You are here
Home > Kolkata Diary > Heritage Buildings of Colonial Calcutta > HERITAGE BUILDINGS OF COLONIAL CALCUTA – Indian Museum


Indian Museum, Kolkata

Located on the busy Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Calcutta, the Indian Museum is the oldest and the largest museum in India. Exhibiting things beautiful, unusual, and ancient, the museum is known to locals as Jadu Ghar, the House of Magic. It holds a very large number of exhibits, which include antiques, ornaments, fossils, skeletons, mummies, old coins, and Mughal Paintings. Founded in 1814, this old-fashioned museum looks like a colonnaded palace ranged around a central lawn. Designed by the famous British architect Walter Granville, the imposing Neoclassical-style building was completed in the year 1878. It will not be out of place to mention here that, Walter Granville also designed the Calcutta High Court and  General Post Office building.

Indian MuseumBetween 1850-1870
Indian MuseumBetween 1850-1870

To trace the history of the origin and growth of the Indian Museum we are to travel back to the last quarter of the 18th century when Sir William Jones founded the Asiatic Society in 1784 in Calcutta. In 1796 the members of the Asiatic Society conceived an idea of establishing a Museum at a suitable place for the collection, reception, preservation and exhibition of the unique objects, whether it is created by man or produced by nature. The idea took shape in the beginning of 1808 when the society came in the position to construct a building of its own, at the corner of Park Street on a plot of land granted by the Government.

Indian Museum c. 1906
Indian Museum c. 1906

After six years, a positive effort was made to materialize the intention to establish a museum, when Dr Nathanial Wallich, a Danish botanist, who was in prison at the siege of Serampur, but was released by the Government in recognition of his achievements in the field of science, wrote a letter to the society. In his letter he strongly advocated the formation of a Museum and offered a proposal to the society not only to act as honorary curator of the proposed Museum but also to donate duplicates from his own valuable collection. The proposal was readily accepted by the members of the society and it was decided that a Society Museum will be temporarily established at the premises of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Thus a museum was established on 2 February 1814 at the Asiatic Society with Wallich as the Honorary Curator He was also appointed as Honorary Curator of the Oriental Museum of the Asiatic Society.

In 1867 the foundation of the present building of the Indian Museum was laid on the finest site of Chowringhee in front of the Small Cause Court, which was completed in 1875. From 1814 to 1878 the museum was housed in the premises of the Asiatic Society on Park Street and after the completion of the construction of the new building, it was shifted from the said premises of the Asiatic Society to the present building. It opened its gates to the public with two galleries on 1 April 1878.

Indian Museum - Entrance
Indian Museum – Entrance
Indian Museum - The Courtyard
Indian Museum – The Courtyard
Indian Museum – The Courtyard

The new colonnaded Italianate building facing the Maidan has 35 galleries. At present, it includes six cultural and scientific sections, viz. Art, Archaeology, Anthropology, Geology, Zoology and Economic Botany, with a number of galleries under each section. Its impressive collection includes the Siwalik fossils, outstanding exhibits from the 2,500 BC Indus Valley Civilization, the superbly sculpted railings from the 2,000-year old Bharhut Stupa, a prized collection of Buddhist art, a large number of miniature paintings, ivory, glass and silverwares, and a fine collection of 5th century Gupta coins. Theme Gallery is equipped with rare paintings and 200-year-old hand drawn maps. Apart from the mammoth skeletons of the big animals and the stuffed birds from British zoological expeditions, it also exhibits the 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummies and some extraordinary Indian antiques, like Shah Jahan’s emerald goblet, and an urn said to contain the Buddha’s ashes and others. Special permission is required to see the exceptional collection of over 50,000 old coins.

The museum has recently celebrated its bicentennial with great zeal in February 2014.

Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.

Leave a Reply