Treasures of National Museum, India

5,000 years of Indian Art and Craftsmanship

Buddha with Avalokiteswara (500/700) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

National Museum, New Delhi is the premier museum of India. It houses an impressive collection of artefacts from across the country and the world. The genesis of National Museum collection is truly remarkable. In 1947-48 an exhibition of Indian antiquities, sponsored by the Royal Academy of Arts, London was held at Burlington House, London. On return, the objects were exhibited in the state rooms of Rashtrapati Bhawan (India’s President’s House in New Delhi) in 1948. On 15th August 1949, National Museum was formally inaugurated by the Governor General of India, Shri R. C. Rajagopalachari, and it was announced that till the permanent building for housing the collections was constructed, the Museum would continue to function in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Heeding to a request from the central Government, many of the participants of the London exhibition donated their artefacts to the new museum, and this formed the nucleus of the collection of National Museum. The collections continued to grow through gifts and the consistent efforts of its Art Purchase Committee. Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, laid the foundation stone for the Museum building on 12th May 1955 and the new building was opened on 18th December 1960.

Rustam captures the horse Rakhsh (1676/1700) by unknownNational Museum - New Delhi


Today, National Museum has over 2,10,000 art objects representing 5,000 years of Indian art and craftsmanship. The collection includes
sculptures in stone, bronze, terracotta and wood, a large collection of miniature paintings and manuscripts, coins, arms and armour,
jewellery, textile, costumes and anthropological objects. Antiquities from Central Asia and Pre-Columbian artefacts form the two non-Indian collections in the Museum. The Museum is the custodian of the treasure trove of India’s multilayered history and multicultural heritage.

Dancing girl (-2700/-2100) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This figure is a remarkable achievement of the artists of this ancient culture. From this masterpiece we know that the Harappans were skilled in metallurgy and knew how to cast alloys of metals using the lost wax process.

This image of a young woman; large eyes, flat nose and bunched curly hair are all featured in an artistic way.

The tilted head and flexed knees and bent right arm dramatically resting on her hip and the other hand holding a bowl suggests a dancing pose. The heavy armlets and the forearm ringed with bangles match her heavy neck ornament. Though the sculpture is only 6 inches tall, it is a work of art, as the artist has captured the youthful charm of the dancer and at the same time evoked many mysterious qualities, leaving us to wonder - who she was, and what was her position in society?

Un-humped bull (-2800/-2700) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

Terracotta bull figurines are commonly found at the larger urban centres and smaller settlements of the Harappan culture. Among the livestock, depictions of the bull on seals or figurines have always been done very artistically.

This terracotta bull figurine is entirely handmade. Probably a knife may have been used to shape parts of the body and its minute details after which a thin cream slip was put over the entire figurine. A garland or plaited rope appears to have been placed around the neck of the bull.

Railing Pillar Depicting Asita’s Visit (100/200) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

In the early days of Buddhism, the Buddha was worshipped through Aniconism which meant that certain objects were worshipped that didn’t show him in the human form. These emblems were the Footprints, the Bodhi Tree, the Dhamma Chakra, an Empty Throne, a stupa, the pillar of radiance and many more. However, it is disputed among scholars whether these emblems stood for specific events from the life of the Shakyamuni Buddha or important Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Nevertheless, this phase of Aniconic worship culminated into the iconic or the anthropomorphic worship. In this Casing slab, Buddha/baby Siddhartha has been depicted symbolically by a pair of footprints on the cloth held by Asita.

Sage Asita visited King Suddhodhana at his palace when the Buddha was born as prince Siddhartha in the Shakya Clan. Upon seeing the auspicious signs on the baby’s body, Asita prophesied that he would either become a great king or a great monk, of which, the latter came to be true. This episode is shown on the part of this relief panel.

Elephants carrying Buddha’s relics (-300/-200) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This railing stone represents the last episode of Buddha’s life. According to Mahaparinirvana Sutta, just after the death of Buddha, the 8 ruling clans of North-eastern India claimed his remains on grounds of kinship. To avoid war, Drona, a wise Brahmin suggested that the Buddha’s relics be equally distributed amongst all the eight clans. The offer was accepted and the sacred relics were divided and transported by the kings, amidst great pomp, to their various kingdoms, where Stupas were built to enshrine them.

