National treasures: Rediscover India through 10 of its newest museums
In Jharkhand, a fossil that might unlock the mystery of plant evolution. In Goa, a smugglers’ den. In West Bengal, tales of freedom told through prison cells. Some are compact little galleries, others spread out over entire forests. There’s priceless jewellery, vintage cameras, even artificial body parts. Take a look.
1. After 66 million years, a sequel: Balasinor Dinosaur Park, Phase 2 in Raiyoli, Gujarat
For some Indian museums, a Phase-2 opening is a way to start over, build back better. In Raiyoli, a village some 80 km from Ahmedabad, palaeontologists first stumbled upon fossil remains and dinosaur bones in the 1980s. The discovery sparked global interest in the region. Researchers swept in. Excavations were conducted. It emerged that three local species of dinosaur had thrived in the area about 66 million years ago.
Raiyoli ended up becoming possibly the third-largest dinosaur egg hatchery in the world, and the second largest dinosaur hatchery on record, after 10,000 fossilised dinosaur eggs were found here over the decades. Even so, it’s been hard to get the public interested.
Phase 1 opened in 2019, it was plagued by technical glitches, disappointing tourists. The 72-hectare space has since made necessary fixes and expanded.
The old interpretation centre and 40 life-size dinosaur models are still here, including a replica of a fierce regional species named Rajasaurus Narmadensis. There’s now a 5D theatre too, a virtual forest experience that recreates dinosaur habitats, sample labs and holographic displays. All the better to recreate the world that vanished more than 66 million years ago.
2. Seize the day: Customs and GST museum in Panaji, Goa
The 400-year-old blue building on the banks of the Mandovi, opposite the Panaji jetty, houses Dharohar, India’s only museum dedicated to custom duties, trade taxation and GST. It’s more exciting than the name lets on. The galleries, spread across two storeys, display confiscated goods ranging from gigantic elephant tusks to a priceless manuscript of the Ain-i-Akbari intercepted at the Indo-Nepal border, shark jaws, sculpture, and astronomical devices from the medieval India. One diorama recreates Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March to Dandi.
“Our most popular section is the Battle of Wits gallery, which showcases the modus operandi of smugglers from the past,” says Nitin Kumar, assistant commissioner with the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs, which manages the museum. The displays chronicle how gold, guns, drugs, antiquities and wildlife were seized by Customs officials over the decades. “The exhibits show how we’ve recovered contraband hidden in car engines and diamonds stuffed inside walking sticks.”
In another section, dioramas illustrate how eagle-eyed inspectors test for the presence of narcotics and psychotropic substances in shipments moving across borders.
Smugglers have hidden valuable currencies in hollowed-out books, sewn gold into jacket linings. “Most people are not familiar with the kind of work customs officials do, so they view the museum with a kind of awe,” Kumar says. “It also inculcates pride in our tireless teams.”
The museum was inaugurated in 2009, but a new gallery has opened this year. It charts the two-decade journey of GST, India’s reformed unified indirect tax system, which was introduced in 2017. “In addition to photos and graphics, we have the symbol of the moment the nation was unified under a single tax,” Kumar says. “The actual buzzer used in Parliament when the GST bill was turned into law.”
Fittingly, for Goa, there’s a chapel on the premises. St Anthony, patron saint of lost and missing objects, looks over this curated hoard.
3. A prison that honours freedom : Independence museum in Alipore, West Bengal
It’s fitting that the Alipore Central Correctional Home has been transformed into a museum honouring the independence movement. The 15.2-acre facility just outside Kolkata opened in 1906 as Alipore Jail and has its own story to tell of India’s resistance to British rule.
This is where Jawaharlal Nehru was imprisoned for 85 days in 1934, for three speeches made in Bengal that the British deemed seditious. Revolutionaries such as Subhas Chandra Bose, CR Das, JM Sengupta and BC Roy were incarcerated here during the freedom struggle; more than 50 others were hanged here.
The space continued to be used as a prison in independent India; inmates were transferred over the past two years to the newer Baruipur prison 25 km away. Of the 35 buildings on the premises, five have since been restored and will be part of the museum.
There’s much to see. Areas where British-era inmates once spun khadi on charkhas have been preserved, as have the torture chambers and watchtowers. Ten artists from the state have painted freedom-movement-themed murals on some of the structures. A 30-minute sound-and-light show, much like the one at the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, will play every evening.
India has several prison museums, including in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Telangana. Each tells a different tale of incarceration, freedom, and justice.
4. All carat, no stick: Khazana Mahal in Jaipur, Rajasthan
There’s no dearth of things to see in Jaipur. But those drawn to its famed jewellery and precious stones have thus far had to make do with retail stores. Khazana Mahal, a dedicated private museum showcasing rare gems, stones and precious objects, offers a closer look at a glittering history.
