The Queen Vic



I’m about to make a statement that’s based on my personal observations of India.  It may actually be a wildly inaccurate generalisation.  And I apologise to any Indian who thinks otherwise.  But it surprises me how relaxed Indians seem to be about the period of their history when they were incorporated into the British Empire and treated as imperial subjects of the British Crown.


As evidence for this statement, I’ll cite the day I visited the Queen Victoria Memorial Museum, which stands in an area of parkland at Maidan in central Kolkata.  This is a huge white building with a central chamber dedicated to the memory of the longest-serving monarch in British history.  (For the time being, at least.  If the current Queen Elizabeth can hang in there till September 9th this year, she’ll break old Victoria’s record of 63 years and seven months – or to be more precise, 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes.  Yes, it’s amazing what facts you can find in the Daily Telegraph.)


As you go into this chamber, you pass a foundation stone with an inscription saying that the building was “erected in memory of Victoria, first Queen Empress of India 1837-1901, by the contribution of the princes and peoples of India” and the stone was “lain by her grandson HRH George Prince of Wales on January 4th, 1906.”


The day of my visit, the museum was thronged – and thronged almost entirely by Indians, who seemed to be absorbing everything in a spirit of calm historical curiosity.  I come from Ireland and I can safely say that if this building – commemorating the regal emblem of British imperialism during its most powerful and global era – stood in, say, Dublin, it wouldn’t be as popular with the local public.  In fact, the IRA would probably have blown it up 50 years ago.


Anyway, what’s on offer at Kolkata’s Queen Vic?



In the centre of the main chamber stands a statue of Victoria bearing an orb and sceptre.  Display-tables, cases and cabinets holding a variety of bric-a-brac are arranged around the statue, their contents including antique swords, a hefty model of an East India Company merchant ship called The Alumgeer and a model of the museum-building itself.  Also parked here, for some reason, is a grand piano.


Halfway up the sides of the chamber is a circular gallery; and above that, occupying the space between the gallery and the base of a cupola at the chamber’s top, are a dozen alfresco paintings.  The paintings show important scenes in Victoria’s life, including her coronation in 1838, her marriage in 1840, her Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897 and, following her death in 1901, her body lying in state.  Meanwhile, alcoves in the wall around the gallery house busts of important (British) personages of the time, including one of Victoria’s son and successor Edward VII.  The famously fun-loving king’s eyes seem a little too fixed on the middle-distance, as if he’s determinedly trying to conceal the fact that he’s just quaffed a few brandies.  Meanwhile, at the summit of the cupola, a round hole opens into a small belfry-shaped dome, where pigeons flap around oblivious to the crowds below.


An entrance lobby before the main chamber contains a statue of the building’s foundation-stone layer, George Prince of Wales, in his future monarchical incarnation as King George V.  There’s also a statue of his wife, Queen Mary; and the two statues face one another mutely, as if both are in the bitter, smouldering aftermath of a fierce matrimonial row.  Off to the left of this lobby is a gallery.  At the time of my visit it was hosting an exhibition by Abanindranath Tagore, founder of the Bengal School of Art and a nephew of the famous Nobel Prize-winning polymath (poet, novelist, dramatist, composer, song-writer, painter and political activist) Rabindranath Tagore.  One of the younger Tagore’s most famous paintings is Bharat Mata, which personifies India as a saffron-wearing mother goddess.  And I suppose that, by rights, it should be her who occupies the plinth in the next room, not Queen Victoria.




On the far side of the main chamber is another lobby, which has more statues – including one of Major-General Robert Clive, looking a bit pompous – and three antique field guns.  Two of those guns are French ones that Clive captured at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.  The third gun is a brass Bengali one, with an ornately patterned barrel and a curious, pointy-nosed, fox-eared face moulded onto the barrel’s end.


Two more galleries are located at either end of this second lobby.  The one to the left was, at the time, hosting an exhibition called The Artist’s Eye of India 1770-1835, which was a collection of paintings of early colonial-era buildings, townscapes and landscapes by Western artists.  I liked Thomas Daniell’s Dead Tiger in a Forested Landscape, but overall I found the exhibition rather dull.  To the right of the lobby is the Kolkata Gallery, which displays copious paintings, photos, sketches, maps, weavings, woodcuts and artefacts relating to the local city and which I found much more interesting.


