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In Madras Museum, antique sculptures in neglect

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CRYING FOR ATTENTION: Some of the Amaravati sculptures without proper cover at Madras Museum in Chennai.
CRYING FOR ATTENTION: Some of the Amaravati sculptures without proper cover at Madras Museum in Chennai.

A. Srivathsan

A large slab depicting a Buddhist stupa is resting upside down

Other slabs lie on the floor, inadequately covered with plastic sheets, and leaning against sandbags

They have been removed from the walls because of the rising dampness

CHENNAI: Amaravati marbles, sculptures of great antiquity dating between 200 B.C and 250 A.D, has been the priced possession of the Madras Museum since 1854.

C. Sivaramamurti, renowned art historian and author of the first comprehensive catalogue of Amaravati sculptures, which was published in 1942, holds them as important as the Sanchi and Bharhut Buddhist sculptures.

The Amaravati sculptures are now lying on the floors of the sculpture gallery. One large slab depicting a Buddhist stupa and identified as belonging to the third century A.D is resting upside down, perilously against the brick wall.

On the floor lie other slabs inadequately covered with plastic sheets, and leaning against sandbags. On one of the slabs, a chipped portion of the Amaravati marbles is kept to pin down the plastic sheets.

The Amaravati gallery is under repair; the work has been going on for the past three months, says the security personnel. These sculptures were earlier cemented against the wall, not the best way of display. Now they have been removed, and the walls are under repair.

Balasubramanian, curator, Amaravati sculptures, told The Hindu that he had been working on these sculptures for the past 12 years, and the marbles had to be removed from the walls because of the rising dampness.

“Once the hall is repaired, the marbles will be restored to its pristine glory and displayed with standalone teakwood frames, independent from the wall.” At present, the removed panels are not stored in a safe place; instead they are lying immediately close to the hall.

Amaravati near Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, was an important Buddhist centre. In 1797, Colonel Colin Mackenzie heard about the remains of an ancient stupa and the sculpted marble panels, which were vandalised by the local king for hidden treasures.

In 1830, some of these marble slabs were taken to decorate a market square at Masulipatam. In 1835, Frederick Adam, the then Governor of Madras, ordered them to be brought over to Madras. It was not till 1854 that these marbles, along with the others excavated by Walter Elliot, Commissioner of Guntur, reached Madras.

In 1859, many of them were shipped to the British Museum, London. They were popularly known as Eliot marbles, after Walter Elliot. Later, some more sculptures were excavated from Amaravati and added to the Madras collection.

Eliot marbles were viewed as important as Elgin marbles that were shipped by Lord Elgin from Athens in the 19th century. However, for a while, the Amaravati marbles remained neglected in the British Museum and were brought to public notice by James Fergusson, an architecture historian, in 1867. Now these sculptures are displayed in a separate gallery in the British Museum.

The Elgin marbles are under dispute, with the Greek government asking the British Museum to return them to Athens.

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