British Museum must return murtis to Sarasvati temple at Dhar
20 May 2012
The British Museum must return two pratima (images) to the Sarasvati Mandiram in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, where they belong, so that their worship can be resumed by devotees. By all accounts, Major Gen. Williak Kincaid recovered the sculptures of the Goddesses Amba and Vagdevi from the site of the old city palace at Dhar in1875; they entered the collection of the British Museum in the 1880s.
Dr. Gautam Sengupta, Director General, Archaeological Survey of India has stated that a formal process is ongoing through UNESCO to have the pratima(s) of Sarasvati returned to Dhar. The arbitrary cut-off date of 14 Nov. 1970 per UNESCO 1970 Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property does NOT apply to these sacred pratima which have been stolen from the temple in Dhar.
In the Hindu tradition, a temple is a temple forever. This legal position has been upheld by the British judicial system in the "London Nataraja case" where, after protracted litigation, the House of Lords ordered the pratima to be returned to the temple in Tamil Nadu; it returned in 1990.
In the Bhojasala (School of Bhoja) in Dhar, Sarasvati was worshipped as a divinity of learning. The Bhojasala was both a temple and a centre of Sanskrit studies. An inscription on the base of a pratima notes that Vararuci, an official in Paramara kingdom, had made two pratima, together with the pratima of 3 Jinas (Tirthankaras): one of Vagdevi and another of Amba. Both forms represent the divinity Sarasvati.
In the 13th Jaina Studies Workshop at SOAS held on 18 March 2011 in Brunei Gellery Lecture Theatre, Michael Willis, a Curator of the British Museum, made a presentation: New Discoveries from Old Finds: The Sculpture of Ambika in the British Museum and its Relationship to Jain Narrative in Medieval India. An abstract of this paper states:
"This paper examines a sculpture of Ambika in the British Museum and presents a new reading of the inscription on the pedestal. The inscription is dated 1034 in the reign of King Bhoja, the celebrated ruler of the Paramara dynasty. The sculpture was recovered from the site of the old city palace at Dhar in 1875 by William Kincaid and entered the collection of the British Museum in the 1880s. Attempts to understand the inscription culminated in the 1980s with the reading of H.C. Bhayani, the well-known Sanskrit and Prakrit scholar. He showed that the inscription records the creation of an image of Ambika. Interestingly, the inscription also records the making of three Jinas and Vagdevi (i.e. Sarasvati) prior to the Ambika. This shows that the Sarasvati of King Bhoja at Dhar was, in fact, a Jain form of the goddess. This is confirmed by the testimony of Merutunga. A fresh examination of the British Museum inscription has shown that the donor's name is given in the inscription as Vararuci. There are a number of Vararucis in the history of Indian literature, the most famous being the author of the first Prakrit grammar. In the eleventh century, Vararuci appears in a number of narrative contexts, from the Kathasaritsagara to Hemacandra's Parisistaparvan. These narratives were composed in a dialectical environment, a reconstruction of which shows that the Vararuci mentioned in the British Museum inscription was probably a courtly pseudonym for Dhanapala, the author of the Tilakamanjari. He adhered to Jaina pantha and served as a minister in the court of King Bhoja."
[Newsletter of the Centre of Jaina Studies, SOAS, Univ. of London, CoJS Newsletter, March 2011, Issue 6, p. 8.
That the sculpture was obtained by William Kincaid – as conceded by the Curator of the British Museum – is properly recorded in British Museum website:
But in a subsequent article in JRAS, an attempt is made to obfuscate the fact that the specific sculpture in the British Museum was taken from the Sarasvati temple in Dhar, though the article concedes that they are taken from a temple. The citation made in this article of March 2012 and in the presentation made by Dr. Michael Willis in March 2011, erroneously refers to the name of the deity in the sculpture as Ambika.