It’s sprawling, set inside a century-old restored haveli on a 10,000-sq-metre property. Inside are videos on what it takes to turn a stone into a diamond (pressure, time and a confluence of just the right conditions), and dioramas on Sawai Jai Singh, the 18th-century Rajput ruler who founded the fortified city, made it his capital, and promoted the trade of gems and precious metals here.
Obviously, there’s bling: Oversized rings; bits of gleaming meteorite; a shark tooth polished to a gleam; stones said to be from the Ram Setu from the Ramayana; and rare dinosaur coprolite (fossilised excreta).
All exhibits are from the private collection of 87-year-old Dr Rajnikant Shah, a physician who took to the gemstone trade in 1976 and now lives in New York City. Some 95% of the gemstones here are genuine, museum management tells us. The replicas too tell a story; one is a lookalike of the Kohinoor.
Accompanying the objects are notes on myths, historical and contemporary events, to give visitors a better sense of what they’re looking at. An upcoming attraction: a ride through a pretend gemstone mine, right on the premises.
5. Coins and how ours came to be: Saifabad mint museum in Hyderabad, Telangana
There are coin galleries and numismatics museums in cities across India. None, however, is set in a decommissioned royal mint; and none showcases the making of the money itself.
Saifabad’s mint dates to 1903, when Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, imported cutting-edge machinery from Europe to standardise the production of his kingdom’s coins. Hyderabad was the only princely state that minted its own currency, until then handmade but fairly valuable. With the new machines, this princely state became a centre of coin-making, producing high-quality coinage until as late as 1950, two years after Hyderabad was absorbed into independent India. The government then took over the mint, producing rupees and paise for the nation here until 1997, when the operation was moved to Cherlapally, 20 km away.
After that, the mint, spread over 2.5 acres, lay sealed and largely neglected. Then, in November 2021, the Numismatics Society of India held a meeting in Hyderabad, their first in that city in 90 years. A bunch of enthusiasts secured permission to visit the old mint, and an idea was born: Perhaps the place could be turned into a museum
India’s Security Printing and Minting Corporation, which oversees active and decommissioned mints, roped in the Hyderabad division of Intach (the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage) to give the place new life. “The building was intact, so we literally went in with a broom to clean up,” says P Anuradha Reddy, convenor of Intach - Hyderabad. “It was all there, the safes for bullion, the weighing machines, transport wagons, and metal flooring and cast-iron pillars to hold all the weight.”
For now, a small portion at the entrance and a hall inside is open to visitors. There are coins on display, from Mughal, Nizam, British-Indian and contemporary Indian periods. There’s even a replica of a 11.9-kg commemorative coin issued by Jahangir in 1613.
But the real treasure are the old coin-making tools, which cut, shaped, stamped, engraved, edged and polished regular metal into something of greater value. Exhibits are accompanied by scannable codes that lead to more information about each object.
An inaugural exhibition was held across one week in June. Reddy says there was a flood of visitors. “There’s curiosity about the place.” There are plans for more short-term exhibitions, and ultimately a larger permanent museum too.
6. The heroes underneath it all : Raj Bhavan’s Gallery of Revolutionaries in Mumbai, Maharashtra
In 2016, a series of dark, dank tunnels was discovered beneath the Governor’s sprawling residence at Malabar Hill. It starts underneath the Durbar Hall and wends its way to the sea, which laps at the edge of the property. Along the passageway, ventilation ducts, and 13 empty rooms with nameplates such as Small Arms Ammunition Store, Shell Store, Workshop and Cartridge Store were discovered.
These rooms were probably built in 1875, ahead of a visit by the Prince of Wales. Now they’re the Kranti Gatha, a gallery dedicated to heroes who fought in revolts ranging from India’s First War of Independence in 1857 to the Royal Indian Navy uprising of 1946. It’s a tribute to Vasudev Balwant Phadke, Lokmanya Tilak, VD Savarkar, Krantiguru Lahuji Salve, Anant Laxman Kanhere, Bhikaiji Cama, and Ganesh Pingale, among others.
In addition to portraits of the revolutionaries are sculptures, rare photos, and information about their roles. It’s history on a whole new level.
7. History, in close-up :Museo Camera in Gurugram, Haryana
Museo Camera opened in 2019, then shut in the pandemic; reopened in August 2020 and closed again amid the second wave in April 2021. As a result, most of its delights remained a mystery to the public. That can now change.
The sprawling 18,000-sq-ft space, a public-private partnership between the India Photo Archive Foundation and Municipal Corporation of Gurugram, has been fully operational since July 2021. It’s more than just a place to view images. It’s where the story of the camera develops from the first bulky devices in the 1850s to our image-saturated world today.
Photographer, historian and archivist Aditya Arya, 62, says he conceived of the museum in 2009, as a way to showcase his vast collection of vintage photographic equipment, pieced together over 45 years. The crowdfunded museum now houses more than 2,500 cameras and pieces of photographic equipment as well as rare Partition-era photographs, and other archival material.
