Objects in focus
A processional chariot from south India

In 1792, at auction rooms in London, the Indian collection of David Simpson went under the hammer. One of the more remarkable items was a large-scale model of a south Indian processional chariot, which was acquired by Charles Marsh, who gave it to the British Museum the following year.

This fascinating object was displayed on the North stairs in the 1980s and, more recently, published in a 2010 catalogue of south Indian paintings at the Museum. It has also been seen in the exhibitions Deities and devotion: the arts of Hinduism (1993), and Living with gods (until 8 April 2018). This blog and a lecture at the Museum on Friday 16 February 2018 at 13.30 will we hope bring this remarkable object to the attention of many more people.

Processional chariot (ratha) from Shrirangam, south India, 18th century.

There is a long-standing tradition in South Asia of mobile architecture. This takes the form of chariots with images of the gods installed in them – examples are known from Nepal in the north, to the Tamil country in the south, and many places in between. This type of chariot, known as a ratha, is dragged through the streets at festival time so devotees can view the deities.

David Simpson was stationed for the East India Company at Tiruchchirapalli south of modern Chennai, on the banks of the Kaveri river. The island in the middle of the river is the location of the famous temple of Shrirangam, dedicated to the god Vishnu. Simpson would almost certainly have seen how this type of chariot was used, commissioned a model of one, and brought it back to England.

Detail of some of the figures on the ratha.

The model chariot is 2.2 metres high and is made up of two parts – an upper, open structure, part of which is decorated with coloured textiles, and a lower, solid part made up of a platform with rows of wooden panels below decorated with scenes taken from the mythology of Vishnu. It is on the platform of the actual chariot that the image of the deity, accompanied by consort(s) and offspring, would have been placed so as to be visible as the chariot was pulled through the streets of Shrirangam. While the chariot at Shrirangam would have been one of the most impressive, all south Indian temples of note used (and still use) chariots in the annual cycle of festivals.

A chariot procession. The foreground shows the temple chariot, pulled by devotees as an act of worship. Gouache painting, Company School, painted in Thanjavur, late 18th–early 19th century.

In southern India the images of the gods that are placed in the chariots and drawn through the streets are usually made of bronze – these are the famous bronze images that, during the Chola period (c. 8th–12th centuries) are today considered by some to be the very finest bronze figural sculptures ever made using the lost wax process. While the processional images are bronze, the main image of the deity in the temple is invariably made of stone and never moves.

Opaque watercolour painting of the Ranganatha temple at Shrirangam, Tamil Nadu. It is depicted on its island site in the Kaveri River. At the centre is the main shrine of the temple. Company School, painted in Thanjavur, c. 1830.

The chariot model prepared for David Simpson may never have had an image of the deity – if it did, it doesn’t survive today. What we do see though is a bolster set on a wooden throne-platform against which the image would have been placed, along with several model attendants, one of whom holds a parasol above where the image would have been. The image at the temple at Shrirangam is of Vishnu in his form as Ranganatha (the deity lying on the cosmic serpent, Ananta) and we must imagine that the image of the deity that was envisaged for this chariot would have been of Vishnu in this form.

The chariot is undoubtedly magnificent even today when more than 200 years has had some effect on the textile elements, but why was it made? It must have been commissioned by Europeans as it has no ritual use, so we should perhaps look at the intellectual climate in Europe for an explanation, rather than in India. Charles Marsh, who had bought the ratha at auction, was a friend of Charles Townley, a famous collector of Roman sculpture, whose collection is now in the British Museum. In the late 18th century, in the decades after the major discoveries at Pompeii, Roman life was being intellectually examined by Europeans. Many facets of ancient Roman life seemed inexplicable, indeed positively bawdy, and many collectors and writers began to look elsewhere to understand features such as the frequent use of phallic imagery. One place they began to investigate was India – could traditional Indian society provide a living model for certain puzzling features of ancient life that were apparent in the excavations at Pompeii?

Copper-alloy figure of Vishnu reclining on the multi-headed serpent Ananta. From Shrirangam, 18th century. Donated to the Museum by Charles Townley.

We know that Townley bought a number of Indian paintings and objects from the Simpson sale and we can only assume that these formed part of his attempt to better understand antiquity as demonstrated in his own collection. Interestingly, as far as the history of the chariot is concerned, among the bronze objects acquired by Townley was a sculpture of Ranganatha Vishnu. Could this even be the one that was originally prepared for the model chariot? We will probably never know.

The chariot model has much to tell us about southern India in the late 18th century and about the continuity of the traditions of mobile architecture in that region, up to the present. However, it also intriguingly points towards the intellectual questioning of ancient Mediterranean culture at the same period. Could elements of an ancient civilisation be explained by manifestations of contemporary society elsewhere? Such discussions, begun more than 200 years ago, are still ones that concern anyone who works on the physical and intellectual culture of humanity today.

Richard Blurton’s lecture on the chariot is on Friday 16 February 2018.

The exhibition Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is on from 2 November 2017 to 8 April 2018.
Supported by the Genesis Foundation. With grateful thanks to John Studzinski CBE.

The accompanying BBC Radio 4 series was broadcast from 23 October to 6 December 2017. You can download it as a podcast.
Living with the gods by Neil MacGregor will be published by Allen Lane in March 2018.