Amaravati sculptures - breath-taking Buddhist artifacts of Andhra Pradesh

 India, home to Buddhism, has numerous Buddhist shrines across the country,  particularly in the north and north eastern states.  Among the Buddhist sites one of the oldest, largest and most important   is  the  fascinating and awe-inspiring  Great Shrine of Amaravati, founded  far back in  200 BC. Amaravati is now in the state of Andhra  The sculptures  include  richly carved relief panels showing narrative episodes  from the life of the Buddha, as well as Buddhist emblems and symbols. They were used to decorate the outside of the stupa   sculpted on the railing that surrounded the walkway. In the olden days the decoration of the  stupa  was funded by ardent devotees and the  stone inscriptions carry details of such gifts. 

Amaravati sculptures British

Amaravati sculptures British

British Museum, London.


British museum London Amaravati gallery

Amaravati sculpture,

Above image: Railing crossbar medallions. 100 A.D. – 200 A.D.

 Amaravati sculpture, British museum.

Above image:  Drum slab depicting the Birth of Buddha. Top right – Queen Maya, Buddha’s mother, dreaming.  Top left – The King and Queen listen to soothsayer interpretation. Bottom right – Footprints on the cloth mark the birth of future Buddha. Bottom left – Future Buddha is presented to the clan deity
Circa 50 B.C. – 100 A.D..........................

 Amaravati sculpture, British

Above image:   With flatter carvings compared to most of the sculpture on display, it is widely thought this railing is part of the earliest phase of Amaravati stupa construction. 50 B.C. – 1 B.C  credit:

In the famous British museum in London, a storehouse of Indian artifacts, bronze idols, etc.,  the  Amaravati sculptures occupy a pride of place as a separate gallery often known as  Eliot Marbles’ because  Sir Walter Elliot of English company attached to the Madras Presidency  in the 1840s was mainly responsible for their  excavation and careful preservation Aesthetically displayed in  London museum the Elliot marbles are commonly called Amaravati collections or Amaravati marbles these include a    roughly 120 exquisite sculptures and inscriptions carefully collected  from the ancient Amaravati site near Guntur, AP.  It is to be borne in mind the rock is not marble and actually the sculptures are carved out of limestone works .

 The sculptures that are on display  are of different types  such as  ‘toranams’,  gateways, pillars, cross bars, copings, drum panels, guardian lions, and several miscellaneous pieces.  The richly figurative works in relief with several crowded scenes illustrating the Buddhist Jataka tales are attractive ones..    No doublet, these pretty old marble sculptures bear testimony to the rich  Buddhist cultural heritage and ethos.

The much acclaimed Amaravati sculptures, commonly called Amaravati collections or Amaravati marbles, is a series of nearly 120 exquisite sculptures and inscriptions collected from the ancient Amaravati site near Guntur and aesthetically displayed in British Museum, London. The Amaravati sculptures in British museum are also known as ‘Elliot Marbles’, on account of their association with Sir Walter Elliot, who caused their excavation in 1840s

The earliest explorations at Amaravati were conducted by Col. Colin Mackenzie, a native of Scotland of the British army (of the Madras presidency)  was the  first one  who did excavations at Amaravati using the army in 1798. This was followed by  Walter Elliot, who evinced great interest in the unique discovery and undertook  large scale excavations at Amaravati in 1845 and shifted the rare excavated items to Madras  Ft. St. George and later  to the museum in Egmore. 

As the marble sculptures were exposed to various climatic conditions, there was a need to  save and curate them.  In 1853, Edward Belfour, the curator of the Madras museum  advised the authorities in London  that the  Amaravati sculptures  were of historical value and needed to be transported  for curation, etc. To support his view,  he sent the drawings (made by one Murugesa Mudaliar) and photos of the sculptures   to them. Accordingly in 1859 the Amaravati sculptures were in London and at last the authorities kept them in  the ‘India Museum’  founded in 1801   and on display at the new museum were   natural history specimens, books, manuscripts and other items collected by the EIC officers.    

After 1858 the English company was taken over by the British govt. London and now the Amaravati collections were shifted to a private collection house in Whitehall (occupied  by  James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife (died in 1809). Prior to that it was at Beale's Wharf in Southwark   and was finally open to the public in 1861. Because of humid conditions in the Private collection house, finally the Amaravati  marble  sculptures were   transferred to British Museum in 1880.  During World War II when Nazi Germany was on extensive bombing raids on London, the  sculpture were  safeguarded during those tumultuous  days. Since  1992,  the oldest Buddhist sculptures have been on display in a separate gallery at the British museum.

British museum, London, India gallery/


Sir Walter Elliot:

Indologist Sir Walter Elliot KCSI

Sir Walter Elliot KCSI (16 January 1803 – 1 March 1887) , who brought to light one of the oldest Amaravati Buddhist marble sculptures of beauty and artistic work  was a man of erudition and scholarship.  A multifaceted personality he single handedly saved these sculptures from near ruin, neglect and interference that dogged them after their un-burial.  Had action not been taken at the right time, these rare historical sculpture would have become part of  a mound of dust dust . He was a well-known Orientalist, linguist, naturalist and ethnologist.  A native of Edinburgh (born  in 1803), he joined the Madras Civil Service when young and  by dint  of hard work he reached  high positions in the company, mostly worked for the Maras presidency. During his first cousin  Lord Elphinstone 's  tenure  as governor of Madras in 1836, Walter Elliot became his private secretary, the position he held up to 1842.  His great-uncle was  William Fullerton Elphinstone, the company's director and he got the post through his influence.  Towards the end of his life Elliott began to lose his sight and in his later years was completely blind. He retired from service in 1859 and  returned to Wolfelee in Roxburghshire in 1860.  Quite impressed the way he carried out the excavation in Guntur, AP  in a systematic and scientific manner, the Court of Directors  of EIC appointed him as the Commissioner of Northern Circars, a position he held till 1854 when he finally became a member of the Governor’s council.

Because of his painstaking  archaeological  work,  the Amaravati marbles are were therefore called as “Elliot Marbles'' Though mining activities were prevailing in the Amaravati area  and adjacent places prior to 1845 and consequential damages  due to inadequate storage over 114 years, it’s amazing that they have survived in the condition they can be seen today.  It is said  of  the sculpture recovered from the Amaravati site, approximately one third is in London with the vast majority in the Government Museum in Chennai and the rest in museums across the world.