Visit the British Museum in London, and you will come across a spectacular image of ‘Harihara’, representing the amalgamation of Vishnu and Shiva. But did you know that this thousand-year-old image from Khajuraho and a substantial portion of Indian idols (some say as many as 70 to 80%) displayed in the British Museum from the collection of a 19th century British East India company official – Major General Charles Stuart? Known for his eccentricities, Major General Stuart became a Hindu, regularly performed Pujas, greeted Indians with ‘Jay Sittaramjee’, and even raised his voice against conversion activities of missionaries in India. This earned him the epithet of ‘Hindoo Stuart’.
Little is known about this eccentric Irishman’s early life. Stuart is believed to have been born in Galway in Ireland in 1757 or 58. He came to India in his late teens and developed a deep fascination with Hinduism and the people of India. Stuart authored two pamphlets in his early days. The first of these was in response to the arguments forwarded by the prominent missionary, Claudius Buchanan, about the conversion of Indians to Christianity.
Stuart warned about the dangers of attempting mass-scale conversion. He wrote, “Is it wise, is it politic, is it even safe, to institute a war of sentiment against the only friends of any importance, we seem to have left in India, our faithful subjects of the Ganges, by suffering missionaries, or our own Clergy, to preach among them, the errors of idolatry and superstition; and thus disseminating throughout the public mind, the seeds of distrust and disaffection?” “Hinduism”, Stuart notes, “little needs the meliorating hand of Christianity to render its votaries a sufficiently correct and moral people for all the useful purposes of a civilised society.”
But Stuart is more remembered for his series of letters published in Calcutta newspapers, advising British women in India on how to dress. These were later collected and published under the title, Ladies’ Monitor. Historian William Dalrymple refers to the Ladies’ Monitor in his book White Mughals (2002). Stuart, in his articles, urged British women to take up the sari, insisting that it was much more attractive than contemporary European fashions.
While Stuart was commanding one of the largest cavalry regiments in North India, his deputy was William Linnaeus Gardener, who referred to him in a number of his letters. The first reference to Stuart comes on the eve of his joining the regiment as a commanding officer. Gardener writes that in contrast to his predecessor, Stuart isn’t much for parties and does not pride himself on his capacity to overeat – a leitmotif of colonial life in India. Stuart instead, regularly performed his “pooja” and avoided “the sight of beef”.
From this point on, writes Dalrymple, Stuart features regularly in Gardener’s correspondence, usually referred to as “Pundit Stuart” or “General Pundit”. On one occasion, Gardener wrote, “The General is an odd fish. He wrote to me to come to him at Chukla Ghat, where the Hindoos bathe… On this point, he is going to build a pagoda! Every Hindoo he salutes with ‘Jey Sittaramjee’.”
There is even a reference to Gardener having to take command of the regiment since Stuart had taken leave to bathe in the Kumbh Mela! At the mela, he was spotted sitting “surrounded by a dozen naked ‘faqueers’ who, joining their hands over his head, gave him Benediction”.
Stuart did indeed build a temple on the Sagar Island in present-day West Bengal, where he held his last post as Major-General, commanding the Saugor Field Force. However, according to Dalrymple, the inventory of possessions that he left behind presents a picture of a man straddling two very different worlds. “On the one hand, he clearly has the paraphernalia of a Georgian gentleman – sugar tongs, toast racks and billiard cues, along with the usual camp tables, map cases and portable furniture you might expect from a campaigning soldier of the period. On the other, he owns quite amazing amount of ‘Hindoostanee’ clothes and objects: pointed slippers, Mughal water flagons, yak-tailed flywhisks, spittoons for betel, hookahs and so on.” But the most important part of Stuart’s inventory was a huge collection of statues of Hindu deities, which he had collected through his career and appears to have worshipped. When he visited Europe to recover from a bout of illness, most of his deities travelled with him.
