The Archaeological Section of the Museum is primarily concerned with the acquisition, preservation and display of antiquities of the historic period of South India. The antiquities consist of sculptures, architectural pieces, metal and stone inscriptions which have a bearing on the past history and social life of the people of this part of India. A significant collection of objects representing the industrial arts such as wood carving, ivory work, metal ware, inlay and embossed works for which South India has been famous from very early times, is also dealt with by the Section.

The objects mentioned above have been slowly accumulated and preserved in the Museum since its inception. They were organized into the present form about 1938 AD due to the efforts of Dr.F.H.Gravely. Though prior to the formation of the Section, sporadic research on certain groups of antiquities have revealed the importance of the objects and thus made the Museum well known yet only after the formation of the Section more detailed studies of the antiquities of the Museum were undertaken, and the results of the studies published in a series of Museum Bulletins. Gradually, the scope of research work of the Section, initiated by Dr.Gravely, was expanded so as to include other allied subjects such as temple architecture. The activities of the Section, thus, increased and as a consequence, it grew rapidly in size.


The collections of the Section may be grouped as follows, each group being important and interesting in its own way: (1) Bronze figures, (2) specimens of sculpture and architectural pieces, (3) inscriptions and (4) industrial art objects. The study of the objects of the first three groups is essential for a proper evaluation of the levels of culture reached by the people of the different periods and localities to which they belong. The inscriptions are, however, the main source for the history of the country as also for its social life. The study of the specimens of the industrial arts reveals how dexterous the South Indian craftsmen were in their application of various art motifs to objects used in daily life or on ceremonial occasions.

Bronze figures

By far the best known objects of the Section are the metal figures. There are over 1500 of them in the Museum, of which about 85 are Buddhist, about two dozen Jain and the rest Hindu. This Museum is perhaps the only institution in the whole world, where such a large collection of metal figures is assembled under a single roof. One must remember here that there are countless figures of this kind in the innumerable temples of South India. This bewildering quantity will itself suffice to show the extent to which the art of casting images or figures in metal had been practiced in this part of India in the past-unprecedented in the history of any other country in the world. As several of them are so wonderfully wrought and are in accordance with the accepted canons of aesthetics, they are amongst the world's best treasures of art.

The collection of bronze figures contains specimens of different periods ranging from the early centuries of the Christian era to the recent times. The four fragmentary Buddha figures excavated at Amaravati in the Guntur district, are the earliest and date from about the third century AD. The style and features of these figures presuppose a considerable familiarity with the art on the part of the people who made them. The other Buddhist metal images come from Nagapattinam, and they vary in date. Of these, the seated Buddha and the small figure of Simhanada in the graceful maharajah lila pose are important.

Next comes the Jain bronzes. The large Tirthankara metal image received from near Madurai is noteworthy as the features suggest that it might belong to the early Pandyan period. This figure is unmistakable evidence for the existence of Jainism in the Pandyan Kingdom about the tenth century AD. The other images are comparatively small, in size, all come from the Telugu country and they are of the usual type.

The most important part of the collection of Bronze figures is that representing the Hindu gods, goddesses and devotees. The images collected upto 1932 AD have already been published in the form of a catalogue in which they are treated under two broad categories namely, Vaishnavite and Saivite. Accordingly the images of each group are shown in separate showcases in the bronze gallery which was opened in the year 1963 AD. This is the only Museum wherein the South Indian bronzes in large number are kept in a separate building. The images received upto 1963 AD have been published in the form of a Bulletin of the Government Museum, Madras. Of these images a few date from the Pallava period, a slightly larger number from the Chola period and the rest belong to the Vijayanagar and later periods. Mention may be made of the Pallava bronzes, which include the figures of little Somaskanda (skanda missing), Vishapaharana, Kannappanayanar and Vishnu. The best Chola specimens include the figures of Nataraja from Tiruvalangadu and Velankanni, Kankoduttavanitam etc., the Rama group from Vadakkuppanaiyur, Vishnu as Srinivasa, Tirumangai Alvar , Inscribed Kali, the world famous Ardhanarisvara from Tiruvenkadu and Parvati. In fact some of them, for instance, the Tiruvalangadu Nataraja and Rama group, are so well executed as to be real gems of art, which we can be proud of. The figure representing the Vishnu with two hands in which the attributes are embedded from Komal, and Balasubrahmanya and dancing Balakrishna belonging to the later periods are of interest as they are essentially in the traditional style though just beginning to get conventionalised. The figures of Venugopala, Rukmini and Satyabhama from Chimakurti which represent the art of the Telugu country have remarkable grace about them. A figure of Nataraja in the leg reversed pose received as a treasure-trove from Poruppumettupatti in the Madurai district is of interest historically, iconographically and also artistically. There are images representing the ayudhapurushas Sudarsana and Kaumodaki which are very rare representations in metal. Sage Vamana is included in the collections, which comes to nearly 1500 bronzes. A colourful Bulletin recording the Jain images (Sculptures, Bronzes and epigraphs) received in the museum upto 2000 AD has been published in 2001 AD.