But the inscription on the sculpture is clear and emphatic that the divinity is Amba, NOT Ambika. Amba in Indian traditions dating from the Rigveda is a reference to Sarasvati who is worshipped by the Rigveda Rishi Grtsamada in three forms: Amba (Mother), Nadi (River) and Devi (Divinity). Michael Willis errs in stating that the current location of the Sarasvati from Dhar remains an interesting mystery, thus implying that the murti is not located in the British Museum.
In the Rigveda, Devi Ganga is mentioned only once, while Devi Saraswati is lauded no less than seventy-two times. In a famous hymn, S'aunaka Gritasamda, the Rishi of the second Mandala, lauds the Saraswati as ambitame, naditame, devitame Saraswati: (RV II.41.16).
Thus, Ambitame and Amba in the Rigveda is the same Amba mentioned on the inscription of Bhojsala Sarasvati pratima. That she is divinity of learning is evidenced by what is perhaps a writing stylus carried on her unbroken right hand (out of four hands) -- a writing stylus used for creating inscriptions. The object carried on her left hand is not of high resolution in the photograph and may be a portion of a measuring thread (sutra) used by sthapati (sculptors, masons) artisans. A gandharva is seen above the right shoulder of the pratima perhaps with a garland venerating the divinity. The lady riding a lion at the bottom right of the pratima may relate to the divine Durga form of Amba; the standing bearded person on the bottom left may be Brahma.
Location of ancient Sarasvati mandiram
The hall precincts are located adjacent to the tomb of Kamal al-Din Chisti (1238-1330), in Dhar. The Lal Masjid was built primarily of reused temple parts, as can be seen in the prayer-hall colonnades in the quadrangle. [British Library, Photo 2/4(90), item 4303212. Map of Dhar: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dhar_Plan.jpg] Outside the Masjid are three fragments of the Iron Pillar, set in position in the 1980s by the Archaeological. It was about 13.5 m in length, and was broken when the Sultan of Gujarat attempted to move it in the 1500s.
The pratima now in the British Museum is this sculpture found in the debris of the old city palace of Dhar in 1875, as clearly attested in the British Museum record: Accession Number: AN180732001 Place (findspot): Found/Acquired Dhar, Found in the ruins of the City Palace in 1875.
Bhoja Raja of Paramara dynasty (1000 to 1055 CE) was a scholar, a poet-king, to whom a number of works in Sanskrit have been ascribed, including a work on poetics, Srngaraprakasa. One of the works attributed to Bhoja is a work in poetics and grammar titled: Sarasvatikanthabharana or 'Necklace of Sarasvati'. Hence, the reference to the building in Dhar as Bhojasala (School of Bhoja) located in Sarasvati temple.
Dr Alois Anton Führer (1853–1930), of Archaeological Survey of India noted: "The dargah of Maulana Kamal-ud-din, built during the reign of Mahmud Shah Khilji I, in A.H. 861, has a spacious quadrangle with a colonnade of very fine Jaina pillars on each side within the square, and some are very elaborately sculpted in a similar style as those in the Dilwara temples at Abu. The floor is formed of black stone slabs from which Sanskrit inscriptions of the 12th century have been effaced. The mihrabs and mimbar of the masjid proper are very handsome. On two of the columns supporting the central dome of the masjid are inscribed a couple of grammatical sutras, which show that they were probably part of a scholastic building".
Captain Ernest Barnes, ICS, who served as political agent at Dhar from 1900 to 1904, collected available information on Dhar and Mandu and communicated his findings to the Royal Asiatic Society, Bombay Branch, in June, 1902. Barnes established a small archaeological department in September, 1902 and placed the Superintendent of State Education, Mr. K.K. Lele, in charge. Luard notes that the buildings of Dhar were Bhoja's school.
It should have been more appropriately called Sarasvati-mandiram. Historian K.M. Munshi noted: "Close to Sarasvati-mandira was a large well, still known as 'Akkal-Kui' or the 'Well of Wisdom'". Akkal-kui means 'well of wisdom' and attests to the meaning of the Arabic word AKL to be Sarasvati.
