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Seeing Buddhist Bihar through its museums

Visiting the museums of Bodh Gaya, Nalanda and Patna is a great way to get a crash course in the rich Buddhist history and culture of Bihar

A metal sculpture from Nalanda of the Buddhist tantric deity Trailokyavijaya, 10th century CE
A metal sculpture from Nalanda of the Buddhist tantric deity Trailokyavijaya, 10th century CE (Bibek Bhattacharya)

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I firmly believe that the purest form of an antiquities museum in India is the archaeological site museum. Stripping the idea of a museum down to the basics, these are, at their core, repositories for unearthed artefacts. Always situated right next to an archaeological site, they can sometimes be a modest, yet well-appointed, building with a thoughtful and representative display. And sometimes, especially if it is a site where there is a dig going on, it is no more than a shed.

On a recent ramble through south Bihar, where I was exploring the state’s spectacular Buddhist historical sites, I had the good fortune of visiting three excellent museums. The first two were Bihar’s most famous site museums at Bodh Gaya and Nalanda, set up under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The third was the stunning new Bihar Museum in Patna, probably the best modern museum in the country.

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The ancient railing pillars of the Mahabodhi Temple are preserved at the Bodh Gaya Museum.
The ancient railing pillars of the Mahabodhi Temple are preserved at the Bodh Gaya Museum. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Bringing order the past

The Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, apart from its immense importance for global Buddhism, is that rare thing: the only site in India where stunning medieval Buddhist artefacts can be experienced in a setting of active religious worship. Much of the Vajrasana complex, including the restored temple, subsidiary shrines and stupas, are redolent with stunning sculptures from the 8th-13th centuries CE, representative of the hugely influential Pala school of art.

Of equal interest to art historians is the ASI museum in Bodh Gaya, set in a large campus about five minutes’ walk from the Mahabodhi Temple. Inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1956, it houses one of the most important collections of predominantly Buddhist statuary and other artefacts anywhere in the world. After spending one morning soaking in the atmosphere at the Mahabodhi, I made my way to the ASI museum to while away the afternoon as the noonday sun started glaring harsh and hot.

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For the modest sum of 10, the museum offers quite the experience. Consisting of two galleries and one covered courtyard, the building manages to cram in a lot of artefacts collected over the decades from Bodh Gaya and its environs. The star of the show at the courtyard are the colossal original railing pillars of the Mahabodhi Temple, dating from two periods: first century BCE and circa seventh century CE, carved out of smooth sandstone and granite, respectively. Adorned with depictions of stupas, worshippers and nature deities, as well as rondels with animal motifs and signs of the zodiac, the railings offer a glimpse into a Magadha (the large historical area of south Bihar roughly between the rivers Sone and Kiul) that once was.

Detail of a crowned Buddha, 10th century CE, from Bodh Gaya.
Detail of a crowned Buddha, 10th century CE, from Bodh Gaya. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The true highlights of the museum are the Pala-era statues, which you will find in the courtyard, as well as in the two galleries. There are so many masterpieces here, including a life-sized 10th century statue of Vishnu’s boar (varaha) incarnation. Images of the Buddha mostly show him in the bhumisparsha mudra (earth-touching pose), which is only to be expected at the site of the Sakyamuni’s enlightenment. However, what’s striking about many of the statues from the 9th-11th centuries are that they show the Buddha as crowned and bejewelled. The iconographic significance of this depiction of the Buddha are many-layered, including that of the Buddha as the emperor (chakravartin) of the universe. There’s one gorgeous, beautifully preserved stele in basalt from the 10thcentury, that’s the pick of the bunch.

A relatively recent understanding of the art produced in the region is the recognition that there were several distinct ateliers of local artists, working for generations at specific sites in the Magadha area. One of these is the extremely important Buddhist site of Kurkihar, about an hour’s drive north-east from Bodh Gaya. Once a bustling home to a prosperous Buddhist community, it is today a remote, ramshackle village situated on gigantic, unexcavated mounds. There are some beautiful stone stelae from Kurkihar that’s exhibited at the Bodh Gaya museum, including a beautiful one of the crowned Buddha.

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There are plenty of smaller masterpieces as well, in the form of portable images in stone and terracotta that worshippers no doubt commissioned for personal veneration. Found in the third gallery, these include two fragments of rare depictions of the Buddhist tantric goddesses Parnasabari (circa ninth century) and Nairatma (circa 11th century). There are plenty of tantric Hindu images as well, including a frieze depicting the seven mothers (saptamatrika) and a tiny and terrifying Chamunda.

A statue of the Buddhist goddess Marichi, 10th century CE, from Nalanda.
A statue of the Buddhist goddess Marichi, 10th century CE, from Nalanda. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Fresh off the campus

An even older ASI site museum is the one at Nalanda, just opposite the ruins of the mahavihara. It dates back to 1917, when the first full excavation of the ruins were in full swing. Since then, statues and other artefacts unearthed at the Nalanda campus, as well as from neighbouring villages, have swelled the museum’s collection to over 13,000 objects. Of these, a mere 350 are exhibited. However, nearly all of the exhibits are absolute gems.