There are some charming grounds around the building, although – appropriately – they’re subject to a horde of rules and regulations that show a Victorian-mentality strictness and stuffiness: No food, no smoking, no exercise, no plastic bags and use the bins.  The building was undergoing extensive maintenance when I visited, so that both its wings were encased in a dense mesh of scaffolding; but nonetheless, in the hazy early-evening light, it looked very appealing as it stood overlooking an artificial lake that’d been installed in front of it – with its reflection shimmering in the lake-water and with the retreating sun making a golden splash beside it.  A little way behind the building, you’ll encounter Edward VII again, this time on the back of a horse perched atop a stone archway; while some majestic stone lions lounge on pedestals beside the grounds’ entrance.



Finally, in the middle of a lawn just outside the building’s back doors, surrounded by pink and purple flowers, is a statue of Lord George Curzon of Kedleston, who was Viceroy of India when the building was constructed and who also served as British Foreign Secretary under David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin.  Curzon hardly distinguished himself during his time in India.  He was much criticised for the Indian Famine of 1899-1900 and for an attempt to partition Bengal in 1905.  And yet a century after Curzon’s failures, I saw countless Indian sightseers happily pose for photographs with his statue in the background.  No doubt this had less to do with any historical awareness of the Viceroy and his record, and had more to do with the fact that you aren’t allowed to use cameras inside the building and this is the handiest spot to take a picture as soon as you come out of it.



And that seems to sum up local attitudes to the Queen Victoria Memorial Museum.  Don’t vex yourself by thinking too much about the historical realities underlying the building.  Just relax and enjoy the majesty of its architecture and the pleasantness of its backdrop.



The Indian Museum in Kolkata



If the Indian Museum in Kolkata has a problem, it’s perhaps a problem of having a dual personality – a duality implied by its name.  Is it a museum about India, and about Indian culture in particular, which exists to satisfy foreigners like myself?  Foreigners who arrive expecting it to be packed full of Indian antiquities?  Or is it a museum that caters for Indian people, the local public, and meets the public’s general expectations about museums, i.e. that they have lots of stuffed animals and skeletons and cool things from ancient Egypt?


The Indian Museum at least has the space and the exhibits to meet both sets of expectations.  Contained in a huge white building with a courtyard and lawn and with grand columns striding along the edges of a ground-floor terrace and first-floor balcony, it’s the biggest museum in India and at the last count a decade ago it was reckoned to house over 100,000 items.  Its collection is the result of two centuries of acquisition – the museum was founded in 1814 and has inhabited this particular building since the 1870s.


For the Indian-culture-hungry tourist, there are a multitude of attractions: ranging from the massive, such as a 23-foot-high gateway and some nine-foot-high railings made of carved red-sandstone ‘pillars, cross-bars and running coping stones’, which constitute the remains of a Buddhist stupa discovered in Madhya Pradesh; to the small, but exquisite, such as a model of a carriage with a driver, passenger and four horses that’s been carved from ivory and supposedly represents ‘the exposition of the Gita at Kurukshetra’, i.e. when Krishna counselled Prince Arjuna on how to fulfill his duty as a warrior and establish Dharma.



However, the artifact that impressed me most of all was this charming ‘jade tree’.



With regard to more conventionally museum-y things, there are galleries devoted to India’s flora and fauna.  The zoological galleries have so many skeletons and skulls on display that they’re veritable boneyards.  The creatures of the prehistoric past are also given attention.  At one point, for instance, I stumbled across the tank-like carcass of a glyptodon.  The glyptodon was a monstrous type of armadillo that trundled around North and South America until about 10,000 years ago, when homo-sapiens – who obviously haven’t learnt anything in the period since – hunted it into non-existence.  It’s definitely my favourite extinct giant mammal.



I was impressed to find that the Indian Museum also has a gallery dedicated to evolution.  With religious nutcase-ism on the rise on so many parts of the world, including in North America, I’ll bet many museums nowadays would think twice about having a room that loudly extolls the theories of Charles Darwin and such similar ‘controversialists’ (or as they’re sometimes known, ‘scientists’).  The Evolution Gallery is full of lovely diagrams and models charting the evermore-intricate progress of life on earth, with its centrepiece being a huge depiction of a strand of DNA that rather resembles an avant-garde corkscrew.



