British Museum: Ramayana and alternative history
by B S Harishankar on 07 Jan 2019 27 Comments

Daniela De Simone, project curator of British Museum, London, said at Chennai that the Ramayana mentions how Rama was confounded when he discovered complex political space inside the forest, which included kingdoms, rules and structures. She was presenting her views during a talk on ‘Forest communities and upland societies: Ecology, culture and Identity in the Nilgiri Hills before colonialism’, at the Chennai Government Museum. The only gateway to that world is through archaeological research, which is an undeveloped stage in Indian forests, according to De Simone (Archaeological research of forests holds key to Alternative History, The Times of India, Dec.16, 2018).


Exclusively an Euro-American model, alternative history is defined as “a genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered if a particular historical event had a different outcome. It is seen as a subgenre of literary, science, or historical fictions and different from counter-factual history. Keith Laumer’s ‘Worlds of the Imperium’ is one of the earliest alternate history works. Philip K. Dick published ‘The Man in the High Castle’, an alternate history in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won the Second World War. Philip Roth penned ‘The Plot Against America’, which imagines an America where Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the contest for the third term as President of the US, and Charles Lindbergh is elected, resulting in fascism and anti-Semitism.


The interest of the British Museum in the Nilgiri Hills as highlighted by Daniela De Simone in the title of her paper at Chennai is not a new theme. Western missionaries in India and other colonized countries were actively involved in supplying anthropological data for colonial rulers. Edwin G. Smith of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain wrote in 1924 that anthropology should be recognized as an essential discipline in the training of missionaries. “Good missionaries have always been good anthropologists”, is the opening line of Eugene Nida’s classic, ‘Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions’ (1954). Lewis Henry Morgan sent his kinship questionnaire all over the world to missionaries, asking them to fill in the data and send it back to him. Prof. Peter Pels of Leiden University has discussed the controversial link of missionaries with colonial anthropology.


During the colonial period, the first Catholic missionary activity started in the Nilgiri Hills in 1603 by the Jesuits, and later by the Carmelite missionaries. The French Missionaries entered the Nilgiris after 1776, under their official name “Paris Foreign Missions Society”. The British acquired the Nilgiris in 1799 after the Fourth Mysore War. The Church Missionary Society, Basel German Evangelical Missionary Society, Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society and Church of England Zenana Missionary Society were the four major Protestant Missions that entered the Nilgiris during the British regime.


When the Church of South India was formed in 1947, the Protestant Missionary organizations in the Nilgiris, such as the Church Missionary Society, Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society and Church of England Zenana Missionary Society became part of it. Other Protestant Missions in Nilgiris included the American Arcot Mission, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Society for Propagation of Gospel in Foreign Parts, London Missionary Society, Christian Missions in Many Lands (Brethren), Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Mission and Baptist Mission. The Madurai Mission in 1606, Mysore Mission in 1648, and Carnatic Mission in 1689 were working adjacent to the Nilgiris.


Bishop Robert Caldwell was greatly assisted in his work on Dravidian linguistics and race by Rev. F. Metz of the Basel Missionary Society in Nilgiris. Caldwell was also assisted by an array of missionaries such as Rev. J. Brigel, Rev. J. Clay, Rev. E. Diaz, Rev. F. Kittel, and Rev. G.U. Pope. For Edgar Thurston, who worked on castes and tribes of southern India, the data from Nilgiris was provided by missionaries such as Bishop Whitehead, Rev. A.C. Clayton, Rev. F. Metz and Bishop Robert Caldwell.


Today, the British Museum eyes an area including Tamil Nadu and Kerala where the spade work has already been done and foundation laid by their ancestors. The British Museum gleams today because it contains looted treasures of colonized counties. Any visitor to the British Museum from a colonized country gets conscious of his own past in the museum, exhibiting jewels and antiquities once ripped away to be held in Britain, which is nothing less than a colonial cultural massacre.


The museum has long faced criticism for displaying – and refusing to return – looted treasures, including the Parthenon Marbles, Rosetta Stone, and Gweagal shield. Art historian Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tours around London institutions, including the British Museum, made headlines for their attempts to expose the role of colonialism, with those on the tour given “Display It Like You Stole It” badges (The Guardian, Oct.12, 2018).