This frieze represents a royal procession with four caparisoned elephants, with the kings balancing the reliquary caskets, while driving the elephants with the goad.

The procession starts with dancers accompanied by female musicians playing on drums, castanets, and a harp. According to textual references, the Mallas celebrated the death of Buddha with dance and music, as he died at the age of eighty. Even today in India, the funeral procession of the elderly is accompanied with flowers and music. The low relief on the frieze is characteristic of Shunga art.

The railing design ends with a kneeling elephant yielding the lotus stem, known as ‘Kalpavalli’ or ‘wish fulfilling stem’, that turns into beautiful jewellery.

Flying celestials (600/700) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

In the Deccan, over one hundred temples were built during the 7th and 8th Century within the Early Western Chalukyan Empire (10th to 12th Century C.E.). Few of these temples are Jain in affiliation and the rest Hindu, and reflect the religious leanings of different emperors.

This panel is one of the rare Chalukyan temple ceilings in the collection of National Museum.

The ceiling slab depicts a flying celestial couple. This graceful representation of the couple shows their legs bent at the knees as if they are flying without the aid of wings. The male figure is clad in a short lower garment and the female is draped in a sari. The soft fluttering garments and depiction of clouds suggest skyward movement of the divine couple.

Yogini (400/500) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This Yogini sculpture belongs to a site named Lokhari, a village in the Banda district in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh.
Esoteric form of worship was prevalent in that region since the 10th century C.E. Yogini

Vrishanana (buffalo headed goddess) sits against an un-ornamented stele in Lalitasana with a club in her left hand and a bilva fruit in her right hand. Her vahana or vehicle is a swan that pecks on the fruit in her right hand.

The animal face of the Yogini has a serene and meditative expression. She is adorned with a necklace, girdle, heavy anklets and bangles.

Surya (1200/1300) by unknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This is one of the finest sculptures from the Sun temple of Konarak and may have once been installed for worship in the sanctum. Surya is depicted standing, holding full-blown lotuses in both hands, riding on a chariot driven by charioteer Aruna, drawn by seven galloping horses.

The deity is flanked by attendant figures; Danda and Pingala on one side and his consorts, Chhaya (Shadow) and Suvarchasa on the other. The figure is surrounded by a decorative arch that adds beauty to the image. Surya is the source of light, warmth, life and knowledge, and is the solar deity from the early period of the Rigveda. Before the 5th century and as the solar cult was strongly influenced by the Zoroastrian cult of Iran, images of Surya was dressed in tunic, girdle and high boots, with a dagger in his hand, and only four horses drew his chariot. It was only from the Gupta period onwards that the Surya images were ‘Indianized’ as we see in this image.

Vishnu (400/500) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This impressive Vishnu depicts the deity as four-armed, wearing a jeweled crown (kiritamukuta), the sacred thread (yajnopavita) (with fastenings at the left shoulder and the waist) and a long garland made of flowers (vanamala). The artist has depicted two necklaces; one of twisted pearl strands and the other of graduated beads, the armbands (keyuras), and the pleated short lower garment secured at the waist in stone in the most sensitive manner. When complete this image must have had a large, halo (prabhavali). The depiction of arched eyebrows, gently lowered eyes, full lips, half closed eyes, rounded chin and the three conventional folds around the neck (trivalayas) are all characteristic of the 5th century C.E. monumental images of Vishnu of the Gupta period that display great aesthetic excellence.

Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the Marriage Procession his Eldest Son Dara Shikoh (1740 AD - 1750 AD) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This magnificent painting shows the elaborate marriage procession of Dara Shikoh, son of emperor Shahjahan.

Dara Shikoh is mounted on a brown stallion with the traditional sehra and accompanied by his father, Shahjahan (with nimbus) on white horse. The reception of the marriage procession is accompanied by music, dance, gifts and fireworks.

Of special note are the various types of fireworks, a skill which remain a specialty of Muslim artisans even today. The artist has successfully created the glamour of the royal court and the atmosphere of a marriage procession with all the pomp and show of the Mughal era.

