India wants the most prized jewel in the British crown, the Koh-i-noor, back. Debates are rife on whether the diamond was gifted or prised and the Indian government has promised to get the diamond back “amicably”. Excuse my utilitarian thought process, but getting the Koh-i-noor back seems a pretty useless exercise. The only gain that one can foresee is the purely symbolic joy of telling our erstwhile colonial masters: “We are getting our own back”.

In the course of 300 years of the Raj, the subcontinent was robbed of a large number of valuable objects which are displayed as spoils of war in several museums in Britain. If we are to demand something back, let’s demand the scores of historical objects and artefacts which were taken from India to Britain. Having bits of our history home would not only add to the country’s heritage significantly but also further inexpensive historical research. If nothing else, it will make us aware of the many pieces of our history which now lie forgotten in popular culture simply because they are away from home. For example, the largest known complete Indian metal sculpture, weighing 500 kilograms, the Sultanganj Buddha (now known as the Birmingham Buddha) was taken away to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery by EB Harris in 1861 AD and no one wants it back. The various Chola bronzes and Buddhist sculptures get no mention either.

Yet, the greatest robbery of all time was that of the Amaravati Stupa. The tale of the stupa is that of reckless excavations and steady disappearance. The stupa in its glory days must have been one of the largest in India, much bigger and more ornate than its counterpart at Sanchi.

Site of the Amaravati Mahastupa/ASI
Site of the Amaravati Mahastupa/ASI

What lies at the site of the stupa today are a few stones around the mound where once the stupa stood. From 1797 onwards the monument was dismantled piece by piece and majority of its remains whisked off to Britain where they now adorn the “Amaravati gallery” in the British museum. If our colonial masters are generous enough, I would like these remains of the Amaravati stupa back. If magnanimity is not their strong suit, then maybe the following tale of the stupa’s robbery would shame them into giving it back to us.

Discovery of the stupa

The stupa was built in 3rd century BC, at Amaravati in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, and was in vogue as an important monastic centre till the 14th century AD. Eventually, it fell into disuse and was rendered invisible by being covered in dust and debris over the course of time. It would have been better if the mound would have stayed invisible. Its discovery led to its slow demise.

The mound was discovered in 1796, when the workmen of a local zamindar, the Raja of Chintapalli, stumbled upon the ruins. The workmen of the zamindar were building a temple on a nearby site when they hit on the brickwork of the stupa. Accordingly, more digging was undertaken at the mound and several white marble stones were taken away and employed in the construction of the temple. A year later, Colin Mackenzie, a British army officer, came upon the site and became the first to document the stupa. Based on a popular folklore attached to the site, he called it “Depauldina” (hill of lamps).

Votive Stupa, Amrvati/ASI
Votive Stupa, Amrvati/ASI

After Mackenzie left, the Chintapalli Raja built a large reservoir in the middle of the Amaravati mound. Yet, this did not do much damage, for when Mackenzie returned in 1816 he remarked in his report “a great part of the mound remains uncleared (sic)”. Mackenzie’s sketches and documentation were never published. Bits of it were eventually mentioned in the accounts of British archaeologists like James Burgess, James Fergusson and Robert Sewell. Ignoring the basic principle of in situ – on site –preservation of remains (even though Mackenzie’s report is littered with the phrase), Mackenzie removed a number of sculpted stones from the site, most of which were transported to London and some were given to the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

In 1830, the collector of Masulipatnam, FW Robertson, also collected many sculpted stones from the site and arranged at least 33 of these in a market place named after him. Eventually, some of these pieces were taken by R Alexander, a British officer, and came to adorn his garden. These stones are now irrevocably lost.

Elliot Marbles/British Museum/Asian Gallery - Amravati/Wikimedia Commons
Elliot Marbles/British Museum/Asian Gallery - Amravati/Wikimedia Commons

The 'Elliot Marbles'

Yet, the greatest plunder of the Amaravati stupa was carried out by Sir Walter Elliot, commissioner of Guntur. Much like Mackenzie, Elliot knew nothing about archaeology. He conducted some reckless excavations at the site in 1845. He discovered the western gateway of the stupa and made a few sketches of the remains. All in all, Elliot’s documentation was mostly faulty and added nothing new to the existing knowledge about the stupa. Elliot’s biggest feat was to transport a total of 121 sculptural pieces from the site to London in 1860, which came to be known as Elliot Marbles (named in the fashion of the famed Elgin marbles which were taken away from the Parthenon at Athens by Lord Elgin).

