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Museums of Hyderabad

The Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad (*****)

The Salar Jung Museum

In the mid-19th century, the Nizam of Hyderabad appointed a prime minister to whom was given the title of Salar Jung. His son, Salar Jung II, and grandson Salar Jung III, were also selected as prime ministers by later rulers. It was these three men who contributed to what is now called the Salar Jung collection in this museum.

Mir Yousuf Khan, Salar Jung III, was a passionate collector of art objects. He died in 1949, a couple of years after India become independent, leaving no heirs. On his death, the administration of the collection was entrusted to a special committee that placed the collection on display in the palace of Salar Jung III, turning it into a museum. It was only in 1958 that the collection was donated to the government of India, and in 1968 the museum was transferred to its present, poorly designed building.

The museum possesses a vast collection of art objects, but only a small portion is on display. There is also an enormous library of rare books and manuscripts. The three Salar Jungs collected objects from Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and India. The items were purchased on foreign trips and through dealers. During the colonial period many rare items such as the collection of swords, daggers and other antiques were taken away from the country. It is fortunate that some of these art objects have found their way back into this collection. The museum is famous for its European art collections of Jade, Weapons, textiles and metal ware, which are significant as they provide a glimpse into post-Mughal court life and are suggestive of the grandeur and wealth of rulers in days gone by. The clock room has a gallery that has a collection of more than three hundred clocks.

The present museum building is not the best example of modern Indian architecture, but the collection is very representative of all that was in vogue in the late 19th century among powerful families of the state of Hyderabad. The museum is still being reorganized, and the abundance of objects is being sorted for display in some sort of coherent way. The building is constructed round a courtyard with a verandah leading into the exhibition rooms, on both the ground and first floors.

The first room on the ground floor is devoted to a selection of Salar Jung's personal belongings : their clothes, household goods, books and furniture, along with gifts and photographic documentation of their lives and times. The rest of the ground floor is devoted to Indian arts and crafts.

The Textile Gallery

This gallery has an assortment of Indian textiles in cotton, silk and wool, and a display of glass objects (an odd combination). The best items in the collection are the brocades, in which real silver and gold threads were woven into the fabric. The shawls of Kashmir are equally gorgeous, and it is difficult to find this quality of workmanship nowadays. Among the embroidered items, the gold thread or zari work is still popular, and Hyderabad has some excellent master craftsmen in this area. Phulkari embroidery from the Punjab is also easy to recognize. A rich, deep brick-coloured cotton cloth serves as the background on which the embroidery is done. Silk threads is subtle shades of yellow, green and orange are woven into the ground fabric like tapestry, till the background almost disappears. Abstract bagh designs of squares and blocks of colour represent gardens.

One way to enjoy this gallery is to see it after you have seen the Indian miniature painting gallery. The paintings show how the clothes were worn and how colours were matched according to the fashion of the period.

The Ivory Room

This room is a fascinating one. Ivory was much coveted in India during the British colonial period. This led to an alarming fall in India's wild elephant population. Today the elephant is protected, and production of arifacts in ivory is now carried out on only a very limited scale and export is prohibited. The old state of Mysore (now Karnataka) and Kerala were the traditional homes of ivory carving. Today bone often substitutes for ivory, but this material can never attain the dull luster and creamy white quality of genuine old ivory.

The nawabs of yesteryear, however, faced no such restrictions and entire tables and chairs were constructed of intricately inlaid and painted ivory. Since ivory is hard, very fine, almost lace-like carving of it was possible. On display are chess sets, images, and painted objects. What always seems to fascinate visitors are the objects made using the cutaway technique. Here the ivory is first carved with a lacy surface design. The space behind it is cut away till the design shows up like a screen, and further carving continues at deeper levels of the ivory. the object then acquires a trellis-like exterior case, and the forms within forms are created out of a single piece of ivory.

A few ivory objects from Japan are also on display.

The Metalware and Arms Gallery

Room 17, with its display of Indian metal ware and weapons, is quite special. In India, the metalworker experimented with several techniques : repousse, embossing, engraving and enamelings. However, the Hyderabad region became most famous for the technique called Bidri. Bell metal with a dull sheen is blackened chemically and inlaid with sliver or brass motifs. The Bidri ware on display here, mainly hookah stands, trays and plates, is very ornate, the dull grey-black offsetting the floral patterns and geometric designs in the sparkling white of silver.

The arms exhibited here are of various types : swords, daggers and guns. It is not only the weapons that are interesting but also the workmanship on them. On the handles of swords and daggers, and the area where handle and blade meet, one sees some of the finest engraved and inlaid metalwork to be found anywhere. Some swords have miniature decorations on their blades of hunting scenes, with rather gleeful, tiny lions hunting deer.

Perfect in form, function and design, almost with a touch of tenderness, are the gunpowder boxes in various shapes, the one showing a fleeing deer being the most famous.

Ceremonial swords with gilt embellishments are displayed here, along with swords with Jade handles encrusted with gold and gems. There are also the personal swords of heroic Indian rulers like Tipu Sultan, Jahangir, Aurangzeb and Salar Jung I and the diamond-studded, ceremonial darbar sword of Salar Jung III.

