As a student of history and an aspiring archaeologist, I was always fascinated with museums. Recently, I had the opportunity to work at the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi as an intern. During this internship, I learned many valuable skills and interesting trivia regarding cultic crafts, religion and history. In the following article, I will share some of the fascinating things I learned at the museum.
On my first day, I met Senior Museum Consultant, KK Shamra, who heard that I had a special interest in archaeology. So he assigned me to the Cultic Gallery, AKA Temple Gallery. In this gallery sat hundreds of sculptures of gods such as Lord Ganesha, Shiva ji and Krishna, and goddesses like Lakshmi, Kali Ma and Durga.
My job was to assign a special number to each of the hundreds of objects (a mammoth task!) and to identify them in the existing Accession Register. Then I had to write a brief description of each object, along with their dimensions, materials, originating place and period. It didn’t stop there. We were also trained in handling, dry brushing, polishing and chemically preserving these metallic objects.
These six weeks of intense museum work familiarised me with the many inhabitants of the Cultic Gallery. In some display cases, there were antique objects used in temples from fifty to two hundred years ago.
Working at this Gallery made me realise how lamps can come in different creative forms. One type is a Rolling Lamp, which is a spherical ball of brass alloy. It is hollow on the inside and has perforated designs outside. The ball is opened and a diya is placed inside and lit. The ball is then closed and the light emanates from inside, and shines out through the flower-cut designs on the ball.
Another type of diya which I saw, and had a soft spot for, was the Deepalakshmi. Coming in different sizes, this lamp is in the form of an ornamented woman, made out of brass or bronze alloy. This figure is a representation of the goddess Lakshmi and is an auspicious element in the Hindu religion. A popular motif in South India, Deepalakshmi stands tall and holds a diya in her hand or on a tray. Sometimes, Deepalakshmi comes in pairs with the two women standing on two sides of an altar or entryway.
A third form of diya is the Panch Pradeep. This has Deepalakshmi sitting on an elephant. The elephant carries a plate of five diyas on its trunk. These tiny diyas are then filled with oil and lit. Sometimes, this plate of five diyas is placed on the elephant’s head. Sometimes, Deepalakshmi holds this tray. This form of lamp comes in miniature sizes.
The fourth fascinating form of the temple diya is the Seven-hooded snake lamp. This often has a figure seated on an elephant. There are seven snakes which protrude from behind the back of the seated figure. Their heads are shaped in a way as to hold the oil
where the lamps are burned. Sometimes, the ‘seven-hooded snake’ form and the ‘panch pradeep’ form are merged together, with the lamps being situated both on the snake’s heads and on the elephant’s trunk. Sometimes, even the seated figure carries the diya. That is a lot of diyas. This figure is often miniature in size.
The last but not the least is the Tree Lamp. Large in size and taller than a grown adult, this tree-shaped lamp has many branches and is made of bronze alloy. The diyas are situated on the ends of the branches. Glorious in appearance, it is situated inside a glass case at the entrance of the Temple Gallery.
The incense burners were no less charming. Like the diyas, they also came in different forms and sizes, and in both brass and alloy, and even iron. Some of them hung from roofs by their hooks and had a long chain attached to it. Some were flat plates attached to a chain, while others were shaped like a bud which could be opened and the incense could be burned inside it. Other burners were small in size and could be held in the hand. These small burners had double pedestals with lotus patterns, petal shapes, carvings and perforated designs. It often had a lid which could be opened and the incense was stored inside.
Gods & Goddesses
I also learned to identify the different deities among the statues. I learned that the statue of the goddess sitting on a lion and slaying a little buffalo is not only Durga, but a special form of Durga, known as Mahishasur Mardini. And that little buffalo she is slaying with a spear is not an innocent animal, but a buffalo demon. After I learned this fact, it became easy for me to identify all the Mahishasur Mardinis in the gallery.
I also learned to identify the statue of a baby on his knees and hands as Lord Krishna. In one such statue, I noticed that he had a little ball in his hand. At first, I assumed it was a laddoo. But then K. K. sir informed me and my fellow interns that it was in fact, a type of butter. It was the kind of spherical butter that is formed when it is freshly churned.
The Winged Garuda
I also learned what a Garuda was. A Garuda is a magnificent winged creature in mythology. While resembling a humanoid animal, it is gigantic in size compared to gods and humans. Kings and gods were said to transport themselves from place to place by sitting on the shoulders of the Garuda who then took to the skies. The Garuda is a recurring figure in the massive statues in the museum as well as in the paintings. We could often identify them by their bird-like wings, the shapes of their helmets, their pointed ears and their hooked noses.
Another interesting object displayed at the gallery was the ritual pot. Dozens of ritual pots were kept in a glass case and looked identifiable from each other. While some were medium in size, others were miniatures. While some were tapered towards the
bottom of the pots, others were tapered closer to the rim. While most were apple-shaped, some were pear-shaped and a few were cylindrical. Some were of brass, others of copper, and yet others of alloy. One could tell by observing them closely under the light. Although I tried, I never got the hang of it. So I found myself turning to the guidance of our museum consultant, and my co-intern, who had sharper observation than me regarding the material they were made of.
Some pots were plain in appearance while others had geometric shapes, spirals, circles or even carvings of birds (like peacocks) and human figures on them. Some were golden and bronze coloured, while others were a combo of black and red. The large ones are called Lota while the even larger ones are Chemboor. The miniature pots are Lutia. The pot with a curved spout is called Ganga Jali.
Yet, the most visually ravishing pots in the display case were two ritual pots; these pots had miniature size models sitting on the rim around the pots. These models included pooja mandaps, the bull Nandi (Nandi is the beloved vehicle of Krishna), and Shiva ji seated cross-legged, among others. Marvellous to look at, these ritual pots were certainly used for rarer ceremonial occasions compared to the other vessels.
But I think the most notable and talked about objects in the gallery were the lingams. Phallic-shaped and evoking Lord Shiva due to its resemblance of a shivling, these objects were often stand alone ornaments or part of a temple bell. A highlight craft is the Mukha Linga, which could roughly be translated as the “phallic face”. It is a cylindrical bell which is shaped like a phallus and has the face of a king carved on the top of it. The face is of a man, most probably a king, with a mustache. The symbolism here stands for fertility, vigour, strength and life.
I learned many such fascinating stories and snippets of history while working in this Gallery. I recommend every history student and graduate to apply for an internship at this prestigious museum. If Cultic objects are not of your interest, you can opt for the Folk & Tribal Gallery, Textile Gallery, Library or Conservation Lab. The internship is unpaid. However, you will gain priceless first-hand experiences handling these objects and conserving them. At the end of the duration, the intern receives a certificate and a Letter of Recommendation. The entire museum staff is truly generous, kind and open-minded, and the environment is pleasant and peaceful.
This is the first part in my two-article series recounting my experience interning at the National Crafts Museum & Hastkala Academy. My next article will describe my experiences learning to conserve metallic objects, paintings and terracotta at the museum’s conservation lab.
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