In an article in Scroll on April 24, I had outlined the legal reasons why India can’t ask for the Amaravati sculptures or the Sultanganj Buddha back, and then offered a moral reason why we shouldn’t ask for these items to be returned (“Why Nehru was right in failing to ask for the Kohinoor to be returned to India”). Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion and Ruchika Sharma has hers, but it would be good if she had a little more history in her history (“Forget the Kohinoor, could we have the Amaravati Stupa sculptures back please?”).

It’s pointless berating the earliest surveyors for not doing “in situ” conservation. It was an idea that hadn’t yet been born. When Colin McKenzie came upon the ruins in 1796 and he and subsequent officers took portions away, what they did was the only course of action available to them when they saw items of archaeological interest. There was no archaeological survey yet, no infrastructure, no means of taking care of these things – not even a local museum in which to put the fragments. There was no museum in India till 1814 (when the Imperial Museum was founded in Calcutta, which is now the Indian Museum, Kolkata) and none in Madras till 1851.

Had the pieces not been “carted away” from Amaravati, nothing would perhaps have been left there, for the local zamindar, on whose land the stupa stood, was not just incorporating slabs into the Shiva temple he was building (where the central icon of worship is an Amaravati pillar repurposed as a shivalinga), but getting his workmen to burn and crush the limestone to make building material.

Divergent fates

For most of the nineteenth century, archaeology consisted of “rescuing” objects from the field and taking them to the cities where they were deposited in the buildings of museums and learned societies, as well as private homes. Henry Hardy Cole, Curator of Ancient Monuments from 1881-'83, was the first forceful advocate for in situ conservation. He should be one of the heroes of our hindsight, and much remains to be said about him. But in his time, he asked the government to do so much, at such expense, and asked for such an expansion of the infrastructure, that not only was he removed from the job, but the position of Curator of Ancient Monuments that had been created for him was abolished.

Indeed, until Viceroy Curzon reinvigorated the Archaeological Survey of India and appointed John Marshall as the Director-General in 1902, it neither had a steady life as an institution nor government support, nor an outlined policy. It’s only in the early 20th century that archaeological work in the country became professionalised and large-scale scientific excavations were coupled with in situ conservation.

The divergent fates of the three stupas that garnered most attention in colonial times – Amaravati, Bharhut and Sanchi – are interesting to track. At Amaravati, as Ruchika Sharma rightly notes, and at Bharhut, most of what remained was packed up and taken to museums. What remained of Bharhut’s railing and gateway were reassembled in the Imperial (now Indian) Museum in Calcutta in 1878. In contrast, Sanchi’s stupa was conserved in situ in John Marshall’s time, between 1912-'14. But its presence at its original site is a result not just of changing times and principles, but also inter-imperial rivalry.

Sanchi fell within the princely state of Bhopal. It was subject to sporadic investigations in which an earlier and very damaging form of archaeology bore holes into the stupa, and took relic caskets and a few loose sculptures away. Seeing European interest in it, and having no use for it herself, the Begum of Bhopal offered the Sanchi sculpture (in the form of its gateways) as a gift to the British, who politely refused to take charge of these bulky items. It’s when she offered the gift to the French that the British authorities became concerned and came forward to restore the stupa and its railing and gateways on site.

State of neglect

If Ruchika Sharma is nostalgic about Amaravati and would like to see the sculptures, she can get on a plane and go to London, where she can see the beautifully displayed railings that have been reassembled with great elegance. Or she can get on a train and go to Chennai, where she can hope the Madras Museum authorities have finally opened the gallery in which they keep part of the 299 Amaravati sculptures that they own.

When I visited the gallery more than ten years ago, I saw how the Amaravati sculptures had fallen prey to regional politics. The Chola bronzes gleamed under sleek fiber-optic lights in a renovated and air-conditioned gallery, while the Amaravati sculptures were housed in an ugly and decaying shed that was heaving with humidity. The place felt like a storehouse rather than a gallery, with row upon row of sculptures crowded together, dusty and covered with cobwebs. The display afforded no viewing distance to take the big pieces in, and no light by which to see the artefacts that were in the darker reaches of the room. The narrow aisles between the rows of sculpture at least had the advantage of offering privacy to visitors who wanted to leave their own mark upon history and had covered many sculptures with graffiti.

I was lucky to have seen those sculptures, in whatever state they may have been. Shortly after I visited, the gallery shut down. This was because the Museum’s conservators had reported – in 1970 – that the humidity and water seepage had damaged the sculptures. Fixed directly into the brick walls of a damp building, the porous limestone of the Amaravati slabs had absorbed water and harmful salts and were crumbling as a result. A mere three decades later in 2006, the museum authorities seem to have taken note of this and the gallery was shut for renovation and restoration. I hear that this gallery re-opened recently, though I have not been able to find photographs on the museum's website or reports of this in the press.

Brewing trouble

It's easy to be outraged at our erstwhile colonial masters and berate them for taking our precious heritage away. But some of the same outrage could be more usefully directed at our own institutions, to force them through public opinion to better serve both the things they possess and the public that they are supposed to serve. Madras Museum has not treated its Amaravati sculptures well, nor has it been willing to relinquish these objects to others who have asked for them.

Recently, Telangana demanded the “repatriation” of the Amaravati sculptures from Tamil Nadu – a claim that will no doubt be complicated in the coming years by Andhra Pradesh's choice of Amaravati as its new state capital. Meanwhile, the Amaravati heritage is bound to oscillate between belonging to the “nation” at large, and a particular community, as more and more Dalit Buddhists look upon ancient Buddhist art as a heritage of their own.

Understandably, the Madras Museum has not responded to Telangana's demand to "return" the Amaravati sculptures wholesale to Hyderabad, a place that has not figured in the biography of the Amaravati sculptures so far. But it is less easy to be sympathetic to the Madras Museum's stony silence in the face of an earlier and more modest request to share its collections.

Quiet diplomacy

When the National Museum in Delhi was setting up its galleries in the 1960s, it had little material to illustrate the earliest phases of Buddhist sculpture in India. The curator and scholar C Sivaramamurti, who had worked in the Madras Museum and had written a magisterial catalogue of the Amaravati sculptures there, was now working at the National Museum in Delhi. He requested the Madras Museum to loan a few sculptures from its collection, but Madras refused. Instead, the collection that cooperated was the British Museum. Today, there are four fine sculpted slabs from Amaravati in the National Museum, distributed among its Buddhist galleries.

Look carefully at the labels of these Amaravati slabs in the National Museum for the accession number. Instead of a number like 1959:23 (which signifies that it was the 23rd object to be acquired in 1959) the label will read L1970:1 which signifies that it was a loan from 1970. In a quiet act of diplomacy, the British Museum helped out the National Museum, while the Madras Museum held on to its objects – at a time when they even knew that the conditions in which they were keeping the objects was causing them damage.

Before we ask for things “back” to redress the imbalances of history, it would be better if we took a closer look at the details of history – of the colonial period, but also at the failures of the post-colonial period that are of our own making.