Tag Archives: British Museum

Tibet, Assam, Textiles, and the British Museum

Ian writes a very fine blog. He mainly writes about events and attractions in London; interlacing history, architecture, exhibitions, and snippets of trivia into the online equivalent of an emporium of wonders. You can read more of his work here.

One of this recent posts caught my eye… not only did it combine Indian textiles, but also the British Museum, but amazingly, the Younghusband Mission to Tibet of 1904.

(Both) avid readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of all things Asiatic, and my doctoral thesis looked especially at the looting that occurred at the time of the Mission, and what has become of the items carried across the Himalaya, and thence to the ‘drawing-rooms of Empire.

Anyhow, Ian has noticed how a vast  Vrindavani Vastra (literally ‘the cloth of Vrindavan’) has gone on display in the British Museum, filling an entire wall of the gallery. This Vrindavani Vastra is 9-metre long and made of woven silk and figured with scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna during the time he lived in the forest of Vrindavan.The Krishna scenes on the textile are from the 10th-century text the Bhagavata Purana, and are elaborated in the dramas of Shankaradeva. A verse from one of these is also woven into the textile, using immensely sophisticated weaving technology, now extinct in India. It is the longest example of its type, and was woven in Assam between 1567 and 1569. Think tea. Ian explains how it was first taken to Bhutan and then later to Tibet.

It was ‘found’ in Gobshi, a small town on the route between Gyantse and the Karo La, by Perceval Landon. Landon, a friend of Rudyard Kipling, was the correspondent from The Times on the expedition. He gave the textile, along with a vast array of Tibetan items, to the British Museum in 1905. The thesis has all the details if you can get to the fifth chapter.

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Over the years there have been futile efforts by the Indian Government to bring back the silk drape back to India. In 2013 the Assam government requested the British Museum to exhibit the Vrindavani Vastra so that “art lovers, researchers, and local people with Assamese heritage could admire it”. Accordingly, it is now on display until August 2016 in the exhibition ‘Krishna in the garden of Assam: the cultural context of an Indian textile‘ in Room 91 of the British Museum. Entry is free.

PS, Landon’s account of the Mission is a great read: Lhasa: An Account of the Country and People of Central Tibet and of the Progress of the Mission sent there by the English Government in 1903–1904. Published 1905.

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Green Sheds and Goddesses: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust

I have recently been lead down a rabbit hole of research. It involved, as many of my goose-chases do, chasing Lawrence of Arabia around London, and ended up in the archives of the British Museum, starting from a much more unlikely venue; a dark green wooden shed in the middle of a central London road junction.

Some months ago I was visiting a friend, not a million miles from Lords’ Cricket Ground, on Warwick Avenue. I was waiting to meet her in a conspicuous place near the Underground entrance, and chose to shelter from the rain under the awnings of a green wooden shed. On the side of the shed was a brass disc, that claimed that said shed was a “Cabman’s Shelter” and further that it had been restored in 1994 by “The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, the Heritage of London Trust, and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust.” This set my mind wandering off towards an enormous grant from the Trust to wander the Hejaz, looking for the trains destroyed by Lawrence. (I know you can still find some of them, and it has long been my desire to go and locate them… the small matter of a bloody civil war in Syria has thus far thwarted me.) But then my friend arrived, and we dashed off for a pint.

green shed These sheds used to be quite common in London, and you can see what they have been used for more recently in a BBC magazine video here. The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund was established in London as long ago as 1875 to run shelters for the drivers of hansom cabs and later hackney carriages. By law, cab drivers at the time could not leave the cab stand while their cab was parked there. This made it very difficult for them to obtain hot meals and could be unpleasant in bad weather. The Earl of Shaftesbury and other worthies therefore took it upon themselves to set up a charity to construct and run shelters at major cab stands, but I somehow can’t imagine he frequented them too often. There are still 13 of these dark green sheds around London (and a couple in Oxford, for you eagle eyed Oxonians) The shelters were originally provided with seats and tables and books and newspapers, most of them donated by the publishers or other benefactors. Most could accommodate ten to thirteen men, but gambling, drinking, and swearing were strictly forbidden! Now these shelters are Grade II listed buildings.

Fascinating!” I hear you cry, but what of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust?

TE Well, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom Fund is now a charity that awards grants for archaeological, environmental, and other academic projects. There were originally two Trusts, both set up in 1936 by A. W. Lawrence, who was the sole beneficiary under the will of T. E. Lawrence, and thus inherited the copyright of all his brother’s works. To the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust’ he assigned the copyright in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was shortly afterwards given its first publication. To the ‘Letters and Symposium Trust’ he assigned the copyright in all his brother’s letters. The two Trusts were amalgamated in 1986.

So, apart from rebuilding Green Sheds in central London what else have they been up to? Well, I might be wrong, but seemingly not a lot… they hardly advertise themselves, but did make a contribution towards the purchase of a stunning 19th Century BC Babylonian relief, called the Queen of the Night, for those luck people at the British Museum. And she is stunning.

The nude female figure is depicted with  tapering feathered wings and talons, standing with her legs together, and sporting a sort of bizarre headdress of four pairs of horns topped by a disc. She is ‘supported’ by a pair of addorsed lions above a scale-pattern representing mountains, and is flanked by a pair of standing owls. Quite what this has to do with Lawrence, or green sheds, I have no idea!

Queen of the Night

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