The Jade Room

It is difficult to find anything to match the delicacy of jade. Jade in all its many hues - soft, translucent, white, pink and shades of green - has been carved into handles for small daggers, the top of the handles exquisitely fashioned into the head of a camel, horse, goat, a bejeweled parrot or a lion. Other jade objects to be seen in the gallery are wine cups, bowls and plates, mirror frames and book stands.

Jade is not found in India, and it is presumed that the stone was brought to Indian courts and crafted there by Indian artists. It was in the Mughal period that the emperors seemed especially to favour jade art. There are numerous references in contemporary Mughal literature to gifts of jade being given to the emperor, or by him to his brothers, family and friends.

The small daggers with jade handles, or jade and precious stone inlay, would really have served as ornaments, to be tucked into the broad belt, or depicted in Mughal paintings, examples of which may be seen in the Miniature Indian Painting Gallery (No 18).

The beauty of the jade wine bowl on display lies in the thin, almost translucent, quality of the entire object. This was achieved by the difficult and time-consuming task of wearing down the sides of the object with abrasive instruments, till the walls of the bowl were fine and smooth. The bowls were fashioned to fit perfectly in the palm of the hand, as that was how it was held for drinking. There was a belief that jade changes colour if the liquid in it is poisoned. The shapes of the wine cups were often inspired by nature to match the organic form of leaves and flowers. In doing so, the artist sought to capture the fullness of a flower, the twist of the stem, the web of the veins and the gentle curve of the edge of the leaf. It is not difficult to imagine such a light jade cup poised in an emperor's palm. Why the artist chose to give the wine cup a leaf shape is a matter of conjecture. There is an ancient as well as contemporary Indian tradition of fashioning a shallow cup by joining several leaves together which is to be used for eating and drinking purposes.

The tiny jade plates could have been used for a variety of purposes. We are told that the Royal menu at every meal consisted of so many dishes that the king would merely taste them, as a connoisseur would. These precious plates may have carried delicate condiments for the emperor.

The book stands were opened up and laid on the floor, to serve as a low table. The Quran or precious manuscripts would be opened on it, the sides propped up by the stand so that the book never really lay flat, Thus avoiding damage to the tightly bound spine. To read the book, one would have to sit on the floor and turn the pages, never holding the book in one's hand. Since reading or recitation from religious book went on for several hours, a book stand was essential. It also minimized damage from constant handling. It must be remembered that books in the period before printing was invented were all hand written, often beautifully illustrated, and were therefore very precious. A bejewelled jade book stand would thus be an appropriate support for the treasure manuscript of royality.

The Indian painting section should be seen for a member of reasons. It has a collection representative of different schools and styles, begining with Jain palm-leaf miniatures, followed by paintings on paper from the Deccan, Malwa, Mewar and Kangra regions. The Prince and the hawk is a lovely 17th century painting that shows the high level of sophistication this art had reached during the Mughal period. There is another painting, of the same period, of the Madonna and child. Christian missionaries and ambassadors from Britain had visited Mughal emperor like Jahangir and presented them with gifts of paintings and other offerings. This must have influenced the Indian artists, who did not hesitate to render foreign themes in their own style.

Of the Deccani school, the museum has a fine collection, for this is the region of their origin. In the collection are a few paintings that utilise a special marbling technique. The paint was floated an a liquid in which it would not dissolve or mix. The colours were then carefully worked on, to create tiny zigzag patterns and designs, the paper slipped under the paint to lift the design off the water and on to the painting.

Another interesting technique came from the Sholapur region of Maharashtra. On the paintings, if closely observed, will be seen thin layers of gold foil which the artist has finely worked with punched and embossed designs.

There are many paintings to themes from Hindu mythology, such as Manmatta and Consort (late 18th century). In the examples of the Laila and Majnu, a popular and tragic love story very similar to that of Romeo and Juliet. In this painting, the artist has shown all of nature mourning with the lovers; pairs of animals and birds commiserate with the human beings, in the sadness of love, at the loss of the beloved.

This is also a good museum for the study of Indian manuscripts illustrated with paintings in a variety to techniques and styles. These constitute a rich source of information an life in the medieval court.

The Western Art Section

This section attracts numerous visitors, especially to see a Cuckoo clock, in front of which hundreds gather at each hour and half hour to watch the miniature toy figures trooping in and out. The section displays marble copies of classic sculptures of Greek and Roman gods, but the pride of the salar Jung Museum is the Veiled Rebecca by G B Benzoni (1876), bought by Salar Jung I while on a visit to Italy. A courtesy visit to the European statuary Gallery is, therefore, called for.

The Western art galleries also contain collection of glass from Venice, Bohemia and England, and European porcelain. The paintings gallery has a collection of copies of western masters, and some oil paintings attributed to Turner, Constable and Chardin.

There is also a collection of carpets from West Asia, and an assortment of object from China, Japan, Nepal, Tibet and elsewhere.

The Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.
Hours : 10 am - 5 pm except on Fridays and Government holidays.
Suggested viewing time : One hour.


There are mainly early Buddhist antiquities on display. A stone shrine, polished black dolerite pillars, fine carvings, and a wooden chariot used in temple parades are among the exhibits.

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