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British Museum ‘virtual pilgrimage’ reimagines Buddhist shrine

One of Buddhism’s earliest and largest monuments is brought to life in London with the help of smartphone technology.

In a special exhibit that is part of the British Museum’s South Asia season, visitors will be able to discover more about a double-sided relief from the Great Shrine of Amaravati in south-east India, including interacting with figures from its history.

Founded around 200 BC near the city of Dharanikota in the present-day state of Andhra Pradesh, Amaravati was one of the world’s most important Buddhist sites. It flourished for over a thousand years thanks to the region’s trade links throughout South and Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and the Mediterranean world, but the Great Shrine was gradually abandoned during the 14th century and by the late 18th century its original materials were being recycled in the construction of new buildings and temples. A series of archaeological expeditions in the 19th century recovered sculptures which today are shared across a number of museums around the world.

One side of the relief on display in ‘Virtual Pilgrimage: Reimagining India’s Great Shrine of Amaravati’ reveals what the shrine may have once looked like, with its dome covered in Buddhist symbols and stories and the Buddha standing in bodily form at the gateway. On the other the Buddha is evoked as an empty throne, a Bodhi tree and a pair of footprints, perhaps suggesting his liberation from the earthly realm and the confines of the human body.

Over the centuries, the shrine’s construction was funded by a series of pilgrims from many walks of life whose identities are recorded in inscriptions carved onto individual sculptures. The British Museum exhibit brings four of them to life, portrayed by actors in films projected onto the gallery walls alongside an annotated image of the relief. As well as a female disciple who donated the relief itself, visitors can use their smartphones to learn more about a 1st-century BC perfumer called Hamgha, a 1st-century AD Buddhist monk called Budhi, and a 2nd-century AD woman called Kumala.

The museum believes this approach to storytelling – “opening up the gallery walls” – will help to highlight the importance of ancient inscriptions, which are crucial for understanding the historical and social significance of sites such as the Great Shrine.

‘Virtual pilgrimage: reimagining India’s Great Shrine of Amaravati’ is one of the Asahi Shimbun Displays, a series of regularly changing displays sponsored by Japanese publisher the Asahi Shimbun Company that look at objects in new ways. It is open until 8 October 2017 in Room 3 at the British Museum and is free to view.

Many of the British Museum’s other Amravati sculptures will go on permanent display when the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia and the Asahi Shimbun Gallery of Amaravati sculptures reopens in November 2017 following refurbishment.

For those who can’t visit, the museum has made a 3D model of the relief available to explore online.

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