Posted on: 22 October 2015

The Colonial History of Sculptures from the Amaravati Stūpa
By Jennifer Howes
Extract from the book: Buddhist Stupas in South Asia
Published by Oxford University Press, Delhi - 2009

The first Buddhist site to be examined and excavated in India by the British was the second- century stūpa at Amaravati in contemporary Andhra Pradesh. It was because the history of these investigations go back to the late eighteenth century, and because excavations occurred in numerous stages throughout the nineteenth century, that the stories behind the removal of sculptures from the sites form a complicated puzzle for archaeologists, art historians, and museum studies professionals. The purpose of this chapter is to trace the movement of five sculptures from Amaravati that were first documented in 1816–17 to give a sense of their complicated journey from their original location to the various museums that now hold them. The sources to be considered here are records, manuscripts, drawings, and photographs gathered during the nineteenth century that are now kept in the British Library in London.

Other important stūpa sites in India, such as Bharhut and Sanchi, were subjected to rigorous archaeological investigations during the colonial period as well, but these investigations occurred several decades after work at Amaravati had begun. By this time, archaeology had become a more fully rounded discipline, photography was an established means of documenting scientific investigations, and museums had been established in a number of parts of India. As a result, we have a clearer, less fragmented understanding of the history of British investigations at Bharhut and Sanchi.

Documentation held in the British Library relating to British investigations at Amaravati spans the better part of a century, beginning in the 1790s and ending in the late nineteenth century.

The earliest documentation is in the Mackenzie drawings, and additional documentation is held in records from Britain’s colonial administration in India. Other documentation is found in drawings and photographs. By looking at information from these sources it is possible to reconstruct how the sculptures at Amaravati were divided between the British Museum and the Chennai Government Museum. It is also possible to trace how Amaravati sculptures entered the collections of the Indian Museum in Calcutta and the National Museum in New Delhi.

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North portion of the area of the Amravati Stupa excavated in 1880, seen from the east.

Photograph of the site of the stupa of Amravati, near the ancient city of Dharanikota in Andhra Pradesh, with sculpture finds laid out on the ground, taken by Sergeant Coney in 1880. The Amaravati Stupa was founded in the 3rd-2nd centuries BC and enlarged in the 1st-4th centuries AD under the Satavahana and Ikshvaku patronage and represents one of the greatest architectural achievement of ancient India. Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821) encountered the stupa at Amaravati in 1798, making him the first European to discover this Second Century Buddhist monument. In the 19th century a series of excavations took place at the site. In 1880 the Governor of Madras, the Duke of Buckingham, gave the order to J.G. Horsfall to 'clear' the site. In this way the site turned into a large pit with the excavated sculpture arranged around it. In the Buddhist Stupas of Amravati and Jaggayapeta of 1887, James Burgess, who was in charge of the next phase of excavations at Amaravati, wrote, "The removal, in 1880, of all the debris and the other remains of the stupa within the area of the rails...destroyed forever the chance of recovering any precise dimensions of the central pile, which even a few bricks in situ might have fixed. " The monument now only survives in the collections of the Amaravati sculptures kept in various museums.

Text and image credit: © The British Library Board

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