Jewellery box (1900/2000) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

Intricate jaali work (lattice work) is the most significant feature of the Mughal monuments of India. Most of the Mughal monuments are extensively decorated with jaali work illustrating the geometric and floral patterns. Such designs and patterns inspire the artisans to replicate such workmanship in different mediums and ivory carving was one such material. Aesthetically carved variety of ivory artefacts like boxes, screens, combs, panels often shows exquisite jaali work very skillfully done in a naturalistic way.

This minutely carved ivory jewellery box is an excellent example of lattice workmanship done by the Delhi ivory carvers in the beginning of 20th century. Fitted with several delicate small panels, worked in ogee pattern and each ogee design show symmetrically arranged pair of birds.

The box rests on four legs each carved in the shape of elephant’s face and lace effect can also be seen in the lower portion. The most significant aspect of this box is that the knob, hinges and even the nails have been made of ivory.

Rose water sprinkler (1700/1800) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The term ‘gulabpash’ refers to ‘rose water sprinkler’. Soft sweet fragrance of rose flower had attracted the royals and nobles to use it in number of ways, besides rose flower garland. The gulabpash is the most widely used vessel, which was used for sprinkling rose water during the royal courtly etiquette, social customs and ritualistic ceremonies. Usually gulabpash has a globular body, long elongated necks and perforated tip. For making these vessels different materials; glass, silver, gold or gold, were used, which were decorated according to the stature of the user.

This silver and gilded enameled gulabpash has a bulbous body for storing rose water, a little circular base and a long neck. The beautiful gulabpash is decorated with the Champlevé technique of enameling in blue and green colour. The artistically carved leafy scrollwork pattern covers the entire body on the Persian blue enameled surface.

Foliage design is on the shoulder of the sprinkler and it has beautiful leaf patterned on narrow base. It is a beautiful example of late 18th century enamel work of the Lucknow centre of North India.

Necklace (kanthi) (1800/1900) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The necklace (kanthi) in the form of an openwork torque in five hinged sections. In the front, the necklace is set with white sapphires in a design of seven flowers with an octagonal stone in the middle and surrounded with petals and meandering creepers and leaves all set with white sapphires.

The chain at the back in the form of a row of single stones. The back of the jewel is garden of flowers in painted pink enamel with green and blue highlights.

On either side of the center flower there is a graceful peacock with head turned back and a single pearl positioned on top in the middle and a pear-shaped floral pendant suspended below.

Plate (1700/1800) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This plate made up of jade and immaculately inlaid with precious stones and gold wire shows the skill involved in delicately inlaying simple utilitarian objects like this plate. Jade has been used in many countries as a popular medium for decorative arts as it has an internal quality of being translucent and allowing light to pass through it. This quality lends jade as one of the best materials for inlay work as the precious stones appear luminescent when inlaid in jade. In this piece apart from the inlaid stones, the gold wire enhances the form and finish of flowers and leaves that feature in the motifs.
Jade is a rare stone that has been historically used in China and India. One kind of Jade also called Jadeite It is available in various colours of pink, white and violet whereas the other more commonly available Jade also called Nephrite is usually available in dark and light green, black and brown colours. This particular plate is perhaps carved out of Nephrite which was commonly available in India and can achieve a high polish.

Kaliya-mardan Krishna (900/1000) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This is an elegant bronze image of Krishna dancing on the serpent- hood of Kaliya-naga. It represents the story of how Krishna learnt that the village cattle were being poisoned when they drank from the waters of the Kalindi River. Being the protector of the cowherd community, the young Krishna finds the culprit is the proud Kaliya- naga or serpent demon. Krishna jumps into the water to subjugate the giant serpent, dancing on his hood till the serpent repents and begs for forgiveness.

The pedestal has four holes on each corner indicating that is was a mobile image made to be carried in temple processions.

In this sculpture Krishna’s right hand is in abhaya-mudra the gesture of protection to all, while with the left hand he is triumphantly holding the tail of the snake and the five hooded Kaliya has his hands held in anjali mudra, the gesture of respect and worship.