There’s even a little Egyptology section, its entrance guarded by an impressive-looking sphinx.  But apart from the sphinx, a replica head of Queen Nefertiti and a mummified hand, there wasn’t anything there that lodged in my memory.



Incidentally, standing at the top of the stairs on the first floor is a statue of Queen Victoria.  It bears a presumptive and imperious inscription: “This statue of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was presented to the Indian people by Mahatab Chund Bahadur, Maharaja Dhiraj of Burdwan, in commemoration of Her Majesty’s gracious assumption of the imperial title on January 1st 1877.”  Yes, I imagine the Indian people felt enormous gratitude to Queen Victoria for doing them the favour of agreeing to be their empress.  It has to be said, though, that a lot of modern-day Indian museum-goers seemed happy enough to pose in front of the old girl’s statue for photos.



Rosslyn Chapel naked



What did Queen Victoria ever do for us?  Well, in 1842, whilst in Scotland, the prim and diminutive monarch visited Rosslyn Chapel.  By then the venerable chapel was a mouldering and vegetation-festooned shell that’d been degraded by 16th century Reformists and by Cromwell’s troops, hadn’t functioned as a place of worship for two centuries, and was mainly of note for providing inspiration to visiting artists and writers such as Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth.  After seeing its interior, with its multitude of weird and wonderful carvings, the queen stamped her tiny foot and demanded that rather than have the building crumble into complete ruins, it should be preserved for the nation.


Although by the 1860s Rosslyn Chapel had been sufficiently repaired for church services to be held in it again, the restoration work has continued to the present.  Sometimes that work has had to deal with the unintentionally-damaging effects of things done by earlier restorers – a layer of asphalt added to the roof in 1915 and protective coatings put on the stone carvings in the 1950s ultimately did more harm than good.  In a bid to stop green algae forming on the stonework, which had become saturated with water, a giant umbrella-like canopy, supported by scaffolding, was erected over the chapel in 1997.  The canopy was intended to shield it from rain, thus giving it a chance to completely dry out, and remained in place until 2010.


A few weeks ago I made my fifth visit to Rosslyn Chapel, which stands at the edge of Roslin village in Midlothian, about 15 miles up the road from my Dad’s farm.  My previous four visits had all taken place while the building was still encased in scaffolding and still huddling under the wings of that huge canopy, so this was my first chance to properly see its exterior as well as its interior, around which I’ve traipsed so many times that the carvings inside have now taken on the air of old friends.


Here are a few photos I took of the chapel’s exterior – naked at last.  A lot of the gargoyles, the external tracery on the windows and the outside carvings, statues and grotesques I hadn’t been able to see clearly before.  It was also a new experience to view those ornate pinnacles atop the buttresses silhouetted against a (typically cloudy) Scottish sky.



In recent years the number of visitors to Rosslyn Chapel has skyrocketed thanks, I’m told, to it being used as a setting in a novel that was a huge bestseller around the world.  That novel, of course, is Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness, published in 2000 and the eleventh of Rankin’s books about Detective Inspector John Rebus of the Lothians and Borders Police Force, who gets a tour of the chapel during the story.  (Apparently, Rosslyn Chapel also featured in an obscure novel called The Da Vinci Code, written by some bloke the name of Dan Brown.  You probably won’t have heard of it.)  Indeed, it shocked me the other week when I entered the building and found it packed with people, mostly Italian tourists.  There were four or five times as many sightseers present as there’d been during my previous visits, and it was a relief when one of the guides got most of them to sit down on the pews – which they entirely filled – and started giving them a lecture on the place’s history.  That left the sides and aisle of the chapel a little freer for the other visitors, myself included, to move around and look at stuff.

Because of the surge in visitors, and the greater congestion, you’re no longer allowed to take photographs inside the chapel.  However, here are a few pictures I took in previous years of the old favourites – the green man, the devil and lovers, the Apprentice Pillar and the creepy tied-up, upside-down angel who seems to be enacting part of a Masonic ritual.



In response to its increased popularity, the chapel has had a new visitor’s centre built in front of its perimeter wall.  This contains exhibitions, a cafeteria and a gift shop, which among other things sells Rosslyn Chapel caps, Rosslyn Chapel jam, Rosslyn Chapel yoyos and Rosslyn Chapel books.  Look – there at the end of the second-from-top bookshelf is that Da Vinci novel by Dan what’s-his-name.  I wonder if it ever sells any copies?