Indian National Museum

The National Museum in New Delhi hosts a wide collection of items from India's vast past. This was my third time visiting the museum and like before the rickshaw driver had no idea where the place was and had to ask directions. It was quiet again, even on a Saturday, which leads me to wonder if Indians generally don't take much interest in the museum. This is quite unlike Japan, for example, where on a weekend the Tokyo National Museum is usually crowded.

Over the last few years I've started reading ancient Indian history and what strikes me is the lack of certainty about key points in India's past history. For instance, was Aśoka really Buddhist? What is the approximate date for the Arthaśāstra? Was the Gupta Dynasty intolerant of non-Vedic religious traditions? Was classical Indian astronomy largely learnt from Hellenic sources? Many of these questions are still debated. Ancient India before Muslim rule basically did not keep histories, which was quite unlike the Roman and Chinese worlds where great efforts were made in producing and reproducing histories of their respective civilizations. Scholars of ancient India see the travel accounts of Chinese pilgrims like Faxian (338-c423) and Xuanzang (602–664) as indispensable in reconstructing the history of India in those centuries, and these were just travel accounts written by foreigners.

Nevertheless, ancient India produced many works of art in durable materials like stone, which have survived the centuries and are on display in museums. I would like to show some of the photos I took at the museum. Please click the images for a larger view.

The Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 BCE) was the earlier civilization that existed before the authors of the Vedas arrived in India. They seem to have produced a script (the Indus Script), which remains undeciphered. In this image we see a seal with the script.

India's next major adoption of script and sculpture came in the Maurya Dynasty (322-185 BCE). Alexander the Great died in 323, and it is understood that many Persians fled his conquests, including artisans who found employment in the Maurya court. It was also in this period that the Brāhmī script, modelled on Aramaic or Phoenician, was used by Aśoka (304-232 BCE) for his edicts. It is notable that Megasthenes (350-290 BCE), a Greek who stayed in India, had remarked that writing did not exist in India. Quite possibly both writing and advanced sculpture techniques were introduced into India through Persia, though scholars might contest this. In any case, India was heavily influenced by both Persians and Greek in the centuries that followed Alexander's conquests, which is most explicit in the following piece.

This piece is dated to the second century CE and is from Gandhāra, a region which occupied what is now northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The Gāndhārī language, much like their art, reveals deep Hellenic influences. For instance, the word stratego is found in it:

bhrada vaga stratego puyaite viyayamitro ya avacaraya maduspasa bhaidata puyita

"brother, the Commander Vaga is honored, and Viyayamitra
( = Vijayamitra), [former] King of Avaca. (His) mother's sister,
Bhaidata (BhagTdatta?) is honored."

The artistic influences reveal a direct Hellenic genesis. It is generally thought that the first representations of the Buddha came as a result of Greek or Greek-influenced artists who possibly modelled the Buddha's image after Apollo. This piece to the left, a bodhisattva head, is from the third century CE, a mature period of sculpture.

The Buddhists were rather innovative in representing their holy figures. Orthodox proponents of the Vedas found the idea of representing their own divine figures as offensive and distasteful. It was only after the Buddhists started crafting such images and neo-Brahmanistic movements arose (those revolving around the Bhagavat Gita, Upaniṣads, and worshippers of Śiva or Viṣṇu) that Brahman society came to endorse iconography. On the left we see Lakṣmaṇa disfiguring Sūrpanakhā, a scene from the Rāmāyaṇa. It is from the Gupta Dynasty period (320 to 550 CE), fifth century CE. Uttar Pradesh.

The museum also has some relics of the Buddha himself. The Royal Thai government gave them to the India. They were contained in two capsules and date to the fifth or fourth centuries BCE. They are presently kept on display with a sign asking visitors not to make offerings. It would seem reasonable to have them in a temple somewhere, but given that these were bestowed upon a secular government, it might prove impossible to have them housed anywhere else.

Other exquisite pieces are on display such as this image of a young woman playing ball. It dates from the eleventh century. Throughout much of ancient India it seems men and women wore scant clothing while going bare chested. Given the heat of Indian summers this indeed would have made sense. I believe Buddhist monks and nuns would have been more modestly dressed than common folk given that, as a rule established in the Vinaya, they must wear several pieces of cloth and cover their chests.

Buddhist pieces also depict romantic scenes. The following from the Āyāga Frieze, which depicts scenes from the Buddha's life and from the Jātakas, shows an amorous couple (third century CE). This sort of thing is seen elsewhere, such as at Nālandā (see Dhammika Bhante's blog post here).

There are also pieces from Central Asia in the public collection. This piece is from the third to fourth centuries CE. It resembles a Greco-Roman fresco. Here we see the Buddha with a moustache, which is a common feature on images from Gandhāra. He is accompanied by six monks, one of which is on the right.

There are many superb late period (post-tenth century) pieces on display. In the lobby of the museum there is an image of Sarasvatī, the goddess of knowledge, music, arts and sciences. It dates to the twelfth century, Rajasthan.

The Jain tradition likewise produced many icons. This piece is of the twenty-second Jain Tīrthaṅkara, called Neminatha. It dates to the eleventh century CE, Rajasthan. It is perhaps easy to mistake Jain images as Buddhist. Generally, Jain saints are depicted bare chested with their genitals exposed, hence it is easy to differentiate them from clothed buddhas or bodhisattvas.

Finally, there are more relatively recent pieces of art on display. This one caught my eye. It is entitled "Rani Budhawati Hunting Tigers
Kotah, Rajasthan" (circa 1760-70).

The National Museum is Delhi is worth visiting if you have the opportunity to do so. Fortunately it is a museum which allows, for a fee, visitors to use their cameras to photograph anything they wish. It is located near India Gate between Rajpath and Janpath, so when visiting the core of New Delhi it is easy to access. Be sure to bring a friend.

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