In October 2018, the British Museum launched a campaign to counter the comprehension that everything it possesses is looted treasure - but Twitter users quickly taunted the effort. ‘We didn’t steal all of it’ is hardly a very convincing appeal. Writer and economist Sanjeev Sanyal observed that it is the best defense ever: “Not everything is Looted”. Sanyal also wrote that he heard British Museum is planning special section called “Unlooted Stuff”.


A visitor from a post-colonised country is suddenly made aware of how his or her past has brutally been ripped away and appended to British history, now on display for tourists from around the world to gloat over (British museums shine thanks to all the loot from India, The Indian Express, Aug.15, 2016). Along with the Kohinoor diamond, India’s demands from the British Museum include the Sultanganj Buddha, Amaravati railings, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s throne and Saraswati/Ambika idol from Bhojshala.


The British Museum is engaged in many Biblical archaeology projects. It has many publications on Biblical archaeology. ‘Illustrations of Old Testament History’ by R.D. Barnnett, ‘The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence’ by T.C. Mitchell,   and ‘Dual heritage: The Bible and the British Museum’ by Norman S. Prescott are only   some examples.


When Daniela De Simone talks on Ramayana, she concentrates only on our forests. Already the Central Indian forest region has been ethnologically surveyed by a number of colonial missionaries such as Stephen Hislop, Bishop Westcott, Rev. T.P. Hugh, Rev. E.M. Gordon, Rev. P. Dehon, Jeremiah Philips, John Baptist Hoffman, Rev. O. Flex, Rev. F. Batseh, Rev. F. Hahn, Rev. A. Grignard, Rev. C. Bleses Bishop, J.W. Picket, Rev. G.H. Singh and J.T. Taylor. The surveys by these missionaries narrate the Aryan invasion and subjugation of local population. The same old story is now being taken up by the British Museum on the pretext of rediscovering complex political spaces in the forest region.


The Ramayana narrates Rama’s journey from the Ganga plains through central India along Pampa Sarovar in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka and also Krishna Godavari delta. Rama’s journey was neither an intrusion, incursion, encroachment or making inroads by a monarch; it was the relinquishment of a monarch. His journey covered the vast forest regions of Naimisharanya, Chitrakut, Dandakaranya and Panchavati from north to south. De Simone currently says: Rama was confounded, rather bewildered at complex political spaces in the thick forest regions which included kingdoms, rules and structures. Complex political structures necessarily involve extensive foreign trade. Does Daniela De Simone of the British Museum indicate that there was extensive Roman trade during the Ramayana Period?


For nearly four decades, Ramayana was the embodiment of Aryan invasion into south India. The Dravidian ideology also gained foothold abroad with strong religious undercurrents. George L. Hart who occupied the Tamil Chair at the University of California, Berkeley said the Ramayana was a strange work used to suppress the Dravidians. FeTNA (Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America) was a major campaigner and fund raiser for the Berkeley Tamil Chair and also George Hart.


However, over the last two decades, the anti-Ramayana tirade is no longer an emotive and vote-catching issue in Tamil Nadu; even mainstream Dravidian parties have soft-pedalled it. (Good or Evil: The Politics of Ravana, Outlook, Nov. 2, 1998) The Aryan invasion theory has also collapsed. The late M. Karunanidhi also shocked many when his family members received Puttaparthi Sai Baba in the traditional Hindu way, by washing his feet (Ram enmity central to Dravidian politics, The Times of India, Sep. 21, 2007).


Today, several DMK ministers have no compunctions about openly participating in temple functions, which would have been sacrilegious a decade ago. But the real surprise came on January 24, 1997 when M.K. Stalin visited the Melmaruvathur Aadi Parasakti/ Kali temple, prayed before the deity and accepted offerings with devotion. (DMK leaders realize anti-religion ideology need to take a back seat to get votes, India Today, Feb. 28, 1997) Stalin said Karunanidhi would not have desilted the Kapaleeswarar temple tank if he was against the faith, nor would he have come forward to repair a portion of the Tiruvannamalai temple when it collapsed. Stalin also said Karunanidhi took efforts to run the Tiruvarar temple car in 1969 as he was not against faith. Stalin pointed out that Karunanidhi insisted it is wrong not to support the Hindus because they are a majority (Stalin sees a bid to portray DMK as anti-God, anti-Hindu; terms it mischievous, The Hindu, Sep. 23, 2018).


