Indian Artifacts at the Ashmolean Museum

Indian Artifacts at the Ashmolean Museum – Oxford

A couple of years ago I paid a visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, primarily to see an exhibition on Roman Britain which contained some artifacts from Silchester Roman Town, a site I have been involved in excavating for the last 22 years. It was quite a humbling experience to be reunited with artifacts that I can clearly recall being discovered in the trenches, only now they are a lot cleaner with the post-excavation research shedding new light on how life was like in a Roman town 2,000 years ago.

Naturally, I also took the opportunity to tour around the gallery containing artifacts from India. My lack of travel this year due to the global pandemic situation has finally given me the opportunity to review the photographs I took, and present them here.

The Ashmolean came into existence in 1682, when the wealthy antiquary Elias Ashmole gifted his collection to the University of Oxford. It opened just a year later in 1683, as Britain’s first public museum and the world’s first university museum. The collection has of course evolved considerably, recognizing that knowledge of humanity across cultures and time is important to society. Of course, the uncomfortable truth attached to many of the exhibits here is that much of the collection was inevitably selected and obtained as a result of colonial power.

The collection of objects from the Indian subcontinent (modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) was started in 1686, when Sir William Hedges of the East India Company presented to the newly founded museum a fine stone sculpture of Vishnu which he had obtained in Bengal. This was the first example of an Indian sculpture to enter any Western museum collection, and can be seen later in this article. Today the collection is the most comprehensive of its kind in Britain outside London.

What follows is a short virtual tour of some of the highlights from the gallery containing Indian artifacts. These are not in any particular order, but is a fair representation of what there is to see in the museum. I also recently wrote a similar article on the Indian artifacts at the British Museum, which may be of interest.

Please click on any of the images to view them in a larger format.

Tirumankai Alvar
1400 – 1500 C.E.
Tamil Nadu


Formerly a warrior and robber before he devoted himself to Vishnu, this famous Tamil poet-saint is depicted holding a sword and a shield.

Votive Stupa
1000 – 1200 C.E.
Bodhgaya, Bihar


Votive Stupas were erected in great numbers by Buddhist monks or laymen around the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya and other sacred sites. Niches containing Buddha images on each side are enclosed by multiple rows of Buddhas.


Shiva Nataraja
1450 – 1500 C.E.
Vijayanagar, Karnataka

Encircled by flames, Shiva as a cosmic dancer dances the universe into being, sustains it with his rhythm, and dances it back into annihilation. He holds a hand drum and a flame in his upper hands. This lower hands make the fear-dispelling gesture and point to his raised foot, the worship of which leads to salvation. This other foot bears down on the dwarf Apasmara who represents maya, or illusion.


Head of Vishnu
950 – 1050 C.E.
Khajuraho region, Madhya Pradesh

Tirthankara
1000 – 1100 C.E.
Madhya Pradesh


Flanked by attendants, this Jina or Tirthankara stands in meditation in the ‘body abandonment’ (Kayotsaega) posture, his arms hanging by his sides


Varaha
Circa 900 C.E.
Madhya Pradesh


Vigorous traditions of temple structure flourished in India from the early centuries C.E. Here, in a Hindu creation myth, the god Vishnu takes the form of a boar to rescue the Earth goddess (Bhudevi) from the depths of the primordial waters. Bhudevi stands to the right of the boar’s head, and a serpent-goddess appears in front.


Shiva and Parvati
1000 – 1050 C.E.
Madhya Pradesh


Shiva Maheshvara (the ‘great god’) embraces his consort Uma or Parvati. Ganesha, the bull Nandi, the ascetic Bhringi and Uma’s lion all appear below.

Narasimha
1400 – 1500 C.E.
Chamba, Himachal Pradesh


Narasimha, the man-lion avatar of Vishnu, slays the demon Hiranyakashipu by disembowelling him.


Ceiling boss with flying warriors
750 – 850 C.E.
Southern Rajasthan


This central boss from a temple ceiling contains a circle of eight interlinked warriors. They may be vidyadharas (bearers of knowledge), spirits of the air who wield the sword which cuts through spiritual ignorance.


Vishu with attendants
1000 – 1100 C.E.
West Bengal


The four-armed god holds his attributes, the mace, discus, and conch, and with his fourth hand he makes the gesture of beneficence (varada). The various incarnations of Vishnu appear in the small scenes above the two attendants.

Siddha
1000 – 1100 C.E.
Uttar Pradesh


The goddess Siddha, a form of Gauri, holds lotus blossoms in her upper hands. She is associated with the iguana, seen on the base below her feet.


The Buddha
1000 – 1100 C.E.
Bodhgaya, Bihar


The Buddha, flanked by attendant Buddhas, makes the earth-touching gesture.

