Site as practiced place


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THE site museum in India is essentially an archaeological construct. In the best sense of its objective, a site museum needs to be different from other museums of art and archaeology. Here, ‘site’ becomes the decisive factor in the very idea and formation of the museum, and should determine its content as well as its chronological, cultural, art historical and conceptual framework. More often than not, archaeological site museums in India have tended to become antiquarian art museums, where stray finds are displayed as if each is an individual entity by itself and not a constituent of the broader historical and social contexts arising out of the very site it represents. An archaeological site is not merely a space that once contained isolated monuments and on which its debris is now to be preserved in a site museum.

The history of dealing with site material and of the establishment of archaeological site museums in India has had a quaint trajectory. Let us take the example of the excavations and the subsequent establishment of a site museum at Sarnath, an early Buddhist place of pilgrimage, haloed by its association with the belief that the Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples thereafter attaining enlightenment in Bodhgaya. It is well-known that in the late 18th century one Jagat Singh, the Diwan of Chait Singh, the Raja of Benaras, first ‘excavated’ the ancient Maurya period stupa at Sarnath, only to plunder its bricks and rubble as construction material to build the Benarasi locality that would later become known as Jagat Ganj.1

Jonathan Duncan, the Commissioner of Benaras, refers to two urns – an ordinary stone box and a green marble container placed within the former – unearthed from the stupa ravaged by Jagat Singh. The marble urn contained a few human bones, some pearls and other jewellery. The stone box and the jewellery were deposited in the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, of which the former supposedly forms part of the inventory of the Indian Museum. A later proposal to transfer this object and the inscribed slab recovered from the same site to the Sarnath Museum was opposed by the trustees of the ‘Calcutta Museum’, while the marble box had long since disappeared from the Asiatic Society. The human bones were immersed in the Ganges.2 Alexander Cunningham, the pioneering excavator of the Sarnath site, had also unearthed some sixty statues and bas-reliefs found packed in a small chamber near one of the monasteries at the site. These were also sent to the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, which were later transferred to the Indian Museum.3 So far so good.


Vogel informs us that ‘some forty sculptures which remained behind, together with most of the carved stones found by Cunningham, were used by a utilitarian spirited official of the name of Davidson to strengthen the Barna bridge.’4 This is corroborated by Sherring: ‘…in the erection of one of the bridges over the Barna, forty-eight statues and other sculptured stones were removed from Sarnath and thrown into the river, to serve as a breakwater to the piers; and that in the erection of the second bridge… from fifty to sixty cartloads of stones from the Sarnath buildings were employed.’5

Dhamekh Stupa, Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, 5th century AD and later; photo: Crispin Branfoot, 1993.

After much devastation, one F.O. Oertel in 1905 finally took the first step towards set-ting up a site museum at Sarnath by constructing an open sculpture hall, followed by Sir John Marshall’s project of building a site museum there, which was completed in 1910. Marshall also initiated the founding of other local museums, such as at Agra (1906), Ajmer (1908), Delhi Fort (1909), Bijapur (1912), Nalanda (1917) and Sanchi (1919). It was Mortimer Wheeler, the former Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), who established a separate museum branch in the ASI in 1946. Since then, several site museums have been created, leading to a total of 44 today.

H. Hargreaves, another former Director General of the ASI, took a slightly more enlightened approach to site museums than building warehouses for storing site materials. He wrote: ‘It has been the policy of the Government of India to keep the small and movable antiquities recovered from the ancient sites in close association with the remains to which they belong, so that they may be studied amid their natural surroundings and not lose focus by being transported’ ( Unfortunately, Hargreaves’ suggestion to study the remains ‘amid their natural surroundings’ remained confined to its literal sense in times to come and was rarely expanded to exploit the full historical and cultural scope of the ‘site’.


It is astonishing that site museums in India have essentially not gone much beyond their warehouse beginnings from a hundred years ago, with the exception of a few cases in which a cosmetic uplift is visible through standardized lighting-display-captions formula which, however, amount merely to poor imitations of the international art museum model. This strategy has overshadowed the spatial as well as conceptual force of the site itself, reducing it to a quarry of fragmented museal objects devoid of any narratives of the site’s complex social, cultural and ritual stratigraphy – the community, trade routes, the ritual topography and the aura.

Let me return to the example of the Sarnath site and site museum. Today, the museum’s narrow, passage-like galleries (with the exception of the larger Central Hall), housing long, monotonous rows of sculptural finds on either side, mounted on pedestals or locked up in glass cases exalt their chronological, aesthetic, iconographic or nationalist (the lion capital) significance – a kind of museum idolatry. Instead, the Sarnath site museum needs to tell the richly layered story of one of the most sacred places of Buddhist pilgrimage in India which, judging from surviving evidence, goes back at least to the Mauryan period and flourished until about the 12th century when Buddhism declined and vanished from the region. Sarnath could not have been a void into which Buddhism descended with the arrival of the Buddha. In fact, Sarnath, an ancient suburb of Benaras, must have been a formidable centre sheltering a large community, which the Buddha would have carefully chosen as an important place for delivering his first sermon after his enlightenment. The Sarnath site museum needs to trace its story back to its pre-Buddhist origins.


