Rare exhibits

Weekly Article by Historian Pradeep Chakravarthy


A collection of unusual musical instruments vies for attention with the philately, numismatics, zoology and botany galleries.

(This is the fifth and last article on the five-part series on the Government Museum, Chennai.)

As part of the anthropology section, the Government Museum, Chennai, has several artefacts of South Indian tribes including the Todas, Chenchus, Lambadis and Gonds. The artefacts include garments, jewellery and weapons.

A collection of rare musical instruments includes those such as the jalatharangam and kombu that are still played today and others such as the mayil yazh, vil yazh and naga veena, stringed instruments that were popular during the Sangam Age. The yazh lost out to the veena which was invented by the Thanjavur Nayak King Raghunatha in the 17th century. The veena was able to capture notes as well as gamakas which the yazh could not. The Balasaraswathy is a particularly beautiful instrument in the collection.

The percussion instruments are represented by the nagara which is played with the drum on the nape of the elephant’s neck. Also in the collection is the panchamukha vadyam. This instrument is played only in two temples today, one being the Tyagaraja Swamy Temple in Tiruvarur. It is said that here during the last century, there were more than 14 instruments that were played during festivals. A percussion instrument of a purely ornamental nature is a glass dholak.

The museum also has a large collection of Stone Age tools and pottery shards. Among these are artefacts excavated from Adhichanallur dated circa 5th century B.C. Some of the articles are from today’s Andhra Pradesh. A particularly rare one is the sarcophagus, shaped like a ram with six legs. The body is hollowed out into a cavity which contained the human remains. Given their importance and fragile nature, many of these objects are not on display but are extensively documented in the museum’s website.

Rare coins

The numismatics gallery contains several rare coins many from the Roman period. The Roman coins were excavated in Arikamedu and other sites that played an important role in the Indo-Roman trade route. The museum also has a collection of medals. Among those of interest are those from Mysore. In this gallery is also a facsimile copy of the Magna Carta, a historic agreement signed in the U.K. in 1215 A.D. and is believed to be the only copy in India.

A first of its kind for Indian museums is the philatelic gallery that showcases stamps from various countries. Of particular interest are stamps from Germany and the first day cover collection. The origins of the museum are in its geological collection. This, along with the zoological and botany galleries, is of value to students of science. The displays focus both on environmental and economic perspectives. . An exhibit that never ceases to amaze young visitors is the colossal skeleton of a great Indian Baleen whale measuring over 60 feet and added to the museum in 1874. Fossils from ancient times are also a highlight.

The Museum has an excellent website: www.chennaimuseum.org/

(The writer likes to thank the Principal Secretary and Commissioner of the Museum for permitting him to do research and to the curators of the galleries for their help. He records his gratitude to S. Muthiah for his help on the history of the Museum.)


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