From museum to the field: the temples of Āśāpurī, India

Fig. 1 Āśāpurī, main group of temples © Johan Levillain

Āśāpurī, an early medieval site (9th-11th century) in Central India, only came to the attention of archaeologists decades after museum specialists first collected and preserved its sculptures. Despite the major role of local and state museums in the preservation of the site, looters keep plundering Āśāpurī’s most valued artworks.

In the relationship uniting archeology, the art market, and museums, we readily consider the latter as the last link of the chain. Objects are excavated, ideally studied, and extracted from their archaeological context to finish their course in private or public collections (with or without the help of the art market). If this pattern often holds true, museums can also prove to be the driving force behind archaeological excavations and reflections on an ethical art market. That is the case with the discovery of Āśāpurī, an early medieval site (9th-11th century) in Central India whose remarkable architecture and sculptures have long remained buried under its own debris. Only a few pillars and doorjambs were still standing at the dawn of the 21st century, when Madhya Pradesh’s Directorate of Archeology, Archives and Museums (DAAM) stepped in to turn this vast puzzle of stone blocks into a large-scale archaeological site (fig. 1).

Fig. 2 Āśāpurī Museum © Johan Levillain⁠

However, DAAM’s fieldwork would probably not have even started if it was not for the previous involvement of museum professionals. For almost half a century, they aroused curiosity and admiration for this unknown and belatedly identified site. As early as the 1970s, they brought remarkable sculpted pieces found as they were surveying the ground in Āśāpurī to two prestigious institutions in Bhopāl (the State capital): the State Museum, a public institution, and the Birla Museum, a private initiative. The State Museum now displays three sculptures from Āśāpurī, two others are in storage, and one is on lend at the Triveni Museum in Ujjain, still in Madhya Pradesh; meanwhile, the collections of the Birla Museum revolve largely around Āśāpurī’s sculptures, counting at least twenty-five of them.

Unsurprisingly, the first publications addressing the uniqueness of the art of Āśāpurī stem from study of the Birla Museum collection. Volume XXVI of Mārg, a reference magazine dedicated to “Fine Arts” published in June 1973, brings together two papers which celebrate the Birla collection. The most acclaimed artwork of that corpus is a representation of the divine couple Śiva and Pārvatī tenderly embraced[1]. Starting 1975, the Birla Museum then published several thematic catalogs giving an almost exhaustive account of its collections[2]. These thin leaflets, sold only at the Museum, remain somewhat confidential. Subsequently, art historian M. Rao published a chapter in an academic volume in 1979 intending to provide information on the most beautiful sculpted specimens of two major early medieval Indian production centers, Hinglājgaṛh and Āśāpurī, featured in the Birla Museum. Other professionals and researchers revolving around the museums of Bhopāl include P. Mathur, former curator at the State Museum, who wrote an academic work on Āśāpurī, as well as S.K. Dwivedi, who, after having worked with the Birla Museum, published in 1991 a study devoted to Indian sculpture where examples of Āśāpurī have an important place.

Fig. 3 Viṣṇu Varāha, Āśāpurī, mid 9th-mid 10th century, current location unknown © DAAM

The quantity of elements that remained in situ and on the surface in Āśāpurī also led, in the 1990s, to the creation of a local museum in the village of the same name, housing today around 570 sculptures and architectural fragments (fig. 2). In the same decade, DAAM carried out fieldwork in Biloṭā, one of Āśāpurī’s “sectors” located less than a kilometer from the main group of temples – still uncovered at the time.

These isolated sculptures, severed from the temples they used to ornate, were the first to come to the museums of Bhopāl. They generated interest for the site of Āśāpurī, which in turn allowed for it to be brought out of oblivion and, ultimately, unearthed. Āśāpurī therefore turns out to be a shining example of the museum’s primacy in research and archeology, at the origin of the excavations which, in the 2010s, will make it possible to find the foundations of these forgotten temples.

