Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

Shift Buddha relics from museum to a sacred place: Rijiju

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May 5th issue of the Times of India carried this article by Akshaya Mukul.

NEW DELHI: Minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju wants relics — bone fragments — of Buddha housed in National Museum to be kept in some sacred Buddhist place so that devotees can offer prayers.

 Associated with the organization of the main function on the occasion of Buddha Purnima on Monday, Rijiju told TOI, “It’s difficult for devotees to pray in the National Museum. I am going to make this request (for transferring Buddha relics to a sacred place).”

 Rijiju’s demand comes in the wake of National Museum declining to part with Buddha’s relics for Monday’s function attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When the request for Buddha’s relics came from Rijiju, National Museum director general Venu Vasudevan — who has since been transferred with one and half years of his term still left — pointed out that the relics are already on public display in the Buddhist gallery of National Museum.

 He also argued that the relics are fragile and could get damaged. Vasudevan’s argument was endorsed by the culture ministry and relics could not be sent for the function. The National Museum also did not buy the argument that since relics have been sent abroad — to Sri Lanka in 2013 as part of celebrations to mark 2600th anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment — in the past, it could be parted with for the function.

 A senior National Museum official said, “Though National Museum’s decision caused some heartburn in the culture ministry, the latter was left with no option but to endorse Vasudevan’s stand.” Rijiju said it would have been good to have the relic but “since there was no provision to protect, it could not be arranged”.

 Meanwhile, Vasudevan’s exit has created buzz in the art world and among scholars. Many in the National Museum think he was transferred because of his refusal to let the relics come out, an allegation that the culture ministry officials strongly deny. “It was a routine transfer of joint secretaries,” a senior ministry official said. Vasudevan, who was transferred to the sports ministry as joint secretary, has gone on leave. Scholars have moved an online petition requesting the PM to reconsider his transfer.

 Venu was a joint secretary in the ministry of culture and was asked to officiate as DG of National Museum in January 2013. In December 2013, he was formally appointed as DG for three years. Since then, Venu is credited with turning National Gallery around with his various administrative initiatives, be it opening the closed galleries, upgrading facilities or improving infrastructure and hold mammoth exhibitions like Masterpieces of South Indian Bronzes and Body in Indian Art.

 Venu also played a crucial role in facilitating Kochi Biennale, one of India’s most prestigious public art exhibitions.


I visited the (increasingly lively) museum in January. A visitor can see nothing of the clearly convoluted behind-the-scenes politics, but I was struck by the contrast between the pictures you can see online of Buddhists in the museum venerating the relics, and the notice beside the shrine!



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