Six dedicated buildings that store extraordinary collections take visitors back to prehistoric times and bygone civilisations.
Five children pose next to the tyrannosaurus rex and the stegosaurus, outside the Children’s Museum in Egmore. It’s high noon, and the sun beats down from a cloudless sky, but the children are too excited to care. “They’ve studied about dinosaurs, and they wanted to see them,” says Sumathi, mother of two, and aunt of three, before the family walks into the museum.
The Children’s Museum is one of six dedicated buildings that are spread over 16.25 acres in the heart of Chennai and house extraordinary collections. Established in 1851, it is India’s second oldest museum. I walk in with two sisters, both wearing identical yellow T-shirts. They’re fascinated by the display of dolls, all wearing traditional costumes, and placed in front of backgrounds that reflect their region. “Look at this mummy,” one calls out standing before Japanese dolls, but the mother drags them to see the Phoenician civilisation.
Next to the Children’s Museum is building no. 5, the National Art Gallery. The interiors are out of bounds to visitors, but it’s a treat to go around the sumptuous building. Opened in 1909 (it originally housed the Victoria Technical Institute) this Mughal-inspired sandstone building contained an impressive art collection, until it was closed, some years back, for renovation. But that does not stop three generations of women from posing for a picture, with the art gallery as the backdrop. And if they frame and hang it in their living room, someone, surely, will ask ‘Agra?’
Behind the Children’s Museum, swings creak in the huge play area, filled with happy, holidaying children; sweepers press brooms into service to shift the leaf litter. Just round the bend is building no. 3, filled with priceless Chola bronzes. All the statues displayed in the museum were found as treasures, and the most impressive, perhaps is the 11th-Century Ardhanareeswarar, from Nagapattinam, displayed on a revolving base. Slender and slim-waisted on the left (Parvati) and strong-shouldered and straight-limbed on the right (Shiva), the idol is a stunning example of Chola craftsmanship. Beside me, two little girls carefully observe the statue; the younger one then asks her sister, “Yen saami suthudhu?”
The ground floor of the bronze gallery is given over to Saivite bronzes; among them are Ayyanars, seated on elephants; and the details — including the elephant’s garland of bells and the Ayyanar’s ruby-red ear-rings — are stunning. Going up the wood-panelled staircase, I reach the mezzanine floor, with the display of 10 remarkably carved Natarajas to the left, and Jain and Buddhist statues on the right. And in the top most floor, the gallery is done up temple-style, and houses Vaishnavite statues. I stand, spellbound, in front of the fierce, eight-handed Narasimhar; holding down Hiranyakashibu, his finger nails ripping his abdomen, wearing the gut as a garland, while two hands hold the shankha and chakra. All the idols on display were, at one time, worshipped; and they were discarded/ buried either because they were damaged or to protect them during invasions.
Walking outside the bronze galleries, I join a group of tourists and head towards building no 1. The men, women and children have freshly-shaven heads, and they walk briskly, and converse rapidly in Telugu. The building — among the older ones in the museum — contains sculptures as well as the biology galleries. The lower jawbone of the Indian whale, about 10feet tall, stands guard to the huge doors of the zoology gallery. All around are exhibits that will interest the old and the young — a freak 8-limbed embryo of a pig, a comparative study of the skulls of elephant, horse and man (the human skull is pitiably small); and overhead, the enormous skeleton of a whale, whose rib-cage alone can serve a living room for a family of four.
The zoology section is, understandably, very popular with families. “It’s locally called setha college and thousands visit in the holidays, and now, particularly to see the new, moving dinosaur,” a guard tells me. I walk in again, to see the crowd-puller; but the huge T-rex stands still. “Why are there flowers at its feet?” a girl asks, pointing to the leaves and grass around it. “To create scenery,” the father explains. While they walk away to admire gemstones (“daddy, let’s buy this rose-quartz for mummy!”) the guard flicks a switch, which sets the dinosaur growling.
Suddenly the high-ceilinged hall is filled with primeval roars; people come running, children burst out crying, adults whip out cameras, and everybody watches fascinated while T-Rex blinks its eye, opens its mouth and waves its tail, gripping us for three whole minutes. And when it’s over, young Aftab and Imran, who struck karate poses while it growled, confess they were actually very scared. “It looked so real!” they laugh and run after their family.
This story has been edited for clarity.