The site of Sarnath – and, for that matter, any of the Buddhist sites where museums have been set up – needs to be seen as part of a larger metaphoric and conceptual space forming the sacred Buddhist topography. According to Mahaparinibbana Sutta, an early Buddhist text, the Buddha encouraged all followers to undertake pilgrimages to the four holy sites of Lumbini (where the Buddha was born), Bodhgaya (where he attained enlightenment), Sarnath (where he ‘turned the Wheel of Law’, i.e. gave his first sermon) and Kushinagara (where he attained nirvana).

Besides these, four other sites in the vicinity became part of the greater Buddhist pilgrimage circuit, which are Sravasti (where the Buddha spent most of his monastic life and where he performed several miracles), Sankasya (where he is believed to have descended to earth from heaven), Vaishali (where he repeatedly addressed congregations of monks) and Rajgir (where he meditated for several months). This forms the venerated cluster of eight great pilgrimage sites pertaining to the Buddhist astamaha-pratiharyas situated in modern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Most of these sites were visited by the Emperor Ashoka where he is recorded to have erected pillars, stupas and monasteries.

As pointed out by Crispin Branfoot, Ashoka ‘established the archetypal Buddhist pilgrimage by visiting thirty-two sacred spots associated with the Buddha. His legendary division of the Buddha’s relics among 84,000 stupas further disseminated the Buddha’s presence across South Asia, and established a model of kingship, pilgrimage and stupa construction that Buddhist rulers would continue to emulate.’6 These sites are known to have been part of the itinerary of the Chinese travellers and Buddhist pilgrims, Fa Hien and Hieun Tsang. Studies in ancient Indian geography also indicate that important trade roads passed several of these sites and that the Emperor Ashoka had in some of his edicts ordered the planting of banyan trees and mango groves, the digging of wells and the establishment of watering stations along the roads ‘in order that people may follow the path of dharma with faith and devotion.’7


Any site museums situated within this macro-Buddhist configuration need to invoke in their presentation of the site the aura of this circumambulatory sacred geography, combined with the specific ritual and historical stratigraphy of the particular site itself, at the micro level. The site museum should not be reduced to a display hall for archaeological debris but should instead invoke the site’s religious, social, cultural, mercantile and geographic connotations. With this in mind, the archaeological finds displayed in a site museum would need to be integrated within a larger narrative arising from a more enlightened museological discourse. Here, the idea is by no means to strive for a reconstruction of the ‘original’ cultural context but to place the site and its finds within a more conceptual rather than spatial framework, allowing the entire historical and cultural stratigraphy of the site to unfold on an ideational plane and enabling the visitor to view the site from a contemporary discursive perspective.

There is a broad consensus in contemporary theory that ‘space is a practiced place’,8 i.e. that place relates to stability, fixity and definite location, and space to mobility, journeys, circuits and routes that activate places. W.J.T. Mitchell draws attention to a third, related concept – landscape – which he triangulates with those of place and space as a ‘dialectical triad’ to examine how the three terms conceptually ‘resonate’ together9: landscape is that site encountered as image or ‘sight’ and ‘may become the object of imaginary renderings.’10


According to Foucault, ‘…we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites.11 Sarnath was a place of worship and pilgrimage. It would be crucial for the Sarnath site museum to plot on a conceptual map the nature of the proximity between the sites’ monuments – the memorial pillars, the stupas, the monasteries and the iconographic renderings of the sculptured images – more in terms of their relational placements, their positioning vis-à- vis the cardinal directions, their circumambulatory paths, the situation of the site in relation to the town itself and to the larger Buddhist-Hindu pilgrimage circuit, the entire ritualistic, mythological and philosophical belief structure, invoked in the monuments and the site.

For example, Cunningham, in his account of the Sarnath excavations, mentions that the lower portion of the Dhamek Stupa had eight niches, in which once life-sized statues of the Buddha were installed, in all probability of the Buddha in the preaching mudra. Cunninghams’s comment in this context becomes significant: ‘Fa-Hian in the beginning of the 5th century, who notices that Buddha, when he began to turn the wheel of law sat down looking towards the West. (…) and as at Buddha Gaya, where Sakya had been seated facing the east, so at Banaras (Sarnath), where, when he began to preach he had been seated facing the west, his statue must have been placed in the same direction. I conclude that the western face of the monument erected to commemorate that event would have been the principal side…’12