A Sanskrit and Prakrit inscription from the time of Arjunavarman (circa 1210-15), Bhoja's successor, was found in the walls of the building in 1903 by K.K. Lele, Superintendent of Education, Dhar. It is engraved with exceptional beauty and is now displayed inside the entrance of Kamal Maula mosque. The text includes part of a drama called Vijayasrinatika composed by Madana, the king's preceptor who also bore the title 'Balasarasvati'.
The inscription reports that the play was performed before Arjunavarman in the temple of Sarasvati. This a priori suggests that the inscription could have come from the site of the temple, upon which a mosque was constructed. This is the most conclusive epigraphical evidence that a Sarasvati mandiram existed at this place which now stands as a mosque.
Ajada, circa 1089 CE, refers to Bhoja's scholarship in the still-unpublished Sarasvatikanthabharanavrtti titled Padakaprakasa. C.H. Tawney translated Prabandhacintamani in 1901 and recorded Bhoja's visits to the temple of Sarasvati at Dhar. Merutunga calls the temple the Sarasvatikanthabharana or Necklace of Sarasvati. The inscription of Arjunavarman records that the Parijatamanjari was performed in the temple of Sarasvati.
Barnes noted: "Finally, a recent close inspection has brought to light the fact that the reverse side of two of the great black stone slabs which form the lining of the 'Mehrab' are covered with similar inscriptions, which happily by their position have escaped destruction, but which owing to that same position, it has only been possible up to the present to take fragmental impressions. These impressions seem to show that the inscriptions are a dramatic composition probably on an historical subject, written in the reign of a successor of Bhoja".
Archaeological investigations at the mosque next to Kamal al-Din's tomb revealed two serpentine inscriptions giving the alphabet and grammatical rules of Sanskrit. An inscription of Arjunavarman (1210-15), documented by K.K. Lele in 1903 refers to Sarasvati temple in Dhar.
While Hindus consider the shrine a Saraswati temple, Muslims refer to it as the Kamal Maula Masjid. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has worked out a compromise by allowing Hindus to worship at the temple on Basant Panchmi while Muslims congregate for prayers every Friday. A vigil is on with Hindu devotees burning an Akhand Jyoti (eternal flame), awaiting restitution of Sarasvati pratima in the temple. Dr. Gautam Sengupta announced in the Cairo Conference in April 2010 that Government of India has sought the intervention of UNESCO for restitution of Sarasvati pratima to the temple in Dhar.
Yale University of USA has set a good example of restitution of artifacts to the region where they belonged; the University returned to Peru, 4,000 objects found in excavations of Machu Picchu in Peru.
In the dying days of the Paramara regime, Solanki and Vaghela rulers transferred some libraries to their own cities where Paramara texts were copied, studied and preserved. The inscription of Visaladeva from Kodinar dated 1271 records the creation of a pleasure garden (ketana) and college (sadas) sacred to Sarasvati. Jinaprabhasuri (d. 1333) states that an image of the Jina Candraprabha came to Somnath from Valabhi along with figures of Amba and Kshetrapala.
Sarasvati worship is very popular among the Jaina pantha and all panthas of Hindu Sanatana Dharma. Sarasvati is celebrated all over India in two annual festivals: Basant Panchami (February) and during Navaratri (Dussehra, September. Vijaydasami is the day for aksarabhyasam, day to start alphabet learning for a child.). As knowledge (jnana) plays a fundamental role in Jain pantha as a means to salvation, this divinity has an important place in their pantheon. She features frequently in the vast Jain libraries filled with painted manuscripts that have been found in Western India.
These two sculptures of Sarasvati held illegally by the British Museum rightly belong to the temple in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, and must be returned.
The author is Director, Sarasvati Research Centre, and president, Ram Setu Protection Movement
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