Nataraja (1100/1200) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, represents the essential aspects of Shiva; creation, preservation, destruction, and grace. The dance he performs is the dance of bliss or ananda tandava.

In this image Nataraja has four arms; the rear right hand carries the damaru or drum, symbolic of the primeval sound of creation and the left holds a flame of fire, symbol of destruction. The front right hand is in abhaya-mudra symbolizing protection and the rear left arm crosses his chest to the right and the fingers point to his feet, where Shiva tramples the dwarf demon Apasmarapurusha, or ignorance. The left leg is raised diagonally with the foot in air, denoting the path of salvation. The image of Shiva is encircled by a prabhamandala, like a circle of light.

The matted locks of Shiva is adorned with the figure of river goddess Ganga, a snake, jewels, flowers, a crescent moon and a human skull.

Gupta coins (300/400) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

In the centre: King and queen standing.
The King is offering ring/bangle like object to the Queen, Name of king in Brahmi- ‘Chandragupta’ right, Name of Queen in Brahmi - ‘Sri Kumaradevi’ left. In the centre- Goddess Durga seated on lion, holding noose in left and cornucopia in right hand; Monogram left, Brahmi legend – Lichchhavyah right

Inscribed sword of Tipu Sultan (1700/1800) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This is the personal sword of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore (now Karnataka) of the closing years of the 18th century C.E. The Delhishahi hilt with its circular disc pommel, oval grip, small knucle-guard, short quillons and small langets, is damascened in gold in floral and creeper design all over. The fine steel blade, devoid of jauhar, is inscribed and bears the verses from the Holy Quran together with the name of Tipu Sultan and his capital Srirangapatnam. The wooden sheath is covered with maroon velvet.

Sword of AurangzebNational Museum - New Delhi

This sword is a single-edged shamshir and is made of fine watered steel. From the forte to the middle, the blade is profusely inscribed in golden letters with Arabic verses written in the Naskh script. However, the name of Aurangzeb is written in Nasta’liq script. Calligraphically, this inscription is one of the best examples of its kind.

Sword of AurangzebNational Museum - New Delhi

The inscribed verses read “Bismillah-i-rehman-al-rahim. Nasrun Min-al-allah-i-wa Fathun Qarib. La Fataha illa Ali, La Saifa-illa Zulfiqar. La yasmaoon Fiha Laghwan wa la kizzaban. Jazaun Min Rabbika Qabiyan”.
In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful, (With) help from Allah, a speedy victory is near // There is no warrior but Ali // There is no sword but Zulfiqar. No vanity shall they hear therein (in Heaven), nor untruth (One will receive) recompense from the Lord, a gift...
These lines echo the inscription that is said to have been written on the famed Zulfiqar sword that the Prophet Muhammad gifted to his nephew and son-in- law, Hazrat Ali.
In the centre of the blade is a tughra with the name of Aurangzeb below which is written Ya Allah, Ya Mohammad, Ya Ali.

Sword of AurangzebNational Museum - New Delhi

The blade is beautifully decorated with figures of fish, a tiger and a deer and floral and creeper designs, all in gold. The hilt is unique. It consists of straight quillons and a rectangular grip of steel fitted with ivory pieces on both sides. These ivory pieces are decorated with floral and fish-scale patters. The sides of the grip and the quillons are damascened with floral and creeper designs.

Pallu of a saree (1600/1700) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

Saree, the most graceful outfit of Indian women is an unstitched long fabric, worn by warping and folding around the body. The saree has main three components; the body or field, borders and the pallu or the end panel. This is an excellent example of a orange, cotton based, gold brocade pallu of a saree woven in Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh.

The artistically crafted pallu depicts hunting scenes woven into roundels in the centre. Intricate pattern of figurative work has been woven with double weft technique, in silk thread on a gold/ zari background. The entire pallu of the saree has been woven with variety of patterns; double row of roundels in centre, flower and parrot motifs, bands of floral creepers and a row of dancing peacock. This is a good example of seventeenth century craftsmanship and appears to have been made to order for a customer.

