Follow the trail to South Asian treasures

To help develop a new trail for the National Museum of Scotland, local communities of Bengali, Indian and Pakistani heritage collaborated to choose items from the national collection.The results offer a celebration of South Asian culture and history, write Naina Minhas and Jane Miller

Viewing an object in a museum can spark a whole range of responses in a visitor, often very personal in nature.

When we undertook a project which saw members of Edinburgh’s South Asian community creating new interpretation for objects in National Museums Scotland’s collections, it was fascinating to witness the responses the 200 or so participants had from their own perspective to these objects.

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Their work revealed South Asian cultures and lifestyles, particularly in the context of Scottish-Asian connections within the framework of colonial history. Funded by the Nancie Massey Charitable Trust, South Asian Stories is a collaboration between National Museums Scotland and Networking Key Services, a health and wellbeing organisation supporting South Asian women and their families.

A ten headed papier-mache mask, part of a Chhou tribal dance costume depicting the Hindu demon king RavanaA ten headed papier-mache mask, part of a Chhou tribal dance costume depicting the Hindu demon king Ravana
A ten headed papier-mache mask, part of a Chhou tribal dance costume depicting the Hindu demon king Ravana

As part of National Museums Scotland’s work to involve audiences in the creation of content, for deeper, richer, engagement with the National Collection, the project was designed to increase representation, and support the inclusion of the local South Asian community, where the vibrant cultural heritage of the Indian sub-continent finds its voice through the sharing of personal stories told from unique perspectives. It has culminated in a new trail at the National Museum of Scotland featuring objects selected by project participants, and illustrated by artist Malini Chakrabarty.

Local communities of Bengali, Indian and Pakistani heritage undertook a series of visits to the National Museum of Scotland to review collections, sharing their memories and knowledge connected to them. In a second phase, a smaller group created website content and selected objects mainly from South Asian countries for the trail, which is available in Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and English.

These objects range from textiles and jewellery to beautiful works of sculpture representing rich South Asian cultural heritage and history. Each one was carefully chosen and researched by a group of 19 participants, who worked together to write the trail, taking visitors on a journey through the Museum to discover more about South Asian cultural and religious life.

Museums, their displays and objects can evoke memories, summon emotions and provoke discussion. For our participants these objects are symbols of cultural pride and sparked memories of teenage games, of trips taken, moments shared and connected heritage.

They were fascinated by each object they came across, and intrigued by the question of how they ended up in the museum. There was a shared feeling that they would benefit from interpretation of history and heritage from a unique South Asian perspective, and the resulting trail does just that; sharing personal reflections, cultures and religions, childhood memories and lived experiences.

We invite everyone to visit the National Museum of Scotland to follow the trail and discover these objects for themselves, but in the meantime, these are a few of our favourites.

Kohl pot

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Kohl pots have a special place in South Asian homes – every household has them and women use them to adorn themselves. The intricate design on this pot is a reminder of the tree having strong roots, symbolising femininity. In the past, Muslim women and men applied smoky kohl, not only for protective and religious purposes, but also to make their eyes look attractive and mysterious. Participants described seeing their grandmothers and mothers making kohl at home and applying it on the eyes using a finger or thin wooden needle. Kohl is especially applied to new-born babies, brides and grooms to protect them from buri nazar (evil eye).

Paisley shawl: the buta design

The Paisley design is one of the most famous textile patterns of Scotland. But for South Asians it is known as the humble buta – the most celebrated motif of weavers, which has its origins in the valleys of Kashmir. It is believed to have been inspired by an ancient Zoroastrian (Iranian) design representing life and fertility. Participants discussed growing up with this design adorning their garments, shawls, bridal wear, jewellery, and henna tattoos. British manufacturers sought to replicate this design in the 19th century. William Moorcroft, an English businessman, brought expertise from Kashmir to support the manufacture of cheaper imitation shawls in Britain, including at factories in Paisley. The design gained popularity all over the world making ‘Paisley’ famous, but today the origins of this design and its skilled craftspeople should be better acknowledged.

Mask of the demon king Ravana

This stunning mask of the ten-headed demon king Ravana is connected to the festival of Navratri, which is a celebration over nine days during the months of October and November. The festival celebrates the victory of the exiled Lord Rama over the learned but evil demon king Ravana who had kidnapped his wife Sita. His ten heads represent his intelligence. When we were discussing this object, a young community member commented: “In the end the bad guy is killed (Ravana) and people from the village light up the path with oil lamps to help Rama and Sita safely get back home.” This is why people in India and South Asia celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, at the end of Navratri.

Maharaja Duleep Singh jewellery

This jewellery once belonged to the Maharaja Duleep Singh who became the last ruler of the Sikh Empire at the age of five in 1843. He inherited a large personal collection of rare diamond and emerald necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings, and tiaras. This jewellery is of special significance to all Indians, demonstrating the incredible skills of the artisans who created them, but is also a reminder of the British rule and colonialisation of India, and the wars, miseries and exploitation that came with them. Duleep Singh was taken away from his mother and brought to Britain when he was 16 under the wings of the British Raj, who stripped him of his Sikh and Indian identity.

Dance anklets

South Asian women have worn ghungroos (anklets with bells) for centuries, making them anintegral part of South Asian culture. The jingling ‘chum chum’ sound served as a reminder that there was a woman in the house. It was also a way for wives to attract their husbands. Ghungroos are considered sacred to every Indian classical dancer, who would worship them before tying them to their legs for a performance. A child or a novice dancer may start with 50 bells and will gradually add more as they mature and progress in their ability. Silver payal,a sleeker version of these anklets, are gifted by a groom to his bride asa symbol of union and love.

Drinking Fountain

This cast iron drinking fountain was created by Walter MacFarlane’s Glasgow-based Saracen Foundry in the 1880s. At the 1851 Great Exhibition, the Indian Pavilion had been extremely popular, raising an interest in Indian design which had a big influence on British art and culture in the decades that followed. British colonies in turn started using cast iron pieces for railways, lamps, fountains. It’s likely that the drinking fountain design was inspired by the culture of one of the British colonies, and the influence of South Asia and Indian artistic styles can be seen in its intricately decorated dome and arches, and design motifs such as flowers, griffins and cranes.

​Visit for details. Naina Minhas is director of Networking Key Services and Jane Miller is Community Engagement Manager at National Museums Scotland