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A National Treasure
One of the first reviews I wrote when I joined ciao was about the National Museum in Delhi. As an early review it was, quite honestly, pretty awful. I hadn't got the hang of ciao at that time and looking back, I'm pretty embarrassed about the stuff I wrote. However, I can't let my own vanity get in the way and I want to update that first review because I believe that this museum is a little gem and should get more tourist attention than it does. If you are looking at the ratings on the review and thinking 'they are a bit harsh' bear in mind they may have been placed for the original review which thankfully, very few people ever read.
Where is it? *********** The National Museum is on Janpath, the main street running south from Connaught Place, it's down at the 'quiet end' of this famous street, just past the intersection with Rajpath and a block and a bit from the India Gate. It doesn't seem to attract the attention that I believe it deserves. I've had several city tours with various holidays in Delhi but nobody has ever included the National Museum, or for that matter, even mentioned its existence. I always feel a little bit like I discovered it for myself although it is - of course - in all the guide books. If you are going to take a taxi or a tuk tuk to the museum, be aware that it's not a busy area and relatively little traffic passes the museum so you may want to get a driver to wait for you or ask him to come back later at an agreed time to pick you up.
Alternatively, if the weather's not too hot, you could take a stroll round to the India Gate where you'll find scores of tuk-tuks to drive you to your next destination.
Character ******** It's a very accessible mid-size museum with a broad-ranging collection of Indian art, sculpture and artefacts. I liked it so much the first time I visited that I booked an extra day's holiday just to make sure I could go back again. It's not a really big museum like the Louvre or the British Museum - you don't need days to see everything - and in fact, if anything, it's surprisingly that such a great nation has such a relatively modest national collection. I have a sneaky suspicion that we (the British) probably pinched a lot of what was worth having before we left India but that my just be me getting paranoid.
The core of the collection was actually originally put together for an exhibition in the UK at Burlington House in London in 1947-48. Indiaphiles will recognise 1947 as the year of independence and partition. After the exhibition, the materials were returned to India and put on display at the Durbar Hall in Rashtrapati Bhawan for a decade or so until the National Museum was specially built to hold them and was opened in 1960.
So as I've said, it's not the biggest museum, but what's there is well worth seeing. It traces Indian history from all the way back in the third millenium BC through to quite modern times. My Delhi guide book suggests you need a day to see it all but you'd have to be exceptionally interested in absolutely everything - and all the exhibits would have to be open for that to be the case. I have a more than healthy interest in all things Indian (actually, it's bordering
Pictures of National Museum, New Delhi
Exterior view of the Museum
on obsessive) and it's still only taken me two hours each time I've been.One weird thing to report. I mentioned already that it's not really an established stop on the tourist trail. People may well stop and want to ask you where you are from, whether you are having a nice time, and (bizarre) kids will ask you for your autograph. We've also had this in other museums - groups of school kids asking if you'll pose with them for photos. It's strange but rather charming.
Opening Hours *********** Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm. Closed on Mondays I recommend going at the weekend to avoid the school parties - but if you can't do that, then I just recommend that you go anyway. It's a little treasure trove.
Some practicalities **************** Bags of any significant size - e.g. day packs, holdalls etc - are not permitted in the museum. There's a free bag deposit office round the side of the building on the right hand side as you enter through the gate and pass the temple wagon. Your bag will be put into an individual 'locker' and you get the key - don't fret, it's going to be safe. At this stage it's also worth knowing that if you want to take your camera into the museum you will be stung for and extra 300 Rp (approx £3.50) on top of the entrance fee so if you don't want to pay the camera fee, leave your camera with your bags.
As you enter the museum your handbag, wallet etc have to go through an airport type x-ray machine. Gentlemen will be frisked in the open, ladies go into a little booth for a quick rub down with a lady guard. Don't forget to pick up your bags.
The ticket counter is directly ahead. At this point, if you are new to India, you are about to discover one of the inequalities for tourists travelling in the country. The entrance fee for locals is 10 Rp (about 12p) but tourists pay 300 Rp (approx. £3.50). Some people get ratty about this - and the camera fees - but realistically we have so much more money than the average Indian visitor that I can't see a big problem with subsidising museums and monuments. However, just to put things in perspective, 300 Rp would buy a good lunch for two people in a tourist eaterie.
The good news is that the museum curators have worked out that the average tourist walking in off the street probably knows very little about Indian history and wouldn't have a clue what they are looking at so the 300 Rp entrance fee includes a rather good audio tour. To get your headphones and player you will have to leave a deposit - such as your passport, driver's license or a credit card. You only need one deposit to secure the headsets for a group. If you are of a nervous disposition, you might want to think about taking something like your Tesco club card as an alternative but to be fair, you have nothing to worry about; your cards won't go walkies. However, now you've got rid of your bags, paid for your ticket and got your headset, it's time for YOU to go walkies.
The Layout ********* The museum is laid out on three floors with a small circular garden in the middle. The exhibition rooms lie off a circular corridor. You start on the ground floor with the oldest exhibits and work your way round and then up the stairs. Temporary exhibitions tend to be on the upper floors. The layout isn't entirely logical and it's easy to miss some rooms if you aren't paying attention. When rooms are undergoing renovation (and it seems like renovating the museum is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge) the access can be confused so it's worth keeping an eye on the floor plan that you'll receive with your ticket. At the moment the ground floor is about 80-90% open whilst the first and second floors have more areas that are closed.
