If there is anything that can get Indians into a museum, it’s the lure of diamonds. When the Nizam of Hyderabad’s fabulous jewels were put on display at the Salar Jung Museum, the crowds had to be kept under check by armed guards.
The use of specially contrived lights suggested the dimmed splendour of an Eastern seraglio combined with the mystery of a temple ritual. Each of the rare specimens had been highlighted in its own glass-encased window. The crowds moved in silence from one darshan to another, prodded by the guards standing behind them, silently urging them to get a move on.
The analogy to a temple darshan is not misplaced. Viewing the Nizam’s jewels made me realize that for Indians, temples have been functioning like the more conventional Western-style museums. In the past, the famous temple towns of the South, nurtured by royal patrons, have been the repositories of the arts. At the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, the crowds that visit the place during a festival such as Dussehra are treated to multidimensional displays of the gods that are taken in procession through the day, as well as the stands that are erected all around the corridors of the temples with what are known as ‘Golu’ or display dolls arranged in the most imaginative of ways. These become interactive events in a way in which a visit to an officially sponsored museum never can. As the visitors walk to the main sanctum, stopping at different stages to take in some part of the show, they are fully prepared for the final moment of viewing.
It takes the form of an audience with the deities, glimpsed through a tunnel of darkness for just a few moments. Quite often, what dazzles the visitor is the flash of diamonds, rich silk costumes, jewellery, floral displays, the smell of incense and the psychedelic flicker of oil lamps amid prayers and chants.
In contrast, Germans are the most museum-conscious people in the world. In some parts of Germany, there is a museum of some kind every 10km. There are more people visiting museums than churches.
In part, the interest in collecting artefacts from different cultures began in 18th century Europe. It also led to a type of fierce competition among scholars and adventurers to procure the rarest of artefacts and treasures from other cultures and countries as the Germans, French and English jostled for dominance in parts of Asia, Africa and South America.
The case of the Elgin Marbles is well known. The fourth century frieze was pulled down from the Parthenon at Athens and transported to the British Museum by Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, while he was British ambassador to Constantinople in l799. He carted away 247ft of the frieze on the pretext that the local people were no longer capable of looking after it. It has been a matter of dispute ever since.
Aurel Stein, the German explorer of Central Asia, used the same justification to ‘save’ the precious Buddhist scrolls that he had unearthed from a cave on the old Silk Route. Many of these are said to have disappeared during the bombing of Berlin in World War II.