National Museum, New Delhi is where I learned a bit about Art History and Ancient Indian Art forms. It is a treasure trove for anyone who appreciates art. Going through its galleries and collections is like engaging in a treasure hunt. When I was in Gurgaon, I used to regularly visit the museum, mostly to refer to its library. After many years, I spent a day at the museum. If I had the luxury of time, I could have spent a few more days, admiring the masterpieces in their displays.
Must-See Artifacts in National Museum Delhi
Bring you the 10 artifacts that you must see when you visit the museum. I hope this post will inspire some of you to visit this museum.
Interestingly, the National Museum building was a part of the New Delhi Master Plan and one of the few buildings, that was indeed designed to be a museum.
1. Dancing Girl of Harappa
Who has not read about the famous dancing girl of Harappa? National Museum, New Delhi is where you can see her. She stands calmly on a fiber platform – just as we have seen her in innumerable pictures of hers. However, you would be surprised to see how small she is – just about 4 inches in height. I expected her to be at least thrice that size. You have to bend yourself to have her at eye level and then look for the familiar features – that posture, that hand on the hip, that bun on the head, and that arm full of bangles.
The dancing girl of Harappa is made of Bronze using the lost wax method. There are two bronze images that were found from Mohenjo-Daro and the other one is on display at Karachi Museum in Pakistan.
While you are at the Indus Valley civilization gallery – look for the various Harappan seals – they would also look smaller to you. However, do not miss the animal figurines and the script written on them.
You can also see terracotta toys, funeral mounds, pottery, and even a skeleton of a woman from the Indus Valley Civilization site of Rakhigarhi in Haryana.
2. Nataraja in Chola Bronze
Chola Bronze comes from in and around the Thanjavur area of Tamil Nadu. Some of the best pieces can be seen at Egmore Museum in Chennai and at Maratha Palace in Thanjavur. The National Museum Delhi also has some of the best pieces of Chola Bronzes on display. The Bronze Gallery has recently been renovated. It has a beautiful display of Nataraja – the most famous image in Chola Bronze. There are Nataraja with and without the circle around them.
However, if you have limited time, just spend some time with the Nataraja – which is the centerpiece of the Bronze Gallery.
The gallery takes you through bronze images from across the country and across themes. There is Panchmukhi Shivalinga & Swachhanda Bhairavi from Himachal, Krishna Killing Kalliya Nag & Devi images from South India, and Vishnu Lakshmi on Garuda & Surya Images from North India among others.
Read More – Understanding Chola Bronzes
3. Buddha Relics
Relics of Buddha were divided into 8 parts upon the Mahaparinirvana of Buddha. These went into 8 stupas. As per the legend, 7 of these 8 stupas, were spread to 84,000 stupas by Emperor Ashoka. The only untouched Stupa is at Ramnagar near Lumbini in Nepal. Many of these stupas have undergone excavations and relics have further been divided. A part of Buddha’s relics is on display at the museum, enshrined in a Thai golden case.
You can pay your respects to the Buddha but you are strictly not allowed to make an offering here. The room is full of Buddhist sculptures in stone and metal.
4. Miniature Paintings
The Museum has the biggest collection of miniature paintings from across the country. The size of the miniature gallery and the number of paintings on display an indication of the same. The gallery is not very well organized either in the styles of paintings or themes. However, take my word, each of the miniature paintings here is a masterpiece.
Look for this miniature scroll-like painting that has the sacred map of Varanasi. I also like the self-portraits of some of the famous miniature painters next to the display that shows the tools and techniques of miniature paintings. Jain Mandalas look like complex mathematical equation.
The miniature painting gallery at the National Museum Delhi is the best place to admire and appreciate this art form. You can see miniature paintings from various schools of miniature paintings like – Mughal Miniatures, Rajasthani Miniatures, Pahadi Miniatures, and Deccani Miniatures. It is fun to see the subjects of these paintings that primarily focus on mythological themes and royal scenes. At times, they also document everyday life.
The creative use of small spaces to depict a lot is what we learn from these paintings. For example, a painting depicts 10 Sikh Gurus in the petals of a lotus flower.
You can also see the painted folios of ancient manuscripts.
Tip – Pick up the reprints of some popular miniature series like Baramasa or Ramayana Paintings from the museum shop.