Some of the renovated rooms are cooled whilst many of the older rooms are relying on noisy fans for patchy cooling. Whilst this wouldn't be an issue in the winter time, it does make the museum sticky in the height of summer. You may want to take a fan with you - I know it sounds daft but getting hot and bothered could get in the way of your enjoyment of the museum.
There are toilets on each floor. There's a gift shop on the first floor which has a few interesting books and odds and ends of gifts but nothing that's really strongly linked to the exhibitions. There's another 'publications' store on the ground floor behind the ticket window which sells academic pamphlets about the collection as well as some absolutely dreadful plaster cast facsimiles of articles in the collection. There's a vegetarian cafeteria on the top floor.
The Audio Tour ************** The easiest way to avoid missing anything is to try to follow the audio tour circuit - if you find all the numbers then you won't miss anything important. The audio tour does a good job of picking out some of the most important pieces in the collection but there will be times when you'll question why some of the items are included. You can skip anything you aren't interested in - just pick the numbers of the items that you want to know about.
The tour starts in the central corridor in front of the statue of Vishnu and then leads into the pre-history section. There are 55 stops on the tour but not all of them will be in the open galleries. Good news about the commentary - the narrator doesn't go on for too long about anything.
The Ground Floor *************** Your tour starts with my favourite section - the one on Harappan Civilisation. Now I'm not generally very interested in really old stuff and have seen so many flint axes and oil lamps in my time that they leave me cold. However, the Harappan exhibition got me totally fired up. In part this was because I knew nothing about the Indus Valley cultures despite them existing for longer than the Romans, Egyptians or Ancient Greeks. The first cities excavated back in the 1920s were Harappa and Mohenjodaro and I just don't know why these cities aren't more famous. Actually, I'll take a crack at an explanation - much of the area covered by the Indus Valley cities now lies in Pakistan which falls a little short of most people's ideal holiday destinations.
Anyway, back to how amazingly clever these folk were. The civilisation dates back to earlier than 2700 BC and was very sophisticated. They cast exquisite bronze figurines - the most famous is a tiny dainty dancing girl - carved detailed human busts, made lots of cute little animal figurines that must have been for decorative purposes, threw pots on a wheel, made toys and statues of ladies kneading bread and doing their chores. They also had a sophisticated system of weights and measures that were standardised across a wide geographic area. That sort of stuff just fries my brain. They also have a skeleton in a shallow grave complete with beautiful pots to help her into the next work.
After you leave the Harappan gallery you enter a series of galleries with sculptures made from stone and bronze covering the Mauryan period (3rd Century BC)the Sunga Period (2nd Century BC), the Gandhara period, the Gupta period (4th - 6th C AD) on through medieval carvings and so on. The ages don't mean a lot to me but I love the figures and can appreciate them without necessarily understanding them.
Also on the ground floor are examples of late medieval art, Buddhist art (including relics of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha), a fabulous collection of Indian miniature paintings, and a couple of rooms of general decorative arts including a stunning ivory miniature palace. There's a bizarre collection of transparencies on the evolution of Indian scripts and coins that holds no appeal to me whatsoever and finally some fantastic jewellery
The First Floor ***************. The galleries on the first floor include special temporary exhibition space, lots of manuscripts, two rooms of central Asian antiquities, Coins, more paintings, a section on Maritime heritage and quite a lot of office space.
The Second Floor **************** The highlight on the second floor is the renovated section on arms and armour. Being a girlie I'm not big on the whole 'dressing up to go out and kill people' vibe but I do enjoy the costumes, especially for the horses and elephants. This floor also has galleries of decorative art and textiles, some tribal costumes from the north eastern parts of India and some interesting musical instruments.
If you've got this far without flagging, it's probably time for a cup of tea in the cafeteria.
Special Exhibitions **************** These can be quite variable in quality and interest. When I visited in November 2005 there was a splendid exhibition on the textile trade between India and Europe - full of great old chintzes and exploring the influence of Indian fabrics on European fashions. In June 2006 the 'special' was an exhibition called 'in the Footsteps of the Buddha' or something like that. Frankly it was full of photographs, very few actual exhibition pieces and worth a five minute look at most.
You'll probably have realised that the bulk of my favourite areas are on the ground floor. Perhaps I start to lose the will to pay attention on the higher floors or maybe I'm just 'culture fatigued' after the ground floor - I can't give you a good explanation.
Disabled Access ************* In theory there is disabled access but I'm not sure where the special entrance is. The main entrance has a lot of steps plus the security gate to get through and I'd double they'd be easy to manage in a wheelchair. If you need help, I'd suggest to ask the guys at the baggage store and I'm sure they'll point you in the right direction.
Summary ******** By Indian terms it's a bit pricey but I really do recommend this nice little museum as well worth a look and I hope that if you get the chance you'll go and explore for a couple of hours - you could be very surprised by some of the treasures inside.