more standout highlights from my visit to the museum.

This statue may have occupied a niche in a stupa courtyard. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was born with the 32 characteristics of a great man, some of which are expressed here. For example, the dot between his eyes (urna), signifies spiritual wisdom. The base of the sculpture shows a seated Bodhisattva flanked by worshipping monks (left), and the couple who donated this sculpture to the monastery (right).

The next two sculptures are full length images of Buddha, but from very different time periods highlighting the changes in iconography. On the left is a relatively early example from Gandhara, there are some very similar (and more impressive in my opinion) examples in the National Museum in Delhi. On the right is a later period carving from Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh.

The next sculpture depicts a bodhisattva, a being on the threshold of attaining enlightenment who chooses to delay becoming a Buddha in order to help others on their path. This image is thought to be Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. It is believed that Maitreya currently resides in Tushita, the fourth heaven where bodhisattvas spend their penultimate lives. When the Buddha’s teachings have been forgotten, Maitreya will come to earth and teach them anew. Bodhisattvas are often depicted wearing royal clothing, in stark contrast to Buddha’s simple robes. Typically Maitreya is shown carrying a water pot in his left hand, which in this example (not on the photograph) is missing.

The next sculpture also comes from the same region and time period (left), and depicts Hariti. She was a demoness who fed her many children with other parents children. To show her how great the parents suffering was, the Buddha briefly hid one of Hariti’s own children under his rice bowl. She was so distraught at this sight, that she vowed henceforth to protect all children and women in childbirth.

Next to Hariti is another carving of Buddha, again from Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh. After attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, the Buddha travelled to the deer park at Sarnath, near Varanasi, where he gave his first sermon to his first five disciples. Sarnath became an important monastic and pilgrimage centre, where the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (268 – 232 B.C.E.) erected an inscribed pillar with a lion capital, and further additions were made to the site through the centuries. This sandstone sculpture shows Buddha seated on a throne flanked by lions. His hands are held in the gesture of teaching (Dharmachakra Mudra).

Early portrayals of the Buddha took the form of symbols, including an empty throne shaded by a parasol, a dharma wheel, and footprints. He was first depicted in human form in the 1st century C.E, a change in iconography that appears to have occurred almost simultaneously in both Gandhara and Mathura.

The next artifacts come from a reliquary deposit that was discovered at the Bimaran Stupa site in Afganistan.

This gold reliquary casket shows early portraits of Buddha. He is flanked by the gods Brahma and Indra. The casket may once have functioned as a display reliquary before it was encased in a stone reliquary inscribed with the donors name, Shivarakshita. It contained gold fragments and many beads of different materials. Coins issued by the Indo-Scythian governor Mujatria (circa 80 – 90 C.E.) were placed in the cell containing the relic deposit.

The next two small artifacts are examples of terracotta demon figures.

These demonic male figures baring their teeth are holding an animal, which may be a ram. Figures like these were made and used over hundreds of years which makes dating them very difficult. Their distribution seems to be mostly centered around Gandhara and Mathura. It remains a mystery as to what purpose these terracotta images served, we don’t even know if they were used in a religious or secular context.

The final set of artifacts are believed to have come from Buddhist sites at Ushkur (vale of Kashmir) or Akhnur (to the south, near Jammu). Note how there is more expression of emotion on the faces compared to works from the earlier Gandhara tradition.

That concludes my small virtual tour of some of the Indian artifacts in the Asian Gallery at the British Museum.

I was a little surprised as to how little from India there is on display in the museum. I don’t know if this is because of the sensitive nature of displaying objects far away from their origin (knowing the British Museum I think that’s unlikely), or whether this does represent a lack of such artifacts in their collection.

I would prefer not to dwell on the endless discussion as to how these artifacts ended up in the British Museum, and I am sympathetic to the calls for these items to be returned to their homeland. But I also have different perspective to consider. There are over 1.5 million Indians living in the UK, accounting for 2.5% of the population. Some will perhaps never have the opportunity to visit heritage sites and museums in their homeland, so this relatively small collection in the British Museum does at least offer them the opportunity to experience their own heritage in the country they have chosen to settle in.

The British Museum is (usually) open Monday to Sunday, 10.00–17.00 (last entry at 15.30).
Entrance to the main galleries is free.


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3 replies »

  1. Sir, what about the Buddhist sculptures at the British Museum? We are looking forward to see the Buddhist artifacts. Regards Basanta Bidari Lumbini

    Liked by 1 person

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