This gem of a museum fits so well into my series title of Unsung UP. A highly visited tourist place like Mathura has this amazing museum but looks like no one visits except may be some history students on a study tour. Move around Mathura and most people will not be able to tell you where it is located, though this state museum is located in a fairly big building and is hard to miss. All the pandas, who approach you and promise a fast darshan in the temples will look the other way when you mention you want to visit the museum. Guidebooks skip this and tourists are not even aware of this place carrying the most ancient assets of the region. Not a great state to be in.
Historically the Nandas, Mauryas, Shungas, Kshtraps and Kushan dynasties had ruled Mathura. Here prospered the Mathura school of art, which has a distinct identity in sculptures of its period. The art works of Mathura school of art are spread across Taxila, Sarnath, Bodh Gaya, Sanchi and Kaushambi. In modern times this museum was setup by the British in 1874 CE and has been in the present building since 1933 CE. Stone sculptures dating back to Kushan and Gupta times form the major chunk of museum’s collection, but other small collections like metal craft, coins, terracotta miniature sculptures are also worth noticing. A brochure available at the ticket counter gives details of the museum’s collection, though only a small portion of that is on display.
Distinct characteristics of Mathura school of art involve the use of red spotted sandstone. Stone sculptures include idols of Hindu pantheon, Jains and Buddhists statues and panels. There are giant idols of Yakshas and Yakshis, who are supposed to be the first form of deities to be worshipped. In fact worship of Yakshas continues till date in Mathura. Yakhsha statues here are huge and they make you think if they were supposed to be larger than life or they are life size sculptures. The heaviness of the figures is overpowering, and most people would have bowed to that. Other famous pieces here include a headless torso of a Kushan king and a 5th century Buddha sculpture with an elaborate halo panel behind the head. There are replicas of Sanchi stupa and many panels with stories from the life of Buddha, some symbolic from the time when the anthromorphic representation of Buddha was not used to show him and some depicting Jataka tales predating Buddha. There are Jain monks in the meditative poses. There is Shiva with Parvati, Ganesh and Kartikeya, Vishnu in its various avatars and complete gallery showcasing the various representations of Sun. There are stone inscriptions that tell us for sure what these sculptures were and who were the kings who commissioned this work. There are large stone vessels. There are sculptures of women in various poses and as part of various stories.
Like every museum here too the elaborate hairstyles and enchanting garments of sculptures are worth noticing. The sheer variety of these makes you think if we have lost the art of dressing up and fashion, and left it only for the ramp models. The element of artistic expression in the smallest and simplest creations makes you think how much freedom and resources would have been available to the artists and what is it that is stopping us from being creative now.
The circular central courtyard of the museum has a corridor running along and has some dilapidated pieces lying here. Some have worn out and some have suffered the ravages of time, but like a cliché in Hindi says ‘khandhar batate hain, imarat kabhi buland thi’. In the lawns lie some more pieces that look beautiful against the green grass and yellow and red of the building. I wish visitors could be explained the art lying in this museum, and that may lead to more people visiting it. While we dream of portugal adventures, we miss out on so much of history and its stories in our country.
Do visit this when you make your rendezvous with the land of Radha Krishna. It will give you an entirely different perspective of the history of this temple town and pilgrim city.