Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mumbai: The Prince of Wales Museum, nasty Mughal weapons, Miniature Paintings, et all

The Prince of Wales museum, captured in a rare non-rainy moment.

It was raining in Mumbai.

This was not a surprise, and especially not this time of year, this particular year. This has been one of India's heaviest monsoon seasons in recent memory - many say it's the worst in 20 years. The rain usually eases up when September arrives, but not this year, not at all. Rain has been falling in sheets from the sky for months now, have gummed up the works even of this mostly-aquatic city, are slowly turning everything to mold and pulp and musty smells. I had wished for another clear day or two, so I could go check out some of the cities bazaars, but such was my lot, I was stuck with this.

I decided to go to the museum.

The Prince of Wales museum is Mumbai's primary display center. It's old, really old, at least by Mumbai standards, and it looks it too. It was built in a somewhat lurid combination of English and Moorish stylings, complete with a dome up top and a very English devotion to granite and turrets. Set up to honor King George V's visit to India, it was designed by George Wittet, the same enterprising bloke who threw together the Gateway of India. You're supposed to call it the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya now, but no one does, except for really hardcore Marathi activists. All those goddamned vowels.

It's a beautiful museum, and provides a welcome oasis of relative peace and calm in the middle of what is perhaps the world's most ADHD metropolis. (Unless you run into a field trip group. Dear God). The grounds and garden are also lovely to stroll through, and are laced with statues and Buddhist images.

You have to check your bag at the front desk if you'd like to go in. I loathe doing this, and I especially hate doing it in India. I took my wallet and my iphone with me into the museum. Didn't want to take chances. Entry fee is a mere 15 rupees for those with a student card, but it's 300 rupees or so if you'd like to take your camera with you. I coughed up.

The lofty and rather attractive interior.

I remembered and loved this museum from before, my first visit to Mumbai. It's a somewhat disorganized storehouse of cool stuff, like all the best museums are, and their are thousands of fascinating objects d' arte, artificats, and just plain oddities preserved here. Get in early: there's usually a profusion of shrieking and amped-up field tripping kids on the premises if you come later, and that's no fun for anyone. There's audio-guides on offer for a small fee, if you're into that. I'm usually not.

This is a preserved stone copy of one of the Ashokan edicts, perhaps the earliest tangible evidence we have of the existence of Buddhism.. Ashoka, who ruled from 269 BCE to 231 BCE as part of the Maurya Dynasty, was one of India's greatest and most beloved rulers. A brilliant warrior and assidious conqueror, Ashoka later in life converted to Buddhism and became an advocate for peace, maintaining a remarkably humanist and forward-thinking government. He became an avid proselytizer for Buddhism, and sent emissaries as far as the Hellenist kingdoms of the Mediterrenean.Ashoka's trademark pillars - topped with a three headed lion - are now the emblem of the Indian state. (It is a great and terrible irony that Bihar, the heartland of Ashoka's old kingdom, is now India's poorest and most dangerous state). Ashoka's Edicts are scattered throughout his old realm in India, Pakistan, and Nepal, and provide us with the earliest tangible evidence of the existence of Buddhism. Ashoka used these stone edicts to promote and educate the general public on the basic tenets of Buddhism.

They're, uh, not all exactly progressive. (Well, what was back then?)

There's a few interesting artifacts here from India's earliest past, in the (now Pakistanti) Indus river valley.

A mother-goddess image in clay, from the Mauryan period - around 2nd or 3rd century BC. The continuity of Indian artwork can be truly astonishing.

A lovely terra-cotta relief, inspired by Hellenistic art, discovered in Mirpur Khas near Sindh. Roughly 5th century AD. This guy also bears a startling resemblance to a friend of mine. Hmmmm.

A bodhisattva image of some age, looking lost deep in thought.

A Hellenic influenced Mauryana image of some ruler or another. Mainly notable for the unusual addition of a luxurious mustache. As the vast majority of Indian men take extreme pride in cultivating their mustaches, it's surprising how rarely they come up in sculpture.

A fabulous painting of a runaway elephant, from Rajasthan. Which does not appear to be online elsewhere. The internet failed me.

The Mughal miniature painting collection here is startlingly good, and, pleasingly enough, extremely well curated. The museum has gone to the effort of presenting this stuff beautifully and with lots of information surrounding it. In my estimation, miniature painting is the height of Indian art, and the mythology, stories, and history behind the artwork is more fascinating still. Each Mughal Emperor sponsored or brought about a slightly different style of artwork, and it's interesting to see their stamp on each "school" of painting.