Venugopal, Ganesha and Saint (1800/1900) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

Intricately carved statute of Venugopal in center is flanked by Ganesha and Saint’s images on both side and all of them stand on double lotus seat. All three divinities stands under carved arch, which depicts kirtimukha (face of glory) on top, and their seats, have been fixed on long rectangular pedestal.

The name Venugopal refers to Krishna with flute (venu), is also known as Gopala, he stands cross legged along with cow and flanked by garland bearers. Sharp featured image of Krishna is adorned with ornamental crown, vanamala, armlet, necklaces, bangles, anklets, dhoti and sash. Four armed Ganesha is portrayed in his traditional style on the right side, while two armed saint is on left hand side.

The crowned Ganesha sits on mouse and holds his aydha (weapons) i.e, elephant goda, noose, tusk and sweet. Two armed saint is also jeweled and he wears; necklaces, bangles and anklet.

Elephant (1900/2000) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The craft of basketry pre-dates the craft of weaving and pottery by many thousands of years. Even at the food gathering stage, man used rudimentary articles made of intertwined branches for carrying wood and other things. Making a basket is a time intensive process, yet even today; it is still popular with every tribal and folk community around the world, who weave baskets for their everyday use.
Although, basketry was adopted universally by many communities, yet its uniqueness was expressed at various regions through the locally available materials that were used, like bamboo, cane, palm, grass, twigs, coir, etc. for its creation. The distinctiveness is also seen in the utility and purpose for which it was created. At some places it was used for storage or as a medium for carrying things and at others it took a more ritualistic form. There are also baskets made for specific use like straining rice beer, winnowing food grains or as traps for catching fish.

The craft of basketry also gives the craftsmen flexibility to play with the forms and create works of art by just exploiting the various shades of strips in their weaving pattern. For example, the elephant shaped sikki grass basket from Bihar is a fine example of creativity where the dyed grass is coiled along with the natural coloured grass to make an object distinct to the region and its aesthetics.

Folio of Babur Nama (1500/1600) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This painting depicts a scene of the 14th of April 1529 when Babur marched through Bibar and crossed the River Saun using a bridge of boats. The artist Jaganath gives names to the prominent boats. The large boat built in Agra is named Asaish (repose), the one presented by Araish Khan is called Araish (ornament) and one called Gunjaish (capacious).

Babur set up a platform to which he gave the name Farmaish (request). Babur thus narrates. This incident: I left the ground by boat on Thursday. I had already ordered the boats to wait, and on getting up to them, I had them fastened together abreast in line. Though all were not collected there, those that were greatly exceeded the breadth of the river. They could not move on so-arranged however, because the water was here shallow, there deep, here swift, there still. A crocodile gharial showed itself, a terrified fish leaped so high as to fall into a boat; it was caught and brought to me. Babur is sitting on the platform of Gunjaish surrounded by attendants.

In the middle of the paintings is a boat onto which a fish has leapt. Two soldiers armed with muskets are firing at the crocodile. All the on-lookers are sharing in the excitement which the incident has provided. Babur is sitting beneath a pavilion constructed on the largest boat. He is the highest figure in the painting, evidencing his status as master of all the surveys.

Holy Quran (600/700) by unknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This is an incomplete text from the Holy Quran, (7th Century C.E.) inscribed by Hazrat Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam. It is on parchment (un-tanned animal skin) and seems to have been restored with a 16th century paper bearing Persian inscriptions. It is a rare specimen of both text and calligraphy.

Plate showing reptiles (300/650) by unknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This shallow bowl painted on the inside has figures of repeated reptiles in alternate colours of yellow and brown on a white background. Outlines are done by fine brush work in black and dark brown enhancing the effect of the contour line depending on the colour of the ground. Naturally the figures are set off best against white ground . On a dark one they are blurred, giving a mysterious effect.

Almost all the vessels from the classic Nazca period are polished smooth, the slip and design appearing to be the finest glaze.

Credits: Story

Script and Curation - Curators of National Museum.

Exhibit Compilation - Vasundhra Sangwan.

Photography - Surya Prakash Dev, Suresh Mahto, Suchismita Giri & Rakesh Kumar.

References - National Museum Guidebook, 2014.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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