Cloves, cardamoms, and store of cloth
Sweet-smelling grass and ambergris
O merchant, let thy cargo be
That thou dost set upon the seas.
No crazy wreck on work engage,
For hark! Ahead the breakers rage.
“The peacocks are all dead
not one wild goose is left
This lake has now become the home of false birds…
— Verses by the great Sufi saint of Sindh, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai: translated by different scholars
EACH time that one used to enter the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai (now named Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, CSMVS in short) — I speak not necessarily of today but of times gone by — one saw, just to the right as one entered, inside a spacious showcase, a wonderful, large, nearly intact figure in terracotta. A handsome young man, standing, features of the face beautifully chiselled with an emphasis on full, calm lips; weight unevenly distributed and resting lightly on one leg; bare of body but for an elegant wrap around his middle; left hand resting close to waist, the other holding a single flower pressing against the alabaster-smooth chest; eyes gently directed towards one side; the curly hair, painted black, falling in ringlets over his shoulders. There was something singularly arresting about this figure of youthful innocence and one longed to know a little more about him. The museum label told one something about him, but almost naturally just the physical details: that the figure was from Mirpur Khas in Sindh, Pakistan; the height of the figure was 74 cm, which is roughly the equivalent of 30 inches. A little hesitantly, the label identified him as “a merchant devotee (?)” and dated the figure “5th century CE”.
Now, fortunately, one knows more, and much of this is due, at least for me, to a fine monograph, titled ‘The Lost Stupa of Kahu-jo-daro’, written by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the visionary director of CSMVS, and published as a part of the centenary celebrations of the museum. In this monograph, we are taken in hand by the writer and made to travel to Sindh, for taking in the details of the astounding discoveries relating to our past which were being made a little more than a hundred years ago. Following early observations about ancient mounds by men like John Jacob and James Gibbs, the ruins of Harappa were opened up in 1921; a year later, the stunning ‘city’ of Mohenjo-daro was revealed. Archaeologists whose names are a legend by now — RD Banerjee, John Marshall, Henry Cousens, James Burgess — flit in and out of this absorbing account, but the one name associated with the mound and the stupa of Kahu-jo-daro that surfaces again and again is that of Henry Cousens (1854-1933), who served as Superintendent of the Western Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India and did remarkable work in the field. Of great interest is the fact that it was through him that a very sizeable number of artefacts unearthed from Kahu-jo-daro landed in the then Prince of Wales Museum, including that great terracotta image of the ‘merchant devotee’. Cousens was a founder-member of the Museum, and he deposited a large number of antiquities in his favourite institutions in Bombay.
Today, the collection of the museum consists of, apart from the ‘merchant devotee’, ‘five large, seated Buddha images in high relief, 297 moulded bricks and architectural fragments, a few rectangular bricks, a large number of sun-dried clay tablets, and a tiny fragment of stone depicting a Jataka scene’, reminding one of the firm ties of all these objects with Buddhism. The words ‘ye dharma’, written in Brahmi characters found on numerous clay tablets, keep ringing in one’s ears.
It is naturally not possible to go into any details here — Dr Mukherjee has done that at admirable length in his monograph — but it is also not easy to go on without directing attention to the quality of the work that the stupa has yielded, despite having been ruined, raided, despoiled, looted and ravished over the years. The wonderful high-relief patterns on decorative bricks — writhing now, singing again; blossoming at one place and almost rubbed out at another; alive with figures or just wallowing in nature’s patterns — are a refreshing sight in themselves. But a measure of calm descends upon one as one’s eyes land upon one of those large-sized panels — there are five of them, one remembers — that show the Buddha seated in meditation. The figure is all too familiar of course, but in these terracotta panels, it is as if one is seeing it with fresh eyes, for one is constantly made conscious of the humble material from which it has been fashioned; brought into being. A large nimbus framing the head, decorated with lotuses in bloom, the Master sits cross-legged in samadhi, hands gently resting in lap, eyes all but closed, a faint smile hovering around the lips. The subtlety of details is remarkable: the barest suggestion of a dhoti covering the torso, with slightly raised edges visible around the neck and at calf-length; the toes, each individually carved, pressing against the inside of the thigh; patterned hair topped by the smoothest protuberance that serves as the ushnish; the cloth-like spread that forms the seat — which does not take away in the slightest from the suggestion of the whole form floating in the air — part lotus-leaves, part a lion-face in the centre hinting at the singhasana/lion-throne. The entire figure is set inside a frame with a scroll pattern, but enough blank spaces are left around the figure. There is delight in the seeing, and comfort in the contemplation.
But, like all that exists, everything passes. These pieces which have survived — reminders as they are — belong to another age, a different time. The words that I have cited from the Sufi saint above, treating as they do of the ephemeral, the nashvara, are eloquent in their simplicity, as are those with which the archaeologist and scholar Parveen Talpur — a scion probably of the powerful family of the Mirs of Talpur who were masters of this region once — begins her account of the stupa of Kahu-jo-daro with the words of the great Jalal-ud Din Rumi: “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”
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