This is a painting from the Vishnua Purana tale, wherein Krishna is established as an avatar of Vishnu. The tale tells of a time when the earth was overrun by demons. The earth, logically enough, took the form of a cow and went to ask Krishna/Vishnu for help. As seen here.

A Rajasthani painting of two gokuldas resting after a hunt (note the very dead rabbits and gazelle). Probably from 1865 to 1808.

The Peaceful Hermitage, an illustration from the Ramayana. Another Rajasthani painting - the region seemed to produce some excellent artists - from around 1649. We even know the artist's name. He was called Manohar.

A placid Deccani illustration of two philosophers, discussing the nature of the universe over tea. Probably originated somewhere near Hyderabad.

Sword hilts from the Mughal period.

The Mughals also were quite keen on weapons. Lots and lots of weapons. I'm pretty keen on weapons myself, so I enjoyed this exhibit very much. As explained here, the famous "water marked" blades of Damascus were actually made in India, near modern-day Hyderabad. They were primarily solid in Damascus and thus earned the false title. Daggers and lances were primarily used in India until rather late in history - curved and long swords were only introduced when India's Islamic conquerors arrived.

The "chakra" throwing weapon, otherwise known as a "quoit". As the museum display noted, "it was not a very popular weapon, so there are not many examples." It is true that a throwing-star type weapon is not actually practical unless you are 1. a ninja or 2. Lord Krishna or 3. Chuck Norris.

Central Asians dearly loved their push daggers - a nasty weapon that combined the forward force of a solid right-hook with a tempered Damascus blade. Yikes.

Some variants on the beloved Indian tulwar, or curved sword. I'm not entirely sure how useful the especially wiggly one might be in battle. But it looks bitching.

The personal shield and weapons of the great Mughal emperor Akbar. Akbar, a ferocious fighter, was apparently rather metaphysical and not such a bad sort, all things considered. Although illiterate, he was extremely interested in religion, and attempted to create his own religion, encompassing every extant religious tradition into one harmonious and peaceful whole. It didn't work, but at least he tried.

This Solapith art is incredibly cool, and is very relevant to the Durga Puja celebration. It's biggest in Bengal and Calcutta, and is a pretty fascinating ritual: a "disposable" image of Durga and associates, usually very elaborate and beautiful, is immersed in water. Mumbaikers do something similar with images of Ganesh.

Solapith lion. This stuff sort of reminds me of the butter art you see at American state fairs only, you know, way cooler.

Have an informative sign!

The Prince Albert has a nice collection of art from the Himalaya region - Tibet and Nepal primarily. This ferocious looking dagger is a ritual "phurpa" from Tibet, and is primarily used by Buddhist sorcerers. The sorcerers use the weapon to "stab" the demons of the air. The three sides of the blade stand for chastity, charity, and patience - the only qualities believed capable of destroying the sins of hatred, sloth, and lust.

A fantastic bronze image of a dakini, a class of Buddhist "heroine" demigoddesses. The Tibetan word for dakini translates into "sky walking woman" - in other words, these formidable women were considered capable of flight. They are considered the female embodiment of pure, enlightened energy, a sort of metaphysical sky dancer.

The remarkably convenient "gau", or portable shrine (ideal for those long business trips). They're used to house one's personal deities, and are carried with the worshipper wherever he or she goes.

These are inscribed skull-shaped cups or kapala from Tibet. Tibetan religious leaders often use cups fashioned from human skulls in religious rituals, to put a point on the imperanance of human existence. Rattles made of human bone are also used. Whose skull, in particular, is also of great import. Skulls of executed criminals or murder victims are considered very powerful, as are the skulls of 7 or 8 year old children born out of wedlock. In case you find yourself needing to craft a tantric libation cup in the near future. Stuff comes up.

This is a kinnara, a half human and half bird creature well-loved in Buddhist art. They're seen commonly in Thai Buddhist art - look on the walls of your local Thai restaurant next time you pay a visit. They are also portrayed as half-man half-horse in other regions of India, though not, apparently, in Tibet, where this figure hails from.

I managed to forget about and thus miss the fantastic and dilapidated animal collection, featuring a bunch of stuffed Indian animals in varying states of repair, put up in extremely unconvincing dioramas. Next time. Next time.

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