With the receding of ‘Aryan politics’ and anti-Hindu antagonism, there are serious allegations that there is a new agenda in Tamil Nadu launched by certain foreign-funded religious groups to aggressively whip up the Aryan/Dravidian north/south divide pioneered by Bishop Caldwell. For a more aggressive campaign to impact the public mind, what is needed is new archaeological and genetic evidence to raise a new divisive cultural identity for Tamil Nadu, distinct from mainstream India.


We should not forget the recent Dravidian claims on Rakhigarhi site in the Sarasvati valley. The old theory of Aryan migration into India and claims that the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi, Haryana has more affinity with Ancestral South Indian Tribal Population than with North Indians was vehemently raised in this context (We are all Harappans, Outlook, Aug. 2, 2018). The attempt also aimed to prove that Rakhigarhi has strong links with the Fertile Crescent and West Asia which accommodates the major Biblical sites of the world. An American NGO, Global Heritage Fund (GHF), founded by Jeff Morgan, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, promoted Rakhigarhi by supplying foreign archaeologists and DNA experts.



When there was a huge outburst in Delhi University against A.K. Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana, the protest was vehemently condemned by left historian Prof. K.N. Panikkar, chairman of the dubious Pattanam excavations supported by the British Museum. The British Museum is closely associated with the controversial Pattanam from its very beginning, via Roberta Tomber. On September 12-13, 2012 the British Museum sponsored a seminar on Pattanam at Kochi. Later, the British Museum sponsored a three-day workshop, August 15-19, 2013 hosted by K. Rajan of Pondicherry University.



The British Museum’s involvement in Tamil Nadu becomes more suspicious when  P.J. Cherian, Pattanam excavator who currently heads an NGO, says he had on-hand documentation of the Kodumal, Alagankulam, Korkai and  Pattaraiperumbudur excavated materials from Tamil Nadu (Do ancient Tamilakam sites deserve rediscovery?, The Times of India, Nov. 30, 2018). How did his NGO get easy access to the excavated material from these Tamil Nadu sites in government possession? This has enabled Cherian to claim similarities with Pattanam and Tamil Nadu sites. (Pattanam, Keezhadi excavated materials similar, says expert, Deccan Chronicle, Oct. 31, 2018) This cannot be viewed lightly when Pattanam site has close ties with British Museum.


Pattanam is strongly claimed as the landing site of St. Thomas. Catholic priest P.J. Lawrence Raj has written many letters to the bishops of the Catholic world seeking brand recognition for St. Thomas in Tamil Nadu. Fr. Raj put hard efforts to bring St. Thomas back to the mainstream narrative of Chennai’s Roman Catholic world (An apostle returns: Bringing St. Thomas back to Chennai, The Hindu, Oct.27, 2018).


Tamil Nadu is one of the major areas in India which receives huge foreign funds through NGOs. ( Independent churches mushroom across India attracting foreign funds, India Today, April 30, 2011 and Christian NGOs top in foreign funding, The Times of India, March 20, 2017) Mathew Cherian, chairperson, Voluntary Action Network India says southern states top in receiving foreign funds due to the number of Christian bodies and Tamil Nadu gets a chunk of such funds (Foreign funds pour in; 3,000 NGOs get over Rs. 22,000 cr., The Hindu, Aug.2, 2016). All these orchestrated campaigns by NGOs using history and archaeology to establish Apostle Thomas in Tamil Nadu have to be understood in this light.


Establishing the co-relation between Tamil Nadu archaeological sites and Pattanam by the left-church lobbies already stands exposed. The role of the British Museum in establishing an ‘alternative history’ for India in the context of Ramayana and complex political spaces in forestlands stands questioned as the museum also supports a major archaeological project to establish the historicity of Apostle Thomas. After all, alternative history is a genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered with historical fictions.

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