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Treasures of India in Foreign Lands

Over the centuries, the treasures of India attracted invaders across the seas and continents. From the time of Alexander of Macedonia and Mahmud of Ghazni, these invaders came in wave after wave and carried away the precious articles housed in temples and palaces. Mahmud Ghazni not only ravaged the fabulous Som Nath Temple but made successive depredations to pillage the legendary wealth to the Brajeshwari Devi Temple in Kangra in 1009 carrying away gold, silver and jewels from this temple. Nadir Shah took away the Takht-e-Taoos (the Peacock Throne) which is still to be seen in Teheran. Eventually came the British who made a systematic and sustained endeavor to pillage and transport not only precious metals, gems and jewels but carpets, paintings, armour et al. The last to succumb to them was Maharaja Ranjit Singh whose kingdom extended from the Punjab to Central Asia and to Tibet. They took away, among all the other valuable pieces, his golden throne, a rare precious item depicting the grandeur of the great sovereign.

The Sikh Court was the centre of cultura, craft and artistic excellence of the days and showed the religiouis tolerance in which the Europeans, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims lived and worked together. The artifacts fabricated covered the gold decorated weapons of Lahore, the distinctive Kangra paintings of the Punjab Hills, the vividly coloured Jamawar shawls of Kashmir and other traditional arts that flourished at the time.

To celebrate the tercentenary of the Khalsa Panth founded by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, has put up a special exhibition of Sikh art. Among the gems on display, is the golden throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It looks like an oyster on a pedestal. Other exhibits include a miniature depicting the signing of the Bhairowal treaty in 1946, exquisite pashmina shawls belonging to the period of Ranjit Singh, gilded shelds lined with velvet and embroidered with silk from the 1830s and a five tiered Akali turban from Lahore from the same period.

The Royal Library at Windsor Castle is yet another vital source of knowledge of the Indian tradition of art and culture. There are some forty manuscripts housed in the Windsor Castle Library collected by George III or by Queen Victoria. The volume of manuscripts was presented to George III in 1799 through Lord Teignmouth, Governor General of India. The jewel among these manuscripts is the Padshahnama (History of the Emperor or Chronicle of the King of the World), a detailed text commissioned by Shahjehan in 1639and superbly illustrated. Only one copy seems to have survived. Paintings of the “highest caliber” illustrate the Mughal court splendour, the costumes, customs, and ceremonies of the time. The rare manuscript was lent for an exhibition mounted at the National Museum, New Delhi, in connection with the celebration of the fifty years of India’s Independence.

Thus it is to be seen how much of the artistic cultural heritage of India has been purloined by museums abroad and is now enshrined these for visitors to see and admire. The British have the richest collection perhaps housed in various museums and in the Royal Collections. Even the fabulous diamond, the Koh-I-noor (Mountain of Light) now the centre piece of the crown of the British sovereign was a possession of India.

American museums also have valuable Indian artifacts. An early American tourist in India, Frank G. Carpenter, provides examples of India’s exhibits taken abroad for the promotion of knowledge about India’s heritage. His fabulous collections are housed in the Library of Congress, Washington. These came to the Library of Congress in 1951 when Carpenter’s daughter Mrs. W. Chapan Huttington, presented the famous photographer’s file. There are 20,000 photographs depicting street scenes, cities, towns, people of different regions in native costumes, transport vehicles of various types, vendors and craftsmen at work in their own environment. These pictures and accounts depict the Indian scene in the last decades of the 19th and early 20th century.

Even earlier than Frank G. Carpenter, a journalist, traveller and author, there were Bayard Taylor and Reverend William Butter Taylor who visited India in 1853. His writings depicting landscapes, monuments and the people with their old civilization and culture were highly popular with the American people. Reverend William Butler wrote the “Land of the Vedas” in 1871 which carried many illustrations of the Indian panorama. Another distinguished American, Mark Twain, visited India in 1896 and was enchanted by the sounds and sights of India. He recorded “India is the only foreign land I ever daydream about or deeply long to see again”.

The American bi-monthly magazine SPAN issued in Delhi for the months of May/June 1999 carries an interesting article by Pran Neville who provides valuable source material for museum treasures that throw light on India’s ancient heritage, culture and her civilization.

