ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Amaravati sculptures sent to London in 1819-1820


Howes Jennifer - Independent scholar, London, United Kingdom


12 – South Asian Collections in European Museums: Examining their acquisition, display, and futures


 This paper looks at the first Amaravati sculptures to be sent to London in the early nineteenth century. These five sculptures were selected by Colin Mackenzie, the East India Company’s first Surveyor General, for transport to the India Museum on Leadenhall Street in 1819-1820.  The circumstances behind their collection were obscured in the 1850s, when over a hundred additional Amaravati sculptures were dispatched to London.

When Mackenzie’s survey team documented Amaravati Stupa in 1816-17, they couldn’t decipher the inscriptions they encountered, had no idea of the stupa’s antiquity and didn’t know that it was a Buddhist monument. By contrast, the sculptures sent to London in the 1850s were selected with the benefit of three decades of antiquarian scholarship. Did this knowledge influence the selection of the additional 116 Amaravati sculptures that were later sent to London?  To tease out the reasoning behind later stages of sculpture removal, the work of men like Francis Robertson, Walter Elliot and Henry Sykes will be briefly considered. 

By identifying the sculptures Mackenzie sent to London in 1819, and comparing them with other Amaravati sculptures, one can discern why he chose to send those particular pieces to East India House. Today, the India Museum’s Amaravati sculptures are in the British Museum. By interpreting them chronologically, according to when they were removed from Amaravati and sent to London, new ways of interpretation are revealed.