In his Wood Street home in Calcutta, Stuart had set up a private museum of sorts. The collection contained weaponry, costumes, prints, natural history specimens and a library. British Army officer Sir George Bell was one of the visitors to this museum. In his diary, he notes, “The Hindoo deities amount to 330,000,000… I don’t say that the General has collected so many, but he has the largest collection I ever saw.” Bell describes having seen large stone idols of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in Stuart’s collection. But there is a possibility that many of the idols in his collection may have simply been stolen by Stuart.
In the summer of 1837, Lieutenant Markham Kittoe of the East India Company’s 6th Native Infantry was working in the area around Khandagiri in Odisha, studying inscriptions for the Asiatic Society. According to a letter he sent to the Asiatic Society’s Calcutta office on the 2nd of April, he met with considerable resistance from the “resident Brahmins”. The priests told him that a certain “colonel sahab” had stolen inscriptions from the temples a few years earlier, and they thought he was there to do more of the same.
From descriptions provided to him, it became clear to Kittoe that a copy of the inscription in question had been published in February of that year by the Society’s journal, and Kittoe urged the Society to return the stone slabs to their rightful owners. The Society agreed.
However, when Kittoe took the stones back, the Brahmins were far from grateful. They told him that the inscriptions were only the tip of the iceberg. The “colonel sahab” had carried off much more, including idols from temples that were still active. Upon receiving this report, James Prinsep, founding editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, himself made enquiries as to the identity of the offending officer, and it was discovered that it was a certain Major General Charles Stuart.
Stuart’s collection eventually ended up with the British Museum, which is a story in itself! Following his death in 1828, Stuart’s entire collection of statues and deities was auctioned at Christie’s in London in 1829 and 1830, and the majority of the items were purchased by a certain John Bridge, a partner in the famous jewellery firm Rundell, Bridge and Rundell. They remained with the Bridge family until the death of George Bridge in 1872, after which they were auctioned again.
Curiously, the only bidder at the auction appears to have been a trustee of the British Museum by the name of A W Franks. In spite of objections from the auctioneer, Franks bid the princely sum of £5 for the entire collection. Even this sum was not paid to Bridge’s daughters, because Franks persuaded them that instead of accepting such a paltry sum, they may as well ‘benefit from the glory of making a presentation’ to the British Museum.
T Richard Blurton, who retired as the head of the South and South East Asia Section, Department of Asia, of the British Museum in 2018, notes that Stuart’s collection represents the “most important single gift of Indian sculpture” to the museum. Stuart, he says, “cared for and understood the concepts behind Hindu art, and appreciated the works of art which attempted to make these ideas manifest”.
Nayanjot Lahiri details the collection in his book Finding Forgotten Cities: How The Indus Civilization Was Discovered (2005). Among Stuart’s idols, today known as ‘The Bridge Collection’, one of the most beautiful is a large sandstone Harihara. The fused representation of Vishnu and Shiva is surrounded by smaller human figurines. The idol is believed to be as old as 1000 CE and it is believed to be from Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh. How Stuart acquired this particular image remains unclear since most of his personal papers have been either lost or destroyed.
Should these statues be returned to their places of origin? The British Museum was contacted by the Indian press about this in 2018, and in an email, they stated: “We feel there is a huge public benefit to visitors in displaying the whole world under one roof. The strength of the museum's collection is its breadth and depth, which allows visitors to compare and contrast cultures and understand our interconnectivity. It is vital that objects such as the Harihara – and collections from South Asia generally – remain here.”
India, it would seem, will have to remain satisfied with Stuart’s bones rather than his collection. After his death on 31st March 1828, he was buried in the South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata. His tomb, which resembles a Hindu temple, is now a major attraction in the cemetery. While it has been vandalised multiple times, the last time as recently as 2018, it defiantly remains standing – a testament to a time when identities were much more fluid than they are today.
Cover Image: Tomb of Hindoo Stuart at South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about heritage since 2013.