Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 1, April 16-30, 2017

Rambling in our museums (3) … with N.S. Parthasarathy

Exhibiting ancient Tamil culture


Different from other museums, in respect of display content and style, is the ‘Exhibition of Ancient Tamil’ at the International Institute of Tamil Studies in Taramani. Re-created depictions of ancient Tamil culture, customs and practices, in a variety of forms, constitute a colourful and impressive collection. As to why the term exhibition is used to refer to this display complex, as distinct from museum, is explained later in this article. That, by itself, was a new insight on museum display options and policies the writer could pick up in the course of his visits to Chennai museums.

The exhibition consists of seven spacious, brightly lit, air-conditioned galleries. There is a well-equipped auditorium where visitors can watch documentaries before going round the galleries. The documentaries are an imaginative blend of photographs of forts, sculptures, animations re-enacting past battles and events, battle scenes from movies to impart realism, quotations from literature – Purananooru, Thirukkural, Silappadhikaram – voice-over commentary in picturesque Tamil and soft music, all combined to create a powerful impact on the audience. The commentary explaining different defence strategies, supported by diagrams, was educative. Code of conduct in war and diplomacy, explained through quotes from Sangam literature, are indicative of a high degree of civilisation in ancient times.


The most impressive of the documentaries is that on water management. It depicts scientific methods of water management and conservation in use in early times and which form the basis of even today’s practices. Through documentaries and clay models, the operation of dams, aqueducts, watersheds and environment protection practices are vividly demonstrated. Worship of trees was meant to educate people on the importance of tree planting for a better environment.

The model of the Kallanai (meaning, stone dam), an engineering marvel, is of special appeal. The dam was built two thousand years ago across the Cauvery in Tiruchirappalli District. Known also as the Grand Anicut, it is said to be one of the oldest water-regulating structures in the world to be still in use. It diverts the river to the delta districts, facilitating irrigation for agriculture and controlling floods. The dam has a strong foundation and a solid structure which holds good even today. It is made of unhewn stone and is 1,080 feet long and 60 feet wide, across the main stream of the Cauvery. The area originally irrigated was 69,000 acres which in due course led to expansion of the capacity of the original structure to about a million acres. The Lower Anicut, built by Sir Arthur Cotton in the 19th Century across Kollidam, the major tributary of Cauvery, is said to be a replica of Kallanai.

The model of the temple town of Srirangam demonstrates the high standard of town planning in those times. Stories are depicted through clay models of the extent to which wise kings went to demonstrate that rule of law and justice, for wrongs suffered, was the right of every living being. Seen are Manuneedhi Chozhan laying his son under the wheels of the chariot to punish him for depriving a cow of its calf, Porkkai Pandian cutting off his own hand to comply with the judgement of a scholar, and King Sibi giving a piece of flesh from his thigh to the hawk from which a dove sought refuge with him.


The exhibition is an impressive demonstration of ancient customs and practices in the form of paintings, figurines, prototypes of tools, weapons and other articles in wood, metal and terracotta, and reproduction of historical scenes and life styles in three-dimensional colourfully painted “doll” forms. To the lay visitor, young or old, unschooled in the appreciation of artefacts and art pieces, understanding and visualising the past is made easy.



This museum visit led the writer into a mini-research to understand the distinctions and objectives of diverse display policies and techniques. The term museum is derived from the Greek muses. There were nine Muses, protecting different arts. “A museum is an institution that conserves a collection of artefacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.” These original specimens are symbols of the past and have to be -connected and visualised for the reality behind them, in order to understand life in those times. For this we often need a qualified guide who can interpret and put them together to make a coherent, authentic and meaningful account of the past. An exhibition, on the other hand, re-constructs the past through multi-media techniques to make the objects self-explanatory. Considerable research into the literature and history of those times precedes their transformation into visual form. The exhibits are developed from a concept through to a physical, three-dimensional, multi-media exhibition. They enable the audience to understand the messages and stories without the help of a guide. “Exhibit designers work closely with graphic designers, content specialists, architects, fabricators, technical specialists and audio visual experts.” While there is, thus, a distinction between a museum and an exhibition, the former term is often used loosely to refer to both.

Choice of display options are influenced, in the last decade or so, by the visitor profile and the experience they seek. Some museums in the world are reported to be shifting to exhibits that tell stories rather than display artefacts. Museologists are questioning the need for displaying artefacts, the interest in which is confined to researchers and which do not often mean much to general visitors. The latter need more of educational, self-explanatory – even interactive – type of exhibits and a minimal display of artefacts sufficient to authenticate the re-constructed models. The selective display of artefacts also ensures security for these objects of unimaginably high antique value. Exhibitions ensure that a family looking for entertainment, through a trip to a local “museum”, gets the desired experience besides receiving an incidental, but useful, educational value.

This is what the new Exhibition of Ancient Tamil Culture offers. The writer was practically the first visitor to the new building, which unexpected distinction earned him the privilege of being personally conducted through the galleries by the senior Officer in-Charge himself.


  1. R.K.Natarajan says:

    I am surprised such an exhibition exists in Chennai. Your description makes one wonder why this place is not in the itinerary of T.N. Tourism depth.

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