Buddha's nirvana in college of the dead

by P Anantha Krishnan, The Pioneer, July 1, 2007

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arm, birds in trees...
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

Thus lamented Yeats. We all know ours is no country for old men. It is no country for old monuments either. Here both young and old conspire to neglect monuments that have survived countless centuries. The prime example of this is our criminal neglect of the Amaravati Collection.

Amaravati is now a seedy little town in Andhra Pradesh, but its past glories are legendary. It was the location of the greatest stupa ever built in our country, in the reign of Emperor Ashoka. The stupa, which contained relics connected with the life of Buddha and was venerated as the Mahacaitya, prospered for several centuries. But, when Huien Tsang visited the site in the seventh century, it had already started decaying. The decay continued and finally nothing was left except a huge mound. But to our great fortune, the mound was excavated and several sculptures and a stone railing that had once encircled the stupa were unearthed in 1798 by Col Mackenzie, the first Surveyor-General of India.

Mackenzie was not aware that the site was Buddhist. In fact, he speculated the remains were those of a Jain monument. Nevertheless, so enamoured was he with the uncommon brilliance of what he found that he visited the site repeatedly. Finally, in 1816, he arrived with a survey team and caused them to make drawings of 84 of the sculptures. An album of these amazing drawings, a priceless document for students of art, is available in the British Library. Its website has a fine reproduction of it.

The Amaravati collection is no ordinary collection. It is a rare treasure. It is as precious as the Elgin Marbles or the Rosetta Stone. It heralds a distinct school of Buddhist art and it is the earliest available significant sculptural evidence in the history of South India. At least three centuries separate Amaravati and Pallava Art, which is exemplified in Mahabalipuram.

The majority of the Amaravati pieces are housed in the British Museum in London and the Madras Museum, Chennai. The British Museum has a special gallery for them. The pieces are displayed in an elegant and imaginative manner, with lucid captions. The gallery is de-humidified and air-conditioned.

The Madras scene is different. In 1907, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) president HC Bumpus complained the average museum visitor "became quite lost in the maze of exhibited material, and losing alike both points of the compass and sequence of theme, drifts about a mental derelict." What he said of the visitor to the AMNH in 1907 may be true of you, if you happen to visit the Madras Museum in 2007.

The Madras Museum is pathetic. A museum has first to interest you and then to educate you. This museum does neither. It enrages you. Your rage reaches its apogee as you walk to the hall that displays the museum's pièces de résistance, the Amaravati Collection. The collection is sandwiched between "Hindu sculptures" and, believe it or not, "zoology".

There is a framed write-up on Amaravati on one of the sidewalls and you must crane your neck to read it. It will be clear to you on reading a few lines that it was written many years ago, probably when the sculptures were brought here. The displays are either without captions or with unintelligible ones written on paper pasted near them.

For instance, the one masterpiece that epitomises the collection is a sculpted replica of a typical stupa, bordered by ornate pillars with a spectacular frieze on top. The frieze brims over with images connected with the life of Buddha. There is Mara with his daughters. There is an empty throne, suggestive of Buddha, below the Bodhi tree, a medley of monks, laymen and women worshipping it. There is another empty throne on the right, its sides swamped by sleeping beauties leaning against myriad musical instruments. There are just three words in the caption to describe this splendour: "The Casing Slab". Yes, the casing slab.

The "Casing Slab" stands there, forlorn, without any casing or anyone to care for. You can touch it, smear it, chisel your name on it or simply break it. The fate of other pieces in the gallery is similar. It is a miracle that there is no major damage to any of them.

The popular Tamil word for 'museum' is Settha college, meaning, the 'college of the dead'. In this college, the sculptures are wonderfully alive. What is dead and decaying is its administration.
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