The Chennai Government Museum contains some remarkable archeological finds from south India and the Deccan. Inside the deep-red, circular main building, built in 1851, the first gallery is devoted to archeology and geology; the highlights are the dismantled panels, railings and statues from the second-century AD stupa complex at Amaravati. These sensuously carved marble reliefs of the Buddha’s life are widely regarded as the finest achievements of early Indian art. To the left of here high, arcaded halls full of stuffed animals lead to the ethnology gallery, where models, clothes, weapons and photographs of expressionless faces in orderly lines illustrate local tribal societies, some long since wiped out. A fascinating display of wind and string instruments, drums and percussion includes the large predecessor of today’s sitar and several very old tablas.
The museum’s real treasure trove, however, is the modern wing, which contains the world’s most complete and impressive selection of Chola bronzes. Large statues of Shiva, Vishnu and Parvati stand in the centre, flanked by glass cases containing smaller figurines, including several sculptures of Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, encircled by a ring of fire. One of the finest models is Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous form of Shiva (united with Shakti in transcendence of duality). Elsewhere, the magnificent Indo-Saracenic art gallery houses old British portraits of figures such as Clive and Hastings, plus Rajput and Mughal miniatures, and a small display of ivory carvings.