Today, the site of Āśāpurī is largely cleared, studied[3], and preserved thanks to the involvement of the local populations. It is also integrated into more global reflections on tourism development thanks to the work of the students of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) of Bhopāl.

What next?

Even if museums are essential in uncovering and studying of art, they are not necessarily the panacea when it comes to the preservation – both material and documentary – of an archaeological site. Indeed, despite the growing excavation and conservation of Āśāpurī, the site has clearly suffered, and still is suffering, from repeated looting.

Fig. 4 Female figures, Āśāpurī, late 10th-early 11th century, current location unknown © Johan Levillain

Early medieval times saw the exponential development of stone construction and sculpture in India, and a mushrooming of small regional production centers. From images of major divinities to graceful young women adorning temple walls in endless rows, the material culture of this era is an incomparable breeding ground for art trafficking.

During our first visit of Āśāpurī in 2017, we were already unable to admire a superb representation of the god Viṣṇu in his boar form, Varāha, believed to be in situ among the other remains of the complex (fig. 3). Unfortunately, the wall enclosure of the local museum does not offer much more resistance to malicious acts, and, during a new visit in 2018, we could only note the disappearance of a sculpture depicting a couple of young women in dancing poses, among the most eloquent examples of the skills of the sculptors of Āśāpurī (fig. 4).

Two very different iconographies but, because they perfectly embody the essence of early medieval India, necessarily arouse the interest of amateurs and institutions that can afford to acquire them – whether in good faith or not.

What collections today, in secret, pride themselves on these masterpieces from Āśāpurī? We do not know, but let us hope that one day these artworks will find their way back to the museums of Madhya Pradesh.

[1] A paper by the editor-in-chief, M.R. Anand, in which he recounts his visit to the Birla Museum and an article by K.D. Bajpai – curator at the Mathurā Museum (Uttar Pradesh) offering a retrospective of ancient Madhya Pradesh sculpture.

[2] The Vaiṣṇava Gallery, Siva Gallery and Devi Gallery Catalog. The Minor Deities Catalog was not published until 1992.

[3] In 2013, the “Ashapuri Temples Project”, financed by the World Monument Fund and the University of Cardiff (Wales) made it possible to start new field research and a field school for the students of Bhopāl. The project is among others led by Adam Hardy, who in the process will publish an article where is already mentioned the possibility of rebuilding certain temples by anastylosis. The first monograph of the site was published in 2014 by Ashok Shah. Besides a Ph.D. dissertation in preparation on Āśāpurī, our first contribution takes the form of a note devoted to the iconography of Viṣṇu Varāha in Āśāpurī.

More information

Anand M.R., 1973: « Souvenirs of Madhya Pradesh Sculptures », Mārg, vol. xxvi (n° 3), pp. 2-26.

Bajpai K.D., 1973: « Madhya Pradesh Sculpture Through the Ages », Mārg vol. xxvi (n° 3), pp. 27-49.

Dwivedi S.K., 1991: Temple Sculptures of India With special reference to the sculptures of the Bhūmija Temples of Malwa, Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan.

Hardy A., 2015: « Ashapuri : resurrecting a medieval temple site », in Verghese A. and Dallapiccola A.L. (ed.), Art, Icon and Architecture in South Asia: Essays in Honor of Dr Devangana Desai, vol. II, New Delhi: Aryan Books International, pp. 338-348.

Levillain J., 2018: « Entre Gūrjara-Pratīhāra et Paramāra, étude de l’iconographie de Varāha à Āśāpurī (Madhya Pradesh) », Arts Asiatiques, vol. 73, pp. 135-146.

Rao M., 1979: « Some notable Paramāra sculptures of Birla Museum, Bhopal », in SHARMA R.K. (ed), Art of the Paramāras of Malwa, Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, pp. 76-89.

Shah A., 2014: Ashapuri, The Cradle of Paramara & Pratihara Art, Temples Unveiled, Delhi: Bookwell.

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