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Virtual pilgrimage: reimagining India’s Great Shrine of Amaravati - British Museum

Exhibition preview

AS PART of the British Museum’s South Asia season, the Asahi Shimbun Display Virtual pilgrimage: reimagining India’s Great Shrine of Amaravati (in Room 3 from August 10 to October 8, 2017) focuses on a double-sided relief from the Great Shrine of Amaravati in south-east India.

Founded around 200 BC, the Shrine was one of the earliest, largest and most important Buddhist monuments in the world.

Located near the ancient city of Dharanikota in the present-day state of Andhra Pradesh, the site flourished for over a thousand years – the city had important trade links throughout South and Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and the Mediterranean world.

One side of the relief reveals what the Shrine, now an archaeological site, may have looked like. It shows the dome covered in Buddhist symbols and stories, while the Buddha himself stands in bodily form at the gateway, flanked by devotees. On the other side the Buddha is evoked as an empty throne, a Bodhi tree and a pair of footprints, perhaps suggesting his liberation from the earthly realm and the confines of the human body.

The Shrine’s domed structure, or stupa, contained a relic – perhaps of an important spiritual teacher, or of the Buddha himself, who died sometime between 490 and 400 BC. Pilgrims from many walks of life funded its construction and adornment over hundreds of years. The identities of these donors are revealed through Prakrit inscriptions written in Brahmi, one of India’s oldest scripts, carved onto individual sculptures.

They include a female disciple who donated the relief on display, a 1st-century BC perfumer called Hamgha who donated a pillar, a 1st-century AD Buddhist monk called Budhi who donated a ‘lion-seat’ (probably a support for a lion statue) with his sister Budha (a nun), and a 2nd-century AD woman called Kumala who donated an elaborately carved railing pillar.

In the display, these four individuals will be dramatically brought to life by actors and projected onto the gallery walls. Using new mobile technology, visitors will have the opportunity to use their smartphones to interact with these characters and explore the Shrine in more detail.

This creative approach to storytelling will highlight the importance of ancient inscriptions, which are crucial for understanding the historical and social significance of sites such as the Great Shrine. ‘Opening up’ the gallery walls will allow us to playfully experiment with its otherwise protected and untouched surfaces. By reimagining the donors that made the Amaravati site possible, this display will explore the power of patronage in ancient India.

The Great Shrine was gradually abandoned during the 14th century, and by the late 18th century materials from the shrine were being recycled for new buildings and temples. In the 19th century a series of archaeological campaigns recovered the surviving sculptures. Today, the pieces are shared across a number of museum collections in India and around the world.

The British Museum houses more than 120 sculptures from Amaravati, forming the single most important group of Indian sculptures outside the subcontinent. Many will be on permanent display when the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia and the Asahi Shimbun Gallery of Amaravati sculptures reopen in November 2017.

You can explore the object in 3D by visiting sketchfab.com/models/.

A number of events accompany the display.

Image: One of two sides of a relief from the Great Shrine of Amaravati, evoking the Buddha’s presence symbolically as an empty throne, a Bodhi tree and a pair of footprints. Andhra Pradesh, India, c.50 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Admission: Free.

Opening times: Saturday – Thursday, 10am – 5.30pm; Friday, 10am – 8.30pm.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG

Also at the British Museum: The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia (September 14, 2017 to January 14, 2018).