History & Culture

Amaravati sculptures - a colonial voyage


HYDERABAD: The much acclaimed Amaravati sculptures, commonly called Amaravati collections or Amaravati marbles, is a series of nearly 120 exquisite sculptures and inscriptions collected from the ancient Amaravati site near Guntur and aesthetically displayed in British Museum, London. The Amaravati sculptures in British museum are also known as ‘Elliot Marbles’, on account of their association with Sir Walter Elliot, who caused their excavation in 1840s. The Amaravati sculptures are highly figurative in relief with several crowded scenes illustrating the Buddhist Jataka tales. The displayed sculptures are of several categories like ‘toranams’, gateways, pillars, cross bars, copings, drum panels, guardian lions, and several miscellaneous pieces that reflect the rich Buddhist cultural heritage.

The earliest explorations at Amaravati were conducted by Col. Colin Mackenzie, then employed in the British army and who first visited the site in 1798.

Walter Elliot, like Colin Mackenzie was a Scottish civil servant who worked mostly in Madras Presidency. He undertook extensive excavations at Amaravati in 1845 and transported the excavated sculptures to Madras from Machilipatnam port. They were first placed in the lawn in front of the East India Company’s College in Fort St. George but later removed to the front of the Museum in Egmore for there was no space inside.

In 1853, Edward Belfour, the curator of the Madras museum wrote to Home authorities in London that Amaravati sculptures were exposed to elements and suggested that they deserve to be transported to England because of their artistic importance. Belfour got a series of drawings of the sculptures made by a local artist, Murugesa Mudaliar. In order to give a better account of the sculptures, Belfour got them even photographed and sent to London. In 1859 the Court of Directors finally ordered for the transportation of Amaravati sculptures to London. The sketches of Mudaliar are preserved in the British Library. In London the Amaravati sculptures were originally planned to be kept in the ‘India Museum’ which was founded in 1801 and contained natural history specimens, books, manuscripts and other items collected by Company officers in India.

But as the Amaravati sculptures arrived in London after the dissolution of the East India Company, they were taken to a private house owned by Grant Duff, the Earl of Fief. There was great enthusiasm among British art lovers when the Amaravati exhibits were opened to public in 1861. “You won’t see anything like this in India itself”, m any have commented. But conditions at Fief House were not ideal due to cramped space. James Ferguson, a renowned British art critic of the time, in his book on Amaravati sculptures in 1868 expressed grave concern for the sculptural pieces due to the humid conditions at Fief House, close to river, Thames.

Transfer to British Museum

There were several proposals made by other art enthusiasts too in England to transfer the India museum collections to the British Museum. In 1869 the India Museum was clubbed with the newly created “India Office”. The Amaravati sculptures were sent to India Office stores as there was no space at its office. The rest of artefacts at the museum were sent to South Kensington museum, renamed later as Victoria & Albert Museum. In 1880, it was decided that the Amaravati Sculptures to be transferred to British Museum.When the sculptures arrived at the British Museum, they were displayed near the main staircase area. During World War II, they were removed for safe keeping for fear of German bombings. In 1959, the sculptures were brought back to an enclosure in the basement where they continued for nearly 30 years. In 1992, a separate room, (No. 33A) was earmarked for the Amaravati Sculptures.

The Amaravati Man

Sir Walter Elliot, who excavated Amaravati sculptures was a multifaceted personality. He was an eminent Orientalist, linguist, naturalist and ethnologist. Born in Edinburgh in 1803, he joined the Madras Civil Service when young and worked his way to high positions. When his first cousin, Lord Elphinstone came to Madras as governor in 1836, Walter Elliot became his private secretary, the position he held up to 1842.

In 1845, Elliot was appointed to examine the revenues of Guntur District which was earlier hit by a severe famine and had not shown any signs of recovery. His investigative work in Guntur District was so impressive that the Court of Directors appointed him as the Commissioner of Northern Circars, a position he held till 1854 when he finally became a member of the Governor’s council.

It was during his posting to Guntur district that Walter Elliot took to excavation of the sculptural wealth at Amaravati and they were therefore called as “Elliot Marbles”, though the sculptures were of Lime stone and not marbles.

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