The Odisha State Museum offers a veritable walk-through of three thousand years and beyond of Odishan history and culture.
Much of the cultural property of Odisha State Museum includes stone tools of the prehistoric era (more than 3000 years back).
The stone tools such as cleavers, discs, scrapers and hand axes are made up of rocks which are of metamorphic, igneous and sedimentary types.
These prehistoric objects are collected mainly from Sankerjung in Dhenkanal district.
Sankerjung is a dominantly Neolithic site associated with copper and bronze tools and ornaments along with bone and bone fragments.
So, over a period of more than six decades, this institution has continued to grow in many directions with a rich collection of exhibits, including sculpture, coins, epigraphs, lithic armoury objects, lithic and bronze age tools, natural history and anthropological art objects, mining and geological treasures, folk and tribal musical instruments, varieties of handicrafts and handlooms, patta paintings and palm leaf manuscripts.
The genesis of the State Museum dates back to the year 1932 when two historians, Prof. Nirmal Chandra Banarjee and Prof. Ghanshyam Das of Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, made a collection of archaeological remains from different places of the state.
The small museum, then, was housed in the Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, till it was shifted to Bhubaneswar.
Initially, it was only an archaeological museum with a collection of sculptures, terracotta, numismatics, copper plates and the specimens of fine arts.
With the shifting of the state capital from Cuttack to Bhubaneswar, Sardar Patel Hall, the old Vidhan Soudh in 1947-48 was named as Provincial Museum.
The foundation stone of the present building was laid on 29th December1957 by Dr. Rajendra Prasad the first President of India. Over a period of time the museum has assumed the status of a multipurpose institution with the rich treasure of cultural objects like sculptures, decorative panels of temples, coins, copper plates, stone inscriptions, armoury objects, Palm leaf Manuscripts, Bronzes, Natural History, Anthropological specimens geological remains to traditional folk and tribal ornaments, musical instruments and contemporary paintings.
The researchlibrary of the museum preserves rare and valuable publications.
The State Museum comprises galleries on Archaeology, Epigraphy, Numismatics, Armoury, Mining and Geology, Natural History, Art and Craft, Patta Painting, Bronze Gallery, Anthropology and Palmleaf Manuscripts, PaikaRebellion, Ivory, Postal gallery etc. Among these galleries the Palm leaf Manuscript Gallery is the richest, with the palm leaf collection throwing floodlights on the culture of Odisha.
At present the collection has more than 20,000 manuscripts, including illustrated manuscripts, categorised under twenty seven subjects.
The Archaeology Section of Odisha State Museum is another important section.
The exhibits of the section are mainly of sculptures ranging from 3rd century B.C. to the late medieval period displayed in the three big halls of magnificently designed pedestals.
The antiquities of these section cover a long span of three thousand years.
The portion of Asokan pillar brought from Patna Museum, isconsidered the earliest specimen of the section.
The Asokan pillar brought from Pataliputra (modern Patna) is displayed in the 1st hall of the Archaeology gallery.
This pillar is made of Chunar sandstone which is famous for its lustrous polish.
Highly polished, tall, well-proportioned columns were erected at convenient places of Asoka’s empire in order to propagate the tenets of Buddhism among the masses.
It is said that the Mauryan king had a thousand pillarsconstructed for the purpose.
The discovery of pillars at different places indicates the extent of his empire.
These pillars symbolise the best representation of Mauryan art and architecture.
Another important antiquity of the period is the Asokan Bell Capital.
The discovery of a huge Bell capital near Asoka Jhar in Bhubaneswar is 32 inches high and the circumference of the upper bulge is about 19 feet 5 inches.
The Bell Capital consists an abacus, torus and the bell.
The decorative figures in the frieze are a full blown lotus, a goose and a lion.
It was dug out by eminent historian Padmashree Dr. K.C. Panigrahi and presented in the Odisha State Museum.
The next important antiquity of 3rd century B.C. is the estampage (replica) of Jaugada (Ganjam district)inscription of Mauryan emperor Asoka, preserved in the epigraphy section.
The earliest epigraphic records discovered in Odisha is the writing of Asoka’s reign.
The Mauryan king Asoka had his edicts inscribed on rocks, pillars, stone slabs etc.
His edicts were found from Dhauli (Khordha) and Jaugada (Ganjam District).
The estampage of Jaugada rock edicts are preserved in the epigraphy gallery.
This separate rock edict contains the royal order addressed to the Mahamatras, stationed at Samapa by the king, Devanam Priya Priyadarshi the (Beloved of the Gods).
He gives instructions to these officers to perform their duties, and inspire the people of the bordering land to have confidence in the king who regards his subjects as his children.
The officers should convey to the people his desire of providing all kinds of welfare and happiness in this world and in the next.
By so doing, they would attain heaven and discharge the debts owed to the king.
It is stated that the record has been written here for the purpose that the Mahamatras should strive to do their duty at all times, in order to inspire the people of the unconquered territories lying beyond the king’s dominions to have confidence in him and to induce them to practise the duties associated with dharma.
Therefore, the officers should listen to this edict read out every caturmasi day as well as on the day of Tisya constellation and may also be listened to it on any other occasion.
The Odisha State Museum, since its inception, has become a treasure house of numismatic findings ranging from the 3rd century B.C. to the modern age.
The silver punch-marked coins are regarded as the earliest coin type in India as well as Odisha.
They are called punch-marked coins due to the fact that some symbols were punched on both sides of the coins.
They are available mainly in sliver. Very rare copper coins were also circulated.
The symbols on the coins comprise the figure of human beings, animalssuch as bulls, elephants, bullocks, horses and hare, trees, leaves, arrows, bows, sun, hill etc.
The coins have no legends and also have no regular size and shape.
The Asurgarh (Kalahandi), Salepur, (Cuttack) hoard of punch-marked coins are some of prized possessions of the Museum. About one thousand punch-marked coins have been preserved in the section.
The coins have been categorically divided into two parts ‘Local punch-marked coins’ and ‘Imperial or Universal’ punch-marked coins.
The Local punch-marked coins have four symbols on the obverse and the reverse is blank.
The imperial coins have five symbols on the obverse and two symbols on the reverse. More than seven big hoards of these coins have been collected from different parts of Odisha.
The silver punch-marked coins are the only ancient coinage of the whole of India, and are known to be available in the largest number.
The internal and external evidences for historical data furnished by them are of immense importance to numismatists and historians.
Internal evidences are generally gleaned from the metal content of the coins, their general fabric, the weight standard and the symbology adopted for them or the various stampings on the two sides of the coins.
The technique of their manufacturing also may be studiedfor important historical data on coinage.
Preservation of the antiquities and rare collections is always a challenging task for museums.
The Odisha State Museum has been doing an incredible job at conservation and preservation of the antiquities.
The sheer range of collections in the Museum makes it a distinct site of cultural memory.
However, how well the museumised collections can be transformed from mere artefacts of a dead past into active carriers of cultural memory is upon the people of Odisha.
(The writer is a senior IAS officer. He works as principal secretary of the revenue and disaster management and culture department, the government of Odisha)