KOLKATA: A priceless Mauryan statue that is over 2,000 years old was damaged at the Indian Museum on Wednesday. Coming less than a year after the damage to the 3rd Century BC Lion Capital, it has raised questions over the cavalier manner in which artifacts have been handled in the country’s biggest repository of Indian heritage and history in its bicentenary year.
A flaked section of the right foot of Yaksha, the statue that pairs with the Yakshi to guard the entrance to the Bharhut gallery, was found at the base of the statue. When a hurried attempt to glue the severed portion back in place proved futile, the label at the base of the statue was removed and the museum authorities went on a denial mode.
“No artifact has been damaged. Because the objects are very old, they constantly flake off while being cleaned. It does not amount to damage. There is no question of instituting a probe based on rumour,” Indian Museum spokesperson Ashok Tripathi said, turning a blind eye to the fresh damage that even visitors could make out.
In fact, a guide at the National Museum Bangkok, Vishnu Srisinwarakul, who was touring the museum remarked: “The objects at the museum are stunning but the display could have been better. The authorities should take greater care to preserve such rare and priceless objects.”
Preservation department officials confirmed that after damage was discovered on Wednesday morning, the photography section documented it. “The flaked portion is now in the possession of preservation section. The technical head of preservation has written to the museum director seeking permission to mend the feet in a proper manner,” a source said.
Indian Museum board of trustee member and well known museologist Sachindranath Bhattacharjee said he had heard about the incident. “If it is true, it is a very unfortunate development. I will definitely seek a detailed report from the director on how this could have happened. Flaking does not happen overnight. It is a result of long neglect and very adverse weathering,” he explained.
But Indian Museum authorities maintained there was no problem, something it had insisted when the Lion Capital had been damaged as well. Later following reports in TOI, Archeological Survey of India (ASI) conducted an inspection and concluded that the statue had indeed suffered irreparable damage.
Security at the Indian Museum is still very lax. Visitors not only touch artefacts, but also lean on them and even try to scrape their nails to check the texture of the stone.
Regional director of ASI (east) P K Mishra said he was unaware of the damage to the Yaksha. “It is one of rarest of the rare artifact. If it has happened, the museum authority should have informed us.”
The Yakshas are the most striking of all the presentations of demigods found in Bharhut gallery. The gallery houses the finest collection of Mauriyan artefacts in the world and is named after Bharhut in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh. Bharhut is famous for ruins of a Buddhist stupa (shrine) discovered by Major General Alexander Cunningham of Archaeological Survey of India in 1873. The artifacts were brought to Kolkata and displayed at the Indian Museum the same year.
Construction of the stupa probably begun at the time of Asoka (c. 250 BC). It was originally built of brick and enlarged in 2nd century BC when a surrounding stone railing with entrances on the four cardinal points was constructed. This railing bears a wealth of fine relief carving on its inner face. Around the beginning of the 1st century BC, four stone gateways (toranas), each elaborately carved, were added to the entrances. An inscription on these gateways assigns the work to King Dhanabhuti during the rule of the Sungas (i.e., before 72 BC). The sculptures adorning the shrine are among the earliest and finest examples of the developing style of Buddhist art in India.