If you’re interested in the art history of the Pala period, you will find that the Buddhist art of Nalanda is generally more progressive in terms of iconography, than the more conservative Bodh Gaya. This is due to the nature of the sites: While Bodh Gaya was and remains sacred to all Buddhists, including the more traditional Theravadins who might baulk at tantric Buddhist deities, the Mahayana monks and lay practitioners of Nalanda were constantly pushing forward, with new sadhanas (meditative practices), tantric texts and the associated iconographic flourishes.

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As a result, the Nalanda museum houses such stunning images as the fragments of a huge image of the tantric deity Trailokyavijaya stomping on Shiva and Gauri, another of Aparajita trampling on Ganesha. These are audacious, dynamic images that are not just important for their artistry, but also for reconstructing the politics of inter-religious competition at the time. Equally fascinating is a small figurine of the fearsome deity Yamantaka and the life-sized fragment of the important Vajrayana deity Heruka.

Another aspect of Nalanda that becomes clearer with the site museum’s exhibits is the tremendous popularity of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara. Like all Pala-era steles, those of the Bodhisattva were originally created as images to be inserted into niches in brick monasteries and temples, and many of them have been unearthed from the five temples and 11 monasteries of the Nalanda ruins. These include a beautiful black basalt four-armed Avalokiteshwara from c. 10th century, and a famous (at least among art historians), intricately carved and colossal 12-armed Avalokiteshwara from the 8th century. Another notable Bodhisattva is a colossal Samantabhadra from the seventh century, excavated from Temple No.3.

Bronze Buddhist statues from Kurkihar, c. 11th century, at the Bihar Museum.
Bronze Buddhist statues from Kurkihar, c. 11th century, at the Bihar Museum. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

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Nalanda was also the site of an atelier specializing in bronze sculptures. One of the galleries at the site museum, No.3, is dedicated to these bronzes, which had a huge impact on metal sculptural styles throughout Asia. Both sculpted in the round, as well as against a back-slab, there are some stunning pieces on show here, including a breathtaking sculpture of Padmapani Avalokiteshwara from the 10th century. You’ll find all this and more for the princely entrance fee of 15.

A museum of the future

Bronze sculptures are also the main draw at the new Bihar Museum in Patna. Opened gradually between 2015-17, this magnificent museum has mostly flown under the radar, so much so that even an avid museum hunter like me was unaware of its existence.

I discovered it quite by chance. When I arrived in Patna, one of my destinations was the venerable old Patna Museum, with its fabled collection of Pala-era art. But when I got there on a hot afternoon on the final day of March, I was in for a rude surprise. Most of the exhibits were gone. So, I asked a museum worker about the Pala sculptures: Where were they? At first, he couldn’t really understand my question. Then he grinned and said, “Didn’t you know? They’ve been taken to the Bihar Museum.”

Crowned Buddha from Bihar Sharif, c. 10th century CE.
Crowned Buddha from Bihar Sharif, c. 10th century CE. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

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Thankfully, the two museums are quite close by, so I wasted no time in hotfooting it to the Bihar Museum. And it is breathtaking. A collaborative project between the Mumbai-based Opolis Architects and the celebrated Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, the Bihar Museum is a stellar example of what can be achieved if governments take a sensitive approach to the business of museums. Most Indian museums are forbidding places which do the exact opposite of inviting curiosity in the public. The Bihar Museum is, on the other hand, light, airy, inviting and spacious. Distinct zones and cloisters for exhibits and other activities are connected with exterior courtyards, and design elements make the most of natural light while protecting against heat.

The raison d’etre of the Bihar Museum (entry fee 100 for adults) is simple: A micro-narrative of Bihar’s history in the context of a macro view of South Asian history. To this end, the eight galleries, especially the main historical ones—History Galleries A, B and C, as well as Historical Art—are cavernous, ‘black box’ spaces, curated for effective storytelling. A potent mix of lighting, interactive touch-screen panels, re-creation of architectural motifs like monasteries, and plenty of breathing space helps create an ambience that you can lose yourself in for hours.

A rare statue of Vajrayogini from Rajgir, c.11th century, at the Bihar Museum.
A rare statue of Vajrayogini from Rajgir, c.11th century, at the Bihar Museum. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

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The exhibits are from the Patna Museum’s enviable hoard, and in this new setting, they shine. Be it the famed life-sized Didarganj Yakshi in polished sandstone (c. 2nd century BCE), or the spectacular Buddhist bronze sculptures from around the 10th-11th centuries CE (unearthed in 1930 in Kurkihar) the galleries and their contents are a pleasure to behold. And, judging by the crowds of people thoroughly enjoying themselves, the museum is a hit. I think I will return to Patna just to wander through the museum for a few days.

If you have the time, do pay a visit to the sadly-forgotten Patna Museum too. Although it is mostly denuded of its treasures, a standing colossal Avalokiteshwara and the fragment of a gorgeous gateway from the Udayagiri monastery (both from Odisha), placed in the colonial building’s large garden, is worth the meagre price of entry.

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