5. Precious Indian Jewelry at Alamkara Collection
The Alamkara Jewelry collection can make anyone fall in love with the 250 or so brilliant pieces on display here. In the middle of the vaulted hall stands a Yaksha – as if he is guarding the treasure. Walk along and you would see some finely carved jewelry in gold and precious stones.
My favorite piece here is the necklace with miniature paintings on it. Imagine wearing gold and exquisite art in a single piece.
There is temple jewelry i.e. jewelry meant for the deities in the temples, there is royal jewelry and there is jewelry that invokes a bit of lust in each of us.
Women who love gold and jewelry – enter at your own risk or maybe see some on their Website.
6. Ganjifa Cards
The Ganjifa cards are the ancestors of modern-day playing cards. In the good old days, they were handmade and hand-painted. They carry various mythological themes – Dashavtar or the ten incarnations of Vishnu being the most popular.
You can see a few of the traditional Ganjifa cards at the Decorative Arts Gallery and some in the miniature paintings gallery. You can also see ancient board games and an earlier version of Snakes and Ladder on display.
I wish someone would revive these games for the next generations.
Watch Sh Fauzadar of Bishnupur explain Ganjifa cards in this Video.
7. Ivory Sculptures at National Museum Delhi
The Ivory sculptors are limited in availability. The ivory trade was banned and the art form has more or less died. Thankfully, museums like this have a great collection of absolutely exquisite ivory items. In the Decorative Arts gallery, you can see miniature to giant items made of ivory. Some of my favorite pieces include
- Dashavatar in Ivory – painted and sculpted
- Ivory carved box
- A home shrine made of carved ivory
Each piece appears extremely delicate – as if it will break if we touch it. However, they have been enduring for a long time. When you go there, tell me which one you like the most.
8. Tanjore Paintings
This is a relatively new gallery but what a gallery. You see the opulent and colorful paintings from Thanjavur and Mysore in South India. Shiva and mythology are the main subjects of these paintings. Shiva as Nataraja and Krishna as butter-stealing babies are the most common themes seen in Tanjore Paintings. My favorite in this gallery is the painting that shows the two celebrated marriages from Ancient Indian literature – Shiva-Parvati Wedding and Ram-Sita Wedding. I have never seen another painting depicting this.
Another favorite is a single painting depicting the Shiv-Lila – with Nataraja on its top.
There are other unusual paintings like those of Vithobha or Panch-Mukhi Hanuman.
9. The story of Indian Scripts at the National Museum Delhi
We keep hearing stories of how our current-day scripts originated from some common ancient scripts. At the museum, you can see giant charts depicting the evolution of various letters over the ages and through various generations of scripts. Even if you are not interested in the evolution of languages, stop by one of the boards and see the journey of the letters in Indian scripts as we know them today.
10. Wood Carved Doors at National Museum Delhi
In the sculptures gallery amidst all the stone sculptures, there is a wooden door with carved panels telling stories. I have always loved this door. The panels at the bottom have worn off with age or may it is a sign of it being heavily used. It is a 14th CE door from Katarmal in Uttar Pradesh.
The Museum is full of sculptures from around the country and from across ages. You see some of the best pieces as soon as you enter through the gate. You walk through them as you get in after buying your tickets. I can do a complete post of my favorite stone sculptures at the museum – tell me if you want it.
- It is open from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM to the public. You can easily spend a couple of hours admiring the artifacts collection. So visit early. It is closed on Mondays and other public holidays.
- The Adult Ticket costs Rs. 20 and for Foreigners Rs. 650 (including Audio Guide). Students up to class 12th have free entry tickets (I-cards required). The fee may be revised nominally over time.
- Contact number Reception: 011-23019272, Ext-243. Do enquire if you have any specific questions.
- Audio guides are available for visitors.
- There are scheduled guided tours as well at designated times. Check the correct time at the ticket window.
- Photography is allowed and there are no camera charges. In some places, you are not allowed to use flash as it can damage the artifacts.
- There are two curio shops – one behind the ticket counter and one on the 1st floor. Both have interesting gift items to pick from.
- There is a staff canteen in the basement that serves basic food & there is a new café outside the main building. Both places are good for eating or taking breaks in between visiting two galleries.
- Address: Janpath, New Delhi – 110 011
- The nearest Metro stations are Central Secretariat and the Udyog Bhavan, both are on the yellow line of the Delhi Metro.
- It is one of the largest museums in India, host to over two hundred thousand artifacts, established in 1949.
Check out Expedia’s Delhi Guide where I talk about exploring Delhi layer by layer.