Though Cunningham’s observation is conjectural, in principle, factors relating to the inter-location and directional placement of monuments and images, as at Bodhgaya, Sarnath or elsewhere, become crucial in understanding and representing a site. It has been an ancient convention among the Buddhists, Jainas and Hindus to venerate their sacred shrines by circumambulating it. The Sanskrit word pradakshina is vaguely translated into English as ‘circumambulation’, whereas it stands for ‘towards the south’,13 i.e. if one enters/faces the shrine from the front, one moves clockwise, circumambulating ‘from left to right of a person or object.’14

As pointed out by Branfoot: ‘The architecture at the site may reflect this ritual requirement. Stupas are invariably round and often have a paved walkway at the base for pilgrims to circumambulate.’15 Since at the Sarnath complex there were several stupas, most likely with circumambulatory paths around them, the siting of these stupas assumes great significance along with the relational positioning of other structures, such as the caityaviharas, monasteries and memorial pillars. This topography needs to be projected in a site museum and is just one example of the insightful mapping of sacred configurations. Other similar topographical structuring needs to be identified and reflected at site museums.


There are several historical and archaeological narratives on the Sarnath site. Fa Hien (5th century CE) and Hieun Tsang (7th century CE), the great chroniclers of India, have given detailed accounts of the Buddhist sites and monuments of greater India, including Sarnath. Their accounts, besides being graphic in their detail, were also those of believers and pilgrims. It is this latter aspect that provides information on the site as a living, throbbing place – its aura, which needs to be rekindled at the site museum of Sarnath. The museum needs to reconstruct these travellers’ Sarnath in a to-scale model dotted with all the details on the site as recorded by them. Their records of Sarnath are unique, for they have documented the entire site as an integrated space and not merely its monuments. They have given details of relational distances and the directional placement of all buildings and sacred spots, besides their ritual invocations in living practices.

A believer’s touching detail of the vicinity of one of the viharas at Sarnath, as mentioned by Hieun Tsang and largely ignored by the covetous eyes of the early excavators trained solely on the monuments, is remarkable: ‘…to the west of the walls was a sacred tank, in which Buddha formerly bathed; a little to the west of that was another, in which he washed his monk’s water-pot; and, a short distance to the north, was a third, in which he washed his garments. On one side of this last tank was a large, square stone, which exhibited, it was believed, the marks of the threads of the kachaya, or brown vestment, worn by Buddha.’16


We know by now that the strategies of excavation of archaeological sites, their restoration, as well as the interpretation of the monuments and the finds itself are often driven by ideological leanings. If the site museums provide a well-rounded, singular narrative of the site with selective evidence, we may lose out on the meta-texts of history which form the brick and mortar of the life that once was and that the site museum endeavours to reconstruct. It would be critical for a site museum, say at Sarnath, to devote an entire gallery to reconstructing the successive stratigraphy of excavation and the historiography of the multiple interpretations of the found material, as unearthed by Cunningham, Kittoe, Thomas, Hall, Buttler, Rivett-Carnac, Oertel, Marshall, Konow, Nicolas, Sahani, Chakravarty, and others, which would enable scholars and the public to explore broader and alternative possibilities of understanding the site.


* This article is an expanded version of a paper presented by the author at the International Workshop, held at Sarnath on 19-21 November 2013, organized by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the National Culture Fund, and others. I am thankful to Joyoti Roy for providing information regarding site museums under the ASI.


1. J.Ph. Vogel, ‘Introduction’, in Dayaram Sahni, Catalogue of the Museum of Archaeology at Sarnath, 1914, p. 9; Alexander Cunningham, Report of Excavations at Sarnath. Archaeological Survey of India, Reports, vol. I, Delhi; reprint 2000, p. 113.

2. J.Ph. Vogel, ibid., pp. 9-11.

3. Alexander Cunningham, op cit., pp. 122-123.

4. J.Ph. Vogel, op. cit., p. 12.

5. M.A. Sherring, Benaras. The Sacred City of the Hindus. (Original 1868, reprint, B.R. Publishing Corporation, Delhi, 1975, p. 261; J.Ph. Vogel, ibid., p. 12.

6. Crispin Branfoot, ‘Pilgrimage in South Asia: Crossing Boundaries of Space and Faith’, in Ruth Barnes and Crispin Branfoot (eds.), Pilgrimage, the Sacred Journey. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 2006, p. 56.

7. N.A. Nigam and Richard McKeon, The Edicts of Asoka. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, reprint 1978, pp. 64-65.

8. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, p. 117; Henri Lefebre, The Production of Space. (Original in French, 1971). English translation by Donal Nicholson-Smith, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991; David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Blackwell, Cambridge, 1996; Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’, quoted from the website: pdf, p. 3.

9. W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002, p. viii.

10. Ibid., p. xi.

11. Michel Foucault, op. cit., p. 3.

12. Alexander Cunningham, op. cit., pp. 112-113.

13. M. Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Munishram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1976 reprint.

14. Ibid.

15. Crispin Branfoot, op. cit., p. 64.

16. M.A. Sherring, op. cit., pp. 233-234.