Eclectic India At The Wellcome Library

By Josh Spero | 23 May 2007
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painting shows heads and feet of couples who form the erotic horse

Detail from the 19th century horse. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

It's not often that you can see a drawing of a horse made out of humans having sex. Still less often will you find this horny horse in the same place as a page of delicately-illustrated Islamic calligraphy and a snakes and ladders board.

What links all of these items is that they reflect the very diverse material from India in the Wellcome Trust Library, on London's Euston Road. It is perhaps the least likely, but most wonderful, treasury of Indian objects you could imagine.

Any confusion right now is completely justified: why would the Wellcome Trust, an organisation devoted to funding medical research, collect so many random Indian items? The answer starts, oddly, in 1850s America, and takes in both ancient India and modern London.

Henry Wellcome was born in 1853 in Wisconsin, USA, a quiet rural state. He became famous (and rich) as a pharmacist, bringing to Europe the tablet form of medicine and soon funding scientific research in fields including tropical diseases and tetanus. He was also a collector of items from cultures across the globe, and his hunger for acquisitions - like that of most collectors - was insatiable, leading him to own over 1.5 million objects relating to the history of medicine, from native America to aboriginal Australia. His ultimate aim was a Museum of Man.

scroll shows text with image of man in red and blue

The Kalpasutra (the heroic deeds of the conquerors) a Prakrit Manuscript dated 1503. Minature. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

But he didn't stop at medical pieces: Wellcome himself and members of his staff snapped up cultural artefacts at auctions around the world, including hundreds of Indian paintings and manuscripts. Since his death in 1936, after he had become a British citizen and indeed gained a knighthood, most of Henry Wellcome's possessions have been scattered around the country to various museums. It happens that the "flat" items - paintings, manuscripts, drawings - were kept by the Trust he set up and now have come to inhabit a building on the Euston Road. That is where the horse and the game come in.

The most striking building on the long Euston Road is the imposing, glass-fronted headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, stretching ten storeys up to survey Bloomsbury and the West End to its south. The Library is not here but next door, in a much more traditional neoclassical stone building which sits quietly on the corner opposite Euston Station. This is where the Indian objects - alongside medical textbooks and other cultures' objects - reside, and it is now open to the public.

painting shows horse made out of men and women having sex

An 'erotic horse'. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Recently the Trust has tried to make the Library more than just a reference point for local science students, although its thousands of medical textbooks certainly justify this use. (Frankly, any library which has a shelf headed 'Gunshot wounds' is going to be an extraordinary place to visit.) By installing a café and a bookstore in the airy white marble foyer and creating some exhibition spaces, the general public is being encouraged to use the Library. You can learn about as many civilisations here as at the British Museum: but here you can handle some of the objects.

Should you go, you could summon up from the Library's stacks any number of fascinating Indian manuscripts or paintings. Take the snakes and ladders board. Snakes and ladders was invented in India to teach the virtues of the Jain religion.

photo shows snakes and ladders board with spare ideogrammatical snakes

This late 18th century snakes and ladders board was then known as the game of Heaven and Hell (Jnana Bagi).The longest ladder reaches from square 17 'Compassionate Love' to 69 'The World of the Absolute'. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

As long as three hundred years ago, Indian children were slithering down snakes, who represented vices, and scaling the ladders of virtue. One board in the Library is about 18 inches square, divided into eight rows and nine columns, its ladders in the traditional Jain colours of red and yellow. Just as countless children today have their own set, so would countless Indian children; there would have been thousands of copies of it floating about.

You can see many wonderful types of paintings, manuscripts and photographs represented, from erotic - countless drawings of sexual couplings, as is perhaps not surprising from the land of the Kama Sutra - to epic, geographical to medical to grotesque.

scroll shows arabic text

Page of Islamic calligraphy - nasta'liq. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

There is a beautiful, yellowing manuscript of the Kalpasutra, an epic text which tells of the heroic deeds of Jain saints, with the elegant black lettering next to detailed illustrations framed in a red border. There are vivid, sharply-defined watercolours of Hindu gods, a delightful one showing the river goddess Sarasvati between two elephants. And there are stunning silvery photos from the 1860s of Kashmir, taken by Englishman Samuel Bourne. These photos raise difficult questions about Britain's imperial past, but they are undeniably amazing.

Especially lovely for its simplicity is a page of Islamic calligraphy, which was made in India but has Persian poetry on it, written in Arabic. There is a wide border of golden flowers, inside which the poem's verses are stacked in little boxes.

photo shows medical picture of man with insides marked

This 'anatomical man' was created c. 18th century. The text surrounding the image is a mixture of Sanskrit and Old Gujarati and describes the mystical body of tantric meditation and the flow of the life force, prana, throughout the body. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Among the Library's medical holdings, there is a two foot square page with a picture of a human body on it, with the arteries and intestines accurately drawn in. Surrounding the body are rows of tiny Sanskrit writing, providing a commentary on the anatomical scene. It is so precise and detailed.

What is most notable about the whole collection is that although we call it 'Indian', it covers many different languages, nations, religions and styles. In religion alone India has been home to Hinduism, Islam, Jainism and Buddhism, while languages have included the old Indian forms of Sanskrit and Prakrit and modern Hindi, Urdu and English. India's diverse aspects interact and cross-pollinate, hence the anatomical drawing of the intestines and arteries is inspired by an Islamic model but has its commentary in Sanskrit, while Sam Bourne's photos are the result of English technology in Victorian India.

photo shows scene of lake in India

Kashmir. On the Dhul canal 1st reach from city. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

If you want to get a sense of the true diversity of Indian history and culture, the Wellcome Library will provide it. Even if you are clued-up about India and know your Sanskrit from your Prakrit, there is so much more which can be learnt from studying its artefacts first hand. An authentic slice of India on the Euston Road? It's not as unlikely as you might think.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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