Memoirs of a museum: a breeze through antiques

World of wonders: The Indian Museum in Kolkata, which is nearly 200 years old, houses over 10,000 artefacts.  

A massive stone coffer in the courtyard of the Indian Museum in Kolkata is unlikely to catch the attention of passing visitors, heading for the display galleries. But the coffer is one of the greatest treasures of the 200-year-old museum, with the tale of its discovery and contents weaving together history and myth.

The massive coffer with small, numinous jewels and a relic casket within were discovered during an excavation at the Piprahwa stupa in 1898 by a British landowner William Claxton Peppé in the eponymous village, just south of the Indo-Nepal border. While reporting on the discovery the same year, the British Indologist and administrator Vincent Smith wrote in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society that the “Sakyas of Kapilavastu, as the relatives of the Buddha, had obtained a share of the Buddha’s relics at the time of his cremation. Therefore, it was possible that the Sakya clan erected the Piprahwa Stupa soon after the death of the Buddha”.

The British government decided that the relics, with the bones and ashes, would be given to the King of Siam (modern day Thailand), the only Buddhist monarch then, as a diplomatic gesture.

Crystal caske recovered by Peppe.

Crystal caske recovered by Peppe.  


However, the original stone coffer and relic casket were handed over to Dr. Bloch, the Superintendent of the Indian Museum. It was almost a hundred years later in 1994 that the Indian Museum got these artefacts when the National Museum in New Delhi agreed to give a part of its collection from the Piprahwa excavation to the Indian Museum as a permanent loan. The loan included further relics found at the same site during an excavation between 1971 and 1974 by ASI archaeologist K.M. Srivastava.

The stupa that stayed

But the Piprahwa coffer is not the only one with a fascinating history. The stories around the country’s greatest Buddhist treasures housed in the Indian Museum are no less fascinating. The Bharhut Stupa, excavated in 1873, which the Raja of Nagod had presented to the Empire, would have landed in the British Museum in London had Alexander Cunningham, who was behind the discovery, not insisted that the Stupa should not be consigned to the vaults in London where they would be ‘unseen, uncared for and unknown’.

And there is the mummy, housed in the Egyptian Gallery, which took almost 49 years to reach the museum and find a mention in its 1883 catalogue after Lieutenant E. C. Archbold wrote to the Asiatic Society on July 5, 1834 telling them of his discovery of a mummy in the tombs at ‘Gourvah’ (‘Gourna’ or ‘Kurna’). Lieutenant Archbold notes that he could not carry the mummy on the ship he sailing in as the ‘Mahommedan seamen’ would not allow it on board.

Relic casket.

Relic casket.  


The stories behind the collection at the Indian Museum and the efforts of various people involved with the institution over the years have now been put together in a book — The Lives of Objects: Stories from the Indian Museum — by Indira Chowdhury, founder and director of the Centre for Public History, Bengaluru.

Dr. Chowdhury led a team of experts to compile the 312-page volume from museum records, archives of the Asiatic Society which founded the museum in 1814, other publications and documents and anecdotes from those who worked at the institution for over two centuries.

Dr. Chowdhury underscores that the book is not only about the collection but also about the people behind the great institution. “What is interesting about the book is that we have included oral history excerpts from people who have worked on the museum,” she said.

The book records history from entries in the visitors’ book — that social reformer and leading figure of the Bengal rennaicsance Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who had gone to the Asiatic Society Museum on January 28, 1874 with noted Hindi poet and author Bhartendu Harishchandra, was turned away for wearing ‘native shoes’.

And quotes Mark Twain as having written after his visit in 1895 that the museum’s antiquities were ‘unusual, strange and exotic’ and that ‘One should spend a month at the museum’ — this ‘enchanted palace of Indian antiquities’. He later changed that to six months, writing, “Indeed, a person may spend half a year among the beautiful and wonderful things without exhausting their interest”.

Mystic’s musings

For the mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the objects in the fossil gallery became a metaphor for the transformation of the self. He is recorded to have said, ‘I saw that bricks had turned into stone and living animals too have turned into stone. Look what can happen as a result of the company you keep! If you associate with the wise, you too will become wise.’

Memoirs of a museum: a breeze through antiques

The book also chronicles the history of the institution, the idea for which came from a letter written by Nathaniel Wallich, a Danish surgeon and botanist, on February 2, 1814 to the Asiatic Society. Dr. Wallich proposed the creation of a museum and volunteered to be its first curator. The institution has grown from a modest collection of 174 items to house over ten thousand antiquities now.

As the collection grew, the unpretentious building of the Asiatic Society soon became inadequate. The museum then moved to its present premises on Chowringhee Road, which was handed over to the museum authorities under the terms of Indian Museum Act of 1866. The site was earlier occupied by St. Paul’s School, which moved to Darjeeling in 1863.

The book records that A. K. Bhattacharyya joined the museum in 1949 after Shamsuddin Ahmed, Superintendent of Archaeology, left following Partition. In 1965, Mr. Bhattacharyya became the director of the museum.

“The book also contains an interview with Munira Khatoon, one of the few women who became curator of the archaeological sections. She was recently honoured for being the woman who could read the inscriptions,” Dr Chowdhury said.

Oldest museum

“These stories are an integral part of Indian history and give an inside view of how the museum works. The Indian Museum is the oldest museum outside Europe and the first and the largest encyclopedic museum in the whole of the Indian sub-continent,” Director-in-charge Jayanta Sengupta said.

Dr. Sengupta describes the publication as ambitious in its scope, seeking to combine an academic approach to the institutional history of the country’s first truly ‘national’ museum while situating it in the broader context of the political and intellectual history of colonial and post-colonial India.

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 8:59:20 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/memoirs-of-a-museum-a-breeze-through-antiques/article19481909.ece

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