American museums such as the Metropolitan in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington have extensive collections of Indian art, bronzes and textiles, too numerous to enumerate here. But the lesser known Museum of Art in Los Angles Country has some unusual sandstone sculptures from Madhya Pradesh from the stone gateways of the Great Stupa of Sanchi which was probably built in the fifth century after the death of the Buddha. The gateways were built later, about the time of the birth of Christ. There is also a Yakshi in red sandstone from Uttar Pradesh dating to about the first century AD. A standing Buddha in gilt bronze from north India is dated at approximately the 6th century. Many bronzes such as of Siva in his Nataraj (dance) form (10th century), Vishnu Chaturnama in bronze with copper and silver inlay is believed to be from Kashmir—c 800. There are also several miniature paintings both from the Mewar school and of Rama and Sita in the Rajput style from the Kulu school (1690-1700).

The vital contribution of Germany to illuminate India’s ancient heritage would be incomplete without expressing the paramount role played by the Indologist, Max Mueller (1823-1900). The pulsating civilization of India that had outlived those of the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans has now become the focus of organized study in some twenty Universities in Germany. Max Mueller’s monumental work the “Sacred Books of the East” was translated by him from Sanskrit into German. Collections of Indian scripts in German libraries, as for example in the Staatbibliothek in Berlin and the Bayerische Staatbiblioshek in Munich exist and large parts have been microfilmed. Besides Indian scripts, there are large collections of Indian heritage reflected in foreign museums.

The Museum fur Indische Kunst in Berlin-Dahlem has a very large collection of art objects collected in Eastern India which covers the Indian States of Bihar, West Bengal and what is now Bangladesh. The collection consists of a mixture of images made in stone and terra-cotta and architectural fragments and bronze images more recently acquired.

In 1857, the Museum fur Volkerkunde i.e. the Museum of Ethnology, was acquired from Hermann Ansorge who had lived in Calcutta. It has four decorative terra-cottas from the “ruins of a Hindu temple” which was built 400 years ago by the Raja of “Krishongor” in “Bollotpor” in homage to Lord Krishna. In early times it was a favourite site. The German ethnologist, Adolf Bastian was also the head of the ethnographic department.

The Linden Museum, Stuttgart, has a variety of Buddhas from the South, South East and Central Asia. The collection includes about 400 stones, clay and metal scriptures, frescoes, paintings and ritual objects. The selection shows the spread of Buddhism and its stages of development. It includes a Stupa, the most important Buddhist ritual symbol. The collection demonstrates the part played by the school of sculptors of Mathura in North India. The legend of the Buddha’s life is described in detail on the relief panels of the Stupas and the monasteries. These exhibits are intended to enable a human being to break the chain of sorrow which consists of cause and effect. It brings out that the teachings of the Buddha can satisfy the spiritual needs of the people in the present world of growing tensions, violence and economic lure. The coming turn of the millennium encourages many people to cast their eyes into the past, project their thoughts into the future and hope for better times. Although this collection is from other Asian countries, the epicenter was India from whence Buddhism took birth and spread into other countries and the Mathura School of Sculpture is the direct inspiration.

Several Museums in Germany from Hamburg in the north to Munich in the southern part have valuable collections of Indian art. An interesting museum is the one dedicated to playing cards only. This museum, the Deutsches Spielkartenmuseum, is located in Leinfelden-Echterdingen and has a fine collection of Indian playing cards.

Indian artifacts of South Indian lie in the collection of Franckesche Stiftungen. Toe knob wooden sandals with iron nails of an ascetic, a portable shrine of Vishnu with depictions of some of His incarnations, the Krishna legends and a wooden model of a palanquin from malabar are among the collection.

Indian art does not figure prominently in Russian museums as there was very little contact between Russia and India for a long time. However, the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow has the largest and best collection. A large part of the collection has come from the private collectors, P.I. and S.I. Schukin and K.F. Nekrasov, who were reputed Oriental art collectors. The most important single exhibit is the “Baburnama”, which has about 200 splendid masterpieces of miniature paintings. There are also some 700 textiles, the most outstanding being the Kashmir Jamawar shawls of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Odessa Museum of Western and Oriental Art was founded in 1920. This Museum combines the collections of the former City Museum of Fine Arts, Odessa University and a number of private collections nationalized after the 1917 October Revolution. This museum is located in a building known as Tolstoy Palace. Subsequently, the collection has been enriched by the acquisition of some wonderful specimens of silk fabrics, silver decorations, sandalwood boxes, dolls in national dress of different provinces, ivory and metal statuettes

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