Conjectural restoration of the Amaravati monument – James Fergusson (1808-86); drawn in pencil and ink on a blue-grey paper. British Museum.
Conjectural restoration of the Amaravati monument – James Fergusson (1808-86); drawn in pencil and ink on a blue-grey paper. British Museum.

These were then displayed in the Paris exhibition in 1867 by the famous British surveyor, James Fergusson. After a brief stop at the Amaravati excavations, they were renewed under Robert Sewell. A British collector, Sewell was given explicit instructions that any loose stones found at the site of the stupa were to be sent home. Accordingly, after documenting the site, Sewell wanted the whole lot of stones to be sent to England, simply because a monthly salary of five rupees to the chowkidar (guard) of the stupa was a huge burden on the exchequer. The stones, however, were eventually sent to the Madras museum.

The removal and transportation of sculptures to England continued under JG Horsfall, Collector of the Kistna district. With no qualifications for the job, Horsfall, conducted hasty excavations in 1880 with hired labour, while he remained absent from the site on most days. Horsfall perhaps discovered one of the most significant part of the stupa, a relic casket which had a tooth and a few bones inside it. The location of the casket remains unknown even to this day. Horsfall’s excavations added nothing to the documentation and only led to undocumented removal of sculptures from the site.

Remains of Amaravati Stupa/Wikimedia Commons
Remains of Amaravati Stupa/Wikimedia Commons

Cole’s on site preservation

Even an experienced surveyor and archaeologist, James Burgess’ excavations did not include the basic principle of in situ – on site – preservation. He wanted the best of the sculptural slabs, a total of 175 pieces, to be sent to Madras. However, before he could carry out the haul, his operations were stopped by the Madras government. The Curator of Ancient Monuments in India, Captain HH Cole was to examine the site before any further action could be taken on the removed sculptures.

British Museum: Drum-frieze. Fragment of a drum frieze panel in limestone ('Palnad marble') with three remaining registers carved with an unidentified palace scene with men and women adorning a stupa.
British Museum: Drum-frieze. Fragment of a drum frieze panel in limestone ('Palnad marble') with three remaining registers carved with an unidentified palace scene with men and women adorning a stupa.

Cole in his Memorandum on the present condition of the Amaravati Tope in Madras, 1882, started off with severely reprimanding Burgess, who he thought had “ransacked the place of all valuable stones.” He then made a strong case for on site preservation of the Amaravati remains. In his memorandum he “recommended the erection of a small building where these carvings would be properly displayed and be absolutely safe, and the railing-in of the site of the Buddhist tope, securing as far as possible all the existing masonry of the building.” He further said that antiquities of India should not to be taken to England. To satisfy the needs of museums, plaster cast copies of the remains should be made and displayed, he said.

Yet, Burgess did not agree with Cole. A huge debate raged between the two which was eventually decided by Alexander Cunningham, director general of the Archeological Survey of India, in favour of Burgess. The sculptures were sent away to Madras. Cole kept on his fight and wrote to several officials but his advice went unheeded. A series of other excavations were carried out post Burgess’ and sculptures were removed and taken away either to England or to Madras. Eventually, a small museum was built in Amaravati where the leftovers of the stupa were (and still are) kept.

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Get the remains of the stupa back

The idea to get the remains of the stupa back to India is inspired by Cole who advocated conservation and not restoration. He believed that a monument must be conserved as it is. Since it was then known which pillar belonged to which part of the stupa, Cole was of the view that the pillars should be brought back to their original site and displayed there.

Today, the lion’s share of the remains of the stupa is located in the British Museum. Given that the stupa’s history spanned 17 centuries, its destruction is no small erosion of history. It is, therefore, a pressing need that its remains be collected from Britain and based on Cole’s principles, be preserved on the site. As Cole had remarked, it is a “suicidal and indefensible policy to allow the country to be looted of original works of ancient art”. The gorgeous railings and toranas (sacred gateways) of the stupa need to be on the site in Amaravati and not in the British Museum, so that the stupa, being an indelible part of the subcontinent’s history, gets back the permanence it once had in stone.