On the second floor, the Kulwant Roy Collection, a permanent display, showcases rare images from India’s freedom struggle. A display gallery on the first floor serves as an exhibition space for contemporary photographers. “Since January 2022, we have hosted 15 exhibitions of works by artists from around the world. We conduct regular mobile and camera photography courses for beginners and advanced courses as well,” Arya says.
An ongoing show, 75 Years of Indian Photographers, celebrates Independence through the work of 82 Indian photographers, including Latika Nath, Fawzan Hussain, Chirodeep Chaudhuri and Hemant Chaturvedi. Images on display range in genre from photojournalism to street photography and portraiture. The exhibition, “a kaleidoscope of diverse image-making traditions stretching over seven-and-a-half decades”, is on from August 20 to October 30.
8. Barrier-free spaces: Museum of Possibilities in Chennai, Tamil Nadu
The premises of the State Commissionerate for Welfare of the Differently Abled overlook Chennai’s Marina Beach. But the breeze of change that blows through the Museum of Possibilities, dedicated to the differently and specially abled, has nothing to do with the sea.
There’s ramp access not just on the ground floor, but all the way up on the third floor. The café has counters at varying levels and suction-cup crockery for those who need it. The toilets are wheelchair-enabled. The Live, Work, Play sections feature musical instruments, board games, literature and software adapted for the differently abled. Each section has QR codes with visual and audio explanation.
The big reveal: a model of an inclusive home. There are tactile surfaces for the visually challenged, beds and shelves at wheelchair-enabled levels, remote-controlled and voice-activated devices, sliding doors for greater ease.
“So many disabled people, even in their homes, are confined to one or two rooms,” says Poonam Natarajan of the disability non-profit Vidya Sagar, which manages the 2,500-sq-ft museum. Natarajan spent eight years chairing the National Trust for the welfare of those with autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities. “A disability is an impairment. But it becomes a barrier because of the environment. We try to find ways to lower or remove those barriers.”
The good news is that India has several small enterprises and non-profits that have developed or are marketing specially designed objects for those within their small sphere of influence. At the Museum, Natarajan brings them all under one roof, and helps product and interior designers develop contemporary solutions too.
“This is more than a collection of objects,” she says. Vidya Sagar and the non-profit Team for Accessibility and Reasonable Accommodation (TARA) took a year to develop a museum that celebrated universal design – an environment that could be accessible to the highest number of people. “People with no impairments look in and ask, “Are we allowed inside? Of course, they are! It’s about awareness and inclusivity.”
The museum’s Impact Wall features defining global moments for disability rights. But it’s the everyday triumphs that resonate with visitors and users. “We’ll all encounter disability at some point, though age or an accident, if we haven’t already,” says Vedadavalli, from the team at TARA. “That’s usually the point at which we realise how little of the world is actually inclusive.”
9. Greater than the sum of its working parts: Joint Replacement museum in Ahmedabad, Gujarat
It seems like an unlikely theme for a museum. And yet, for the non-profit Indian Society of Hip and Knee Surgeons, chronicling the advancements in artificial replacements for human joints is serious business. The Society opened India’s first arthroplasty museum this year, with 200 exhibits, hoping to show visitors how far we’ve come, with a little assistance.
The oldest implants date to the 1970s, and the years after the first total hip replacement was conducted in Bombay in 1972. Other specimens are of outdated or replaced knee and hip parts, as implants got lighter and more effective. Many items are grouped by wear-pattern, offering a rare comparison of how bodies react to implants over the long term. For medical students, there’s information on new technologies, complicated case studies and best practices.
10. Where stones tell the story of dinosaurs: Mandro Fossil Park in Rajmahal Hills, Jharkhand
Jharkhand’s first fossil park, in the Rajmahal Hills, has started off on a responsible note. The 95-acre forested zone stretches from Sahibganj in Jharkhand to the edge of Rampurhat in West Bengal. It’s home to fossil remains estimated to be about 145 to 200 million years old, during the Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous eras when Earth was home to the last of the dinosaurs. The area also houses some of India’s finest plant fossils, including remains of rare early flowering plants.
The park, which opened this year, has been built by the state government with an eye on sustainability. It’s been classified as a geo-heritage site by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) and is marketed as an eco-tourism complex. Leave your car at the entrance. Only battery-operated rickshaws are allowed inside. On site is a small museum, an auditorium and a mini-laboratory. The central attraction: a 140-million-year-old plant fossil, preserved in a giant boulder, that might be the key to understanding how early plants evolved into the ones we know today.
(With input from Tanisha Saxena)
(This story has been updated to reflect the correct acreage and the number of dinosaur species found at the Balasinor Dinosaur Museum site.)