Egmore, located on the northern banks of Chennai's so called Cooum river (Considered as the the most polluted river of India) is one of the busiest neighbourhoods of the city. My three wheeler 'Autoriksha' keeps moving through unfamiliar small roads and lanes with one common factor. They are all jam packed with late morning traffic. Soon, I can see a board declaring that we are on Pantheon Road. I really do not know why this road has been given a Roman name but I am told that this is probably so because of the presence of a large estate known as Pantheon Complex, that once existed along this road. The Egmore Museum was one of the first notable monuments to be constructed in this Pantheon Complex in 1854. The Connemara Library, which still functions, was created as an annex housing the Museum's vast book collection and became operational in 1896. Many additions to the original museum building were constructed between 1864 and 1890.
The Autoriksha stops near the gate and I get down, directly in front of me, is a large complex consisting of several buildings. I buy entry tickets for my self and my camera, which requires an entrance fee of Rupees 200 against entrance fee of Rupees 10 for myself. There is cloak room nearby with lockers. You are not allowed to carry anything inside the museum. I slowly walk towards front building. A red coloured circular building with Pillars all around. The facade is superb and reminds of the federal parliament building in Delhi. A building on the left has a facade, reminiscent of a typical Mughal architecture structure, unbelievably grand. The grandeur of the front building looks completely spoiled because of a large billboard hung from two pillars. The billboard is in Tamil but I do recognize the smiling face of the chief minister. I can see number of old cannons used in historical wars all along the perimeter of the main building.
In a typical bureaucratic way, the grand front entrance to the front building is locked and sealed. The building carries only a small section on Indus civilization, which can be approached from a small gate at the rear and which mainly consists of replicas of original objects, displayed in National museum New Delhi and another wing, which consists of some arms and guns displayed. The present day museum entrance is further to the right of the front building, but eventually leads to the main museum building, located right behind the front building (Reads highly confusing but it is not.) The facade of this building has a huge red coloured wall with white painted animal and birds on it, creating a garish kind of appearance. The entrance again has metal detectors and security guards, however things appear quite lax. There is a book shop right at the entrance and it leads to the Archeology wing, which is divided in number of individual wings with displays of Hindu Sculptures, Buddhist Sculptures, Jain Sculptures, Hero Stones, Memorial Stones, Sati Stone, Inscriptions and Copper plates, quite a mouthful I feel.
The facade near the entrance; bold and garish
I walk along a long corridor with many stone sculptures, adorning otherwise a drab corridor. At the end of the corridor is the wing that displays the Hindu sculptures. I walk through and the next wing consists of Buddhist sculpture displays. In this wing, there is a separate enclosure made with polished wooden panelling. This enclosure consists the Amravati Stones. I have come all the way really to seen them.
There is an interesting bit of history, how these stones finally landed in this museum. I quote from the museum handouts.
“The collection of the early Buddhist sculptures includes the large group of sculptures received from the ruined stupa at Amaravati in the Krishna valley in the Andhra country wherein an excavation was conducted in the 1801 and later. Colonel.Colin Mackenzie of the Trigonometrical Survey of India first heard of the mound in the area and visited the site and found it was very interesting as it had specimens of early Christian era art. Then he drew sketches of the site and left. Later in 1830 some of the sculptured slabs were brought to Masulipatnam to beautify a square named after Robertson, the District Collector. During the course of his visit to this place in 1835, Sir Frederick Adam, Governor of Madras, saw the slabs and ordered that these to be sent to Madras for preservation in the Museum of the Madras Literary Society. Dr.Balfour, soon after taking charge of the Madras Central Museum, began his efforts in getting the aforesaid slabs and the first batch arrived here in 1856. Other batches of sculptures were secured during Dr.Bidie's time and they were set up in their present location in the Museum. On the question of the arrangement and display of these Amaravati marbles in the Madras Museum in 1884-85, Dr.Bidie had to cross swords with no less a person than Burgess of the Archaeological Department of the Government of India, but while the distinguished archaeologist demonstrated more of dogmatism and heat, Dr.Bidie showed himself that he was the master of the situation and what he did was only practicable way of dealing with the sculptures.”
Departure of the Buddha( shown symbolically by a horse without a rider) from Kapilavastu
I feel like thanking Dr. Bidie, because only his efforts had made the marble slabs removed from grand Stupa at Amaravati, remain at Chennai and we can see them even today. There was every possibility otherwise that these would have been sent to England as was done with a few others. (Actually the number is not a few but a huge quantity of 121)
So how did the great Stupa looked like? Just like the Taj Mahal, it could be described as a poetry in marble. Standing tall, this ninety feet high marble-encased cupola surmounted by big stone umbrellas, the series of tall slender marble columns on the platforms marking four cardinal points, the four festooned gateways flanked by lion-topped columns and the fourteen feet high, sculptured railing round the stupa, all of which, together, must have been a sight of glory! The Stupa perhaps was the biggest symbol of the grandeur and wealth of the Satavahana empire.
The sculpturing around the central cupola and the fourteen feet high railing were done in four periods that can be roughly put in a time span as Period I - 200 to 100 BC; Period II - 100 AD; Period III - 150 AD and Period IV - 200 to 250 AD. This means that it covers both the Hinayana and Mahayana periods and that is why, images of Buddha appear only at certain places, probably sculptured during Mahayana phase.
A king on his throne
Museum had arranged the display of Amaravati stones rather well, There are number of glass enclosed show cases on pedestals as well as those mounted on the walls. There is also a huge partition that touches the sealing, with number of open gaps. Many of the smaller stones have been displayed in these open gaps.
Looking at the exhibits from the entrance, I feel sad because such a fabulous monument was destroyed by the over enthusiastic British officers, keen of excavating the stones and sending them to other places instead of rebuilding the Stupa to its past glory. It could have been as glorious a monument as Taj Mahal is considered today.
I heave a sigh and start walking towards the first exhibit.
25th July 2014