The next best known collection of the Section is that of the stone sculptures. They fall into two broad groups, namely, the early Buddhist, Jaina and Hindu sculptures and the sculptures of the medieval and later periods. The date of the early Buddhist sculptures ranges from about 200 BC to 250 AD, and that of the Jaina and Hindu from about 600 AD to the recent times.

Early Buddhist Sculptures

The collection of the early Buddhist Sculptures includes the large group of sculptures received from the ruined stupa at Amaravati in the Krishna valley in the Andhra country wherein an excavation was conducted in 1801 AD and later Colonel Colin Mackenzie of the Trigonometrical Survey of India first heard of the mound in the area and visited the site and found it was very interesting as it had specimens of early christian era art. Then he drew sketches of the site and left. Later in 1830 AD some of the sculptured slabs were brought to Masulipatnam to beautify a square named after Robertson, the District Collector. During the course of his visit to this place in 1835 AD, Sir Frederick Adam, Governor of Madras, saw the slabs and ordered that these be sent to Madras for preservation in the Museum of the Madras Literary Society. Dr.Balfour, soon after taking charge of the Madras Central Museum, began his efforts in getting the aforesaid slabs and the first batch arrived here in 1856 AD and in 1859 AD, most of them were sent to Her Majesty's Secretary of State for India and lodged in the India Museum. Before sending them to London these slabs were documented by one William Taylor and were photographed by Mr. L.Trippe. These slabs which were sent to London were exhibited in the Museum there and later shifted to the British Museum. Other batches of sculptures were secured during Dr.Bidie's time and they were set up in their present location in the Museum.On the question of the arrangement and display of these Amaravati marbles in the Madras Museum in 1884-85 AD, Dr.Bidie had to cross swords with no less a person than Burgess of the Archaeological Department of the Government of India, but while the distinguished archaeologist demonstrated more of dogmatism and heat, Dr.Bidie showed himself that he was the master of the situation and what he did was only practicable way of dealing with the sculptures. Apart from these sculptures, a few fragments of sculptures from Jaggayyapeta a few other sculptured friezes from a dilapidated stupa from Goli are also exhibited here. Total number of these sculptures is about 315. Of these the sculptures received from Amaravati and Goli have been studied and published. Amaravati sculptures are of interest as they are in at least four distinctive styles showing the development of the art in South India. These styles are more or less akin to the contemporary styles of sculptures of North India, such as the Maurya, Sunga and Kushana, which establish the unity of cultures of India from very early times. The most interesting feature of the sculptures from Amaravati is the wealth of details they furnish in regard to the various aspects of social life of those periods. The Goli sculptures belonging to a period later than that to which the sculptures of the last phase of the Amaravati stupa belong, show the later developments of Andhra art. The Jaggayyapeta sculptures belong to about 200 BC. The archaic features and very low relief work are charecteristic of the art of the period. The figure representing Chakravarti Mandhata and another showing a holy shrine or punyasala are important among them.

There are over 700 specimens of stone sculptures belonging to the period from about 650 AD to recent times in the section. Of these, about 50 are Jain, about 25 memorial or hero stones, about a dozen Buddhist figures, about 10 snake stones and the rest are of Hindu deities. It is as much true of stone sculptures as of metallic figures that to whatever faith they may belong, the features of the art of the period are marked in the sculptures of the period, except for minor local variations. Hindu sculptures are shown in two galleries. In the New Extension Gallery typical examples of South Indian Sculptures from Tamilnadu and from other areas are shown in chronological order. In the general section the remaining specimens are shown. The noteworthy specimens from Tamilnadu belong to the Pallava and Chola periods (650-1300 AD). Among the Pallava sculptures, the figure of horned Dvarapalaka and Yoga Dakshinamurti shown in the New Extension and the figure representing Virabhadra, six of the seven mother goddesses shown in the other gallery are noteworthy. Of the Chola sculptures, the mutilated figure of Shanmukha and the Parvati figure shown in the New Extension gallery and the group of Vishnu and his consorts and the Gajalakshmi figure shown in the other gallery are noteworthy. Representing the art of the Pandyan territory of the period are a few specimens of which the figures of Agni and Vayu from Tirunelveli are the best. The sculptures of the subsequent periods are lacking in expression although the figure of Bhikshatana belonging to the Vijayanagara period shown in the New Extension gallery retains some of the beauty characteristic of the figures of the earlier periods.

