Friday, 31 October 2014

Home not only to Priest King

Updated Oct 26, 2014 10:25am
One of the two surviving Quran manuscripts transcribed by Iraqi calligrapher Ahmad ibn al-Suhrawardi.
One of the two surviving Quran manuscripts transcribed by Iraqi calligrapher Ahmad ibn al-Suhrawardi.
KARACHI: When you think of the museum or ancient artefacts, the first thing which comes to mind is the Priest King, the male bust with a broken arm and nose excavated from Moenjodaro in 1927. But a visit to the National Museum in Karachi would also reveal a wealth of other valuable artefacts that many may not even know about. 
There are several galleries dedicated to separate eras, archaeological sites and artefacts at the museum. The Priest King has a place of honour as the centre piece in the Moenjodaro Gallery. This, of course, is a replica of the original, which is far too valuable to risk being placed in a gallery with just a glass showcase as protection. But Mohammad Shah Bukhari, superintendent of the museum, says that many of the other artefacts are present in the galleries in their original form. 
A toy bullock cart from Moenjodaro.
A toy bullock cart from Moenjodaro.
“Moenjodaro had the best town planning with wide roads, double-storey houses, a properly covered drainage system, freshwater wells in each home,” says Mr Bukhari while gesturing to the various things found during excavations. 
And you thought the dice originated in Europe?
And you thought the dice originated in Europe?
There are the mother goddess statues whose clothes and jewellery tell a lot about the way of living in those times. In another showcase are small clay models of various animals such as bullocks, lamb, cattle, tiger, pig, rhinoceros but no horse apparently. Mr Bukhari explains that it is so because the horses came much later with Mohammad Bin Qasim.
The people of Moenjodaro were fond of playing board games. We know this from the excavated stone chessboard and the many clay and dice that are also part of the Indus Valley Civilisation. There are children’s toys on display, too, including spinning tops. “People assume that the cube dice originated in Europe, but they just have to visit the museum to know the truth,” says the museum superintendent smilingly. 
There are many Indus Valley seals, too, but the inscription on them are yet to be deciphered. “We know a lot about Egypt and Mesopotamia because the symbols and script on their artefacts, etc, have been deciphered and translated by experts. But here we don’t have a clue about what’s written on our excavated seals,” he says. 
In the Gandhara Gallery, there is a beautiful model of a monastery in Takht-i-Bahi. The design from a Buddha artefact has been replicated in wood to encase the statues depicting the various phases of Buddha’s life. 
A local digger hands the Priest King to Sir John Marshall at the time of excavation in 1927.
A local digger hands the Priest King to Sir John Marshall at the time of excavation in 1927.
There is a gallery dedicated to coins. In the Arab coins showcase, there is the earliest coin from 74 Hijri (683AD) minted by a Muslim in Baghdad. 
In the Freedom Movement Gallery, there lies the table on which Pakistan’s first cabinet meeting was held. 
In the Islamic Art Gallery you have the huge bronze door knockers of Mansura that Mohammad Bin Qasim took. The plate, face of the deity above it and the knocker itself weigh 54 kilograms each. 
The most modern and beautiful gallery at the museum has to be the Quran Gallery, which has very old and very valuable holy manuscripts. “In order to preserve them, the Pakistan government sent them to Germany in 1984, too,” he says. 
One of the most valuable manuscripts here is the manuscript transcribed by Iraqi calligrapher Ahmad ibn al-Suhrawardi (1307-1308). “He transcribed 16 such manuscripts of which 14 were lost and only two survive to this day. This is one of them,” Mr Bukhari gestures towards the showcase. “And the other is at the Hagia Sofia Museum in Turkey.” 
Unfortunately, many of the artefacts that belong to Pakistan as they had been excavated from this region are no longer with us. The Priest King was not the only most valuable artefact found here. There was also a bronze statue of the Dancing Girl discovered by Sir John Marshall but at partition it was given to India. Several attempts have been made by the Pakistan government to get it back but to no avail. 
Mr Bukhari shakes his head with regret and says: “You know the Supreme Court building in Karachi was actually the Victoria Albert Museum but the British took almost everything of value from here at the time of partition.” There are also several people in Pakistan who have bought and own various artefacts, but Mr Bukhari says that it is fine as long as they care for them. “The government does not take away an artefact from anyone as long as it is cared for and well-preserved. We only don’t allow its being taken abroad. There is also a provision for selling it to the government as we have an acquisition committee in place that assesses an artefact and buys it from the owner. It is a good thing as it helps prevent the smuggling out of such treasured artefacts,” he says.
Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2014

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