Head of Shiva
900 – 1000 C.E.
Kashmir


Shiva appears as the divine ascetic, with the third eye of yogic insight, and his long hair tied with a band.


Parvati
1000 – 1100 C.E.
Chamba, Himanchal Pradesh


A bronze processional mask of Parvati, the consort of Shiva, to adorn a portable shrine during religious festivals.


The planetary deities
1000 – 1200 C.E.
Eastern India


Images of the nine planetary deities (navagraha) often appear on door lintels of north Indian temples, to protect the shrine and its visitors from evil influences. The deities comprise of the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as Rahu and Ketu who control the solar and lunar eclipses.


Buddha beneath the Bodhi Tree
850 – 950 C.E.
Bodhgaya, Bihar


The Buddha stands in a sinuous, flexed position beneath the Bodhi tree (pipal or ficus religiosa), beneath which he had attained enlightenment.

Parvati
Circa 950 C.E.
Tamil Nadu


This bronze Parvati, the consort of Shiva, holds her right hand in the katakahasta gesture, for the insertion of a bud or blossom.


Bodhisattva
900 – 1100 C.E.
Bihar or Bengal


The Bodhisattva wears a crown and makes the earth-touching gesture with his right hand.

Vishnu and Lakshmi
1495 C.E.
Southern Rajasthan


Narayana, a form of Vishnu, embraces his consort Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. The man-bird Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, appears below them.


Vishnu in a lotus
1100 – 1200 C.E.
Eastern India


Vishnu sits holding a lotus and other attributes at the centre of a movable bronze lotus with eight hinged petals (of which seven survive). Each petal bears an image of one of his incarnations.


Wrestlers
650 – 750 C.E.
Rajaona, Bihar


This relief carving of wrestlers, perhaps depicting Krishna’s victorious combat with the wrestler Chanura, originally formed part of a temple pillar. At auspicious kirttimukha (face of glory) appears below.

Vishnu
Circa 1050 C.E.
Sagar Island, West Bengal


Vishnu holds a mace, discus and conch, while his lower right hand (with lotus blossom in the palm) makes the boon-giving gesture. Sir William Hedges of the East India Company presented this piece to the museum in 1686, it is the first example of an Indian sculpture to enter any Western museum collection


Yogini
1650 – 1750 C.E.
Rajasthan or Gujarat


Large yogini or goddess heads of this kind were installed as finial pieces about the supper sections of a temple tower (shikhara).

Bhairava
Circa 1000 C.E.
Eastern India


This bronze Bhairava (the Terrible) is a wrathful form of Shiva and a powerful guardian deity.


Kurma
1801 C.E.
Gujarat or Mumbai


Kurma, the second avatar of Vishnu, is associated with a creation myth in which the gods and demons churned the primordial ocean to create amrita, the nectar of immortality, using the tortoise as a support for their churning rod.

Shiva Linga
1700 – 1800 C.E.
Maharashtra


The enshrined linga, bearing Shiva’s face, is protected by a cobra with a flared hood.


The goddess Ganga
Early 1900s C.E.
North India

Gouache on paper, this image of the goddess Ganga is the personification of the River Ganges.


Buddha in the Mahabodhi temple
1000 – 1200 C.E.
Eastern India


Shown within the temple, surrounded by stupas, the Buddha makes the gesture of touching the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment.

Dancing Balakrishna
1500 – 1600 C.E.
Odisha


This bronze depicts the infant Krishna dancing holding a ball of butter stolen from his foster mother Yashoda.


Samvara and Vajravarahi
1100 – 1200 C.E.
Eastern India


Samvara, a four-headed and twelve-armed tantric Buddhist deity, holds his consort Vajravarahiin a close embrace.

Narasimha slays Hiranyakashipu
Circa 600 C.E.
Kashmir


Stone carving of Narasimha slaying the demon king Hiranyakashipu.


Padmapani
Circa 700 C.E.
Himanchal Pradesh


Made from brass, Avalokiteshvara or Padmapani (he who holds the lotus), is seated in a pensive pose as he sorrows for the sufferings of sentient beings.

Shiva and Parvati
1700 – 1900 C.E.
Madha Pradesh


Also made from brass.


That concludes a mini tour of the Indian artifacts at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. For anyone with a love of Indian art and history, and with museums due to reopen after lockdown next month, this might be as close as we can get to the country for the foreseeable future.

The Ashmolean Museum is open every day 10am-5pm, and open until 8pm on the last Friday of the month. The quietest times for visiting are 10-11am and 4-5pm.


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KevinStandage1@gmail.com
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7 replies »

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    • Namaste Laxman. I don’t tend to share my mobile phone number, it can lead to unwelcome calls in the middle of the night ! If you need to contact me for any reason, this can be done via my blog or email address provided. Thanks,

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