The sculptures from the Telugu and Kannada speaking areas include specimens of the art patronised by the royal dynasties of these areas such as the Chalukyas, Nolambas, Hoysalas, etc. Here also the sculptures belonging to periods earlier than the Vijayanagar period are noted for their beauty and expression. Of these early sculptures, the Ganesa and Dvarapalaka figures of the Eastern Chalukyan period, the Vinadhara Dakshinamurti figure of the Nolamba period and the Saptamatrika group of figures of the Hoysala-Kakatiya period, all shown in the New Extension gallery, are works of high artistic merit.

The Jain sculptures of the Section are shown in a room beyond the Buddhist sculpture gallery. They are mostly representations of Jain Tirthankaras in the usual stiff posture. But the figure of a Tirthankara from Tuticorin, the figure of Mahavira from the South Arcot District are in the Pallava style and the figures representing Mahavira and Parsvanatha from Danavulapadu in the Cuddapah district, in Andhra Pradesh belonging to the Rashtrakuta period, show features characteristic of the art of the period to which they belong.

That Buddhism continued in the Tamil districts long after it ceased to exist in other parts of South India, is proved not only by the Buddhist metal images from Nagapattinam but also by a few stone figures of the Buddha belonging to this part. 

However, the smallness of the collection is indication of the fact that Buddhism was not followed by many. Of these Buddhist stone images, the more than life-size figures of standing Buddha from Kanchipuram are interesting.

Though there are only a few specimens representing each of the groups of sculptures such as hero-stones, memorial stones, sati stones and snake stones, they are valuable not only because they throw light on the life of the village people of ancient South India but also because of the inscriptions on them. The snake stones, as a group, are specially interesting as they reveal the fact that the people still continue the worship of snakes, an ancient practice, in a modified form.

Architectural pieces

About 50 pieces consisting of corbels, kudus, gargoyles, gateways, etc. belonging to ruined temples of South India are shown in the New Extension and the general Hindu sculpture gallery. Of these the corbels and the kudus are arranged in series in the Hindu sculpture gallery showing their development during different periods in the Tamil country. Among the pieces of the temples of the Telugu-Kannada area, the piece that shows a miniature vimana with combination of features of the architecture of the Tamilian and Deccani styles, exhibited in the Hindu sculpture gallery, and the doorway in the typical Hoysala style shown in the New Extension Gallery are noteworthy.


There are over 600 copper plate inscriptions and about 100 stone inscriptions in the Section. Their contents are of high historic and social interest. Further, as they belong to different periods and localities, their scripts differ and a study of these grants helps to follow easily, the development of the scripts now obtaining in South India.

The copper-plate inscriptions acquired upto 1917 AD, numbering over 200 have been published in the form of a catalogue. Subsequently about 400 inscriptions have been added. These inscriptions are mostly records of grants of villages or plots of cultivable lands to private individuals or public institutions, by the members of the different royal dynasties that ruled over South India. The grants range in date from the 3rd century AD to recent times. A large number of them belong to the Chalukyas, the Cholas and the Vijayanagar kings. Of special interest are the Maidavolu and the Hirahadagalli plates of the early Pallava dynasty and the large-sized grant acquired from Tiruvalangadu, issued by Rajendra Chola I. The latter consists of 31 large plates strung on a ring to which is attached a seal showing the Chola emblems and Rajendra's legend in relief. This is not only interesting as an "epigraphical curio" but its contents, especially the genealogical portion are also valuable.

The stone inscriptions include inscriptions in Brahmi, Vatteluttu, Nagari, Telugu, Tamil and Kannada scripts. Of the Brahmi inscriptions, the Bhattiprolu stone reliquary inscriptions are important as the alphabet employed here is considered to be earlier than 200 BC. This suggests that there was a variety of Brahmi script in vogue in the South, long before that period. The Brahmi inscriptions from Amaravati and Jaggayyapeta are important both for showing the further developments of the script and for revealing several technical terms which could not be known otherwise. The Vatteluttu inscriptions include also those on the hero and memorial stones, already referred to; this script was in use in the southern region of the Tamil country till a late period and most of the early Pandyan and Kerala inscriptions are in this script. In order to show the development of the scripts of South India from the Brahmi script, specimens of original inscriptions in the different scripts such as Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Brahmi and Nagari are shown in separate groups, arranged on the mezzanine floor of the New Extensions, in chronological order, headed by a plaster cast of an Asoka inscription and followed by a chart showing clearly the different stages of development of each of the scripts. The remaining stone inscriptions are exhibited in the Archaeological Reserve Collection shed.