The Salar Jung museum may seem a little disappointing at first. But look closer, and you’re sure to spot something spectacular in India’s largest museum.
We visited the Salar Jung Museum after our early-morning tour of the Charminar and Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad’s Old City. Since the museum opened at 10:00 am, we took the opportunity to have a leisurely breakfast at Anand Bhavan first. But since it was summertime, it was already blazing hot at 9:45, and the short walk to the museum turned quite sweaty. We had already finished off the water we had carried along, so we decided to fill our bottle with coconut water on the way. And while the coconut seller filled the bottle, I quickly took some pictures of the majestic Osmania General Hospital across the Musi river. We got to the museum a few minutes past 10:00.
The ornate but decaying Osmania General Hospital
The walkway along the river Musi
The legacy of a noble family
The Salar Jung museum is one of the three national museums of India. The artefacts on display in the museum are drawn from the private collections of three generations of Hyderabad’s Salar Jung noble family, acquired from 1829 to 1949. Most of the 1.1 million individual items were collected by Salar Jung III, Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan, and were sourced from Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia. They say that the collection of Salar Jung III is the largest collection of art and artefacts by a single person, anywhere in the world.
The museum is housed in one of the former palaces of the Salar Jungs, and has been expanded over the years. Besides renovations to the main structure, two additional wings were added on either side in 2000 to house the Western and Far Eastern sections. It is the largest museum in India by display area, with 140,000 square feet of gallery space, and is supposedly among the largest art museums in the world.
The outer facade of the museum (image courtesy Omer123hussain via Wikimedia Commons)
A somewhat chaotic start
Though we got there just as it opened, it seems lots of other people also had the same idea. We had to weave our way through crowds and cars to the ticket counter. Funnily enough, to get to the counter, we had to walk through the main archway and to the back of the building. There, we had to stand in line to get our tickets and camera passes. We found that the charges were Rs. 20 for Indians, Rs. 500 (!) for foreigners, Rs. 50 for a mobile phone camera, and Rs. 150 for a proper camera. For the camera, we had to carry a pass, so we could show it in case someone asked. From the ticket counter, we had to go to a shed next door where I was given a locker for my backpack. Bags aren’t allowed in the museum, it seems.
A difficult entrance
The entrance to the museum building was at the main portico of the former palace. This wasn’t very large, and there was a long line here too. Some of us had to stand in the sun for quite a while. I wondered why, until I saw that there was an airport-style security check going on, with x-ray machine and everything. All handbags, cameras, phones and wallets had to go through the machine, and everyone in line had to walk through a metal detector. Luckily, there were separate lines for women and men, or it would have taken even longer.
Inside the ornate atrium, it wasn’t much cooler. There was no air-conditioning, because all the corridors branching off it were open balcony-style galleries. We found a bench where some breeze was blowing, and sat down to think. Luckily, there was a basic map of the museum on the wall right in front of us. We took a quick look and decided where to go.
The chandeliered atrium, as see from the first floor
The central block: Almost enough to make you turn back
We soon found that the place isn’t really laid out like you would expect, probably because the building used to be a palace. The galleries in the central building are laid out in a semi-circular pattern around the central atrium, and aren’t connected to each other. This map from the museum’s website will show you what I mean. On top of this, the galleries themselves are often not very well laid out, are quite dimly lit, and are often not air-conditioned either. Lastly, the only way to access the modern wings on either side is by using walkways on the first floor! We found all of this, together with the inevitable jostling crowds, quite annoying. It was almost enough to make us give up and go home. But not quite.
Despite everything, we did see some spectacular displays in the central building. The Veiled Rebecca, an exquisitely carved marble statue of a veiled woman, was one of them. Another was the collection of superb Arabic and Persian manuscripts, some even embellished in gold. Overall, though, the experience here was a little disappointing. But there’s hope for the future, because we saw many galleries closed for renovation.
The marble Veiled Rebecca has exquisitely detailed carving
Other marble statues accompanying the Veiled Rebecca
A close-up of an intricate marble statue
A gold-embellished Quran in Arabic calligraphy
An elaborately decorated wooden door behind glass
Toy cavalry soldiers in the toy section
A close-up of a six-inch figurine of an Indian courtier
This Chinese figurine seems to be squinting a you out of its display case
Some superb works of art in the western wing
We were pleasantly surprised when we took the first floor walkway to the western wing housing the European collections. This was laid out much better, with more space, better lighting and—above all—air-conditioning! Particularly enjoyable was the gallery of superb paintings, some with an unbelievable level of detail. But pride of place in this gallery was given to a wooden statue, Mephistopheles and Margaretta. This two-sided statue is carved from a single block of wood, and was inspired by Goethe’s play Faust. In the play, the main character sells his soul to the devil, but stays hopelessly in love with Maragaretta. The incredibly detailed life-sized statue is placed with Mephistopheles facing the viewer, and Margaretta displayed in a mirror from behind.
We also saw some nice galleries of marble and bronze statues in this wing, and an interesting collection of grandfather clocks.
The wooden face of Mephistopheles, with Margaretta reflected in the mirror behind
It’s difficult to believe that this is a painting
Exquisite shading and detail on this painting of a palace
The collection of grandfather clocks
The eastern wing doesn’t disappoint, either
Our experience in the western wing cheered us up a bit, so we made our way back past the central block and to the other side. The eastern wing was equally well laid out, with Japanese and Chinese galleries, and collections of Far-eastern porcelain and statues. Particularly interesting was a collection of Japanese ivory carvings. Though we hated the thought of anything in ivory, the carving was detailed enough to make us take notice.
By the time we were through with the eastern wing, we were quite exhausted. It didn’t help that there weren’t too many places to sit, either. So we decided to call it day and head back home. We had spent just under two hours at the museum, and were grateful that we hadn’t let the central block deter us from exploring it further.
A finely carved ivory figurine from Japan
A Far-eastern metalwork urn
Dimly-lit Chinese furniture
- It’s not a good idea to visit in summer. Not many parts of the museum are air-conditioned, and just waiting in line at the entrance can be torture.
- The museum is always crowded, so be ready. The eastern and western wings are less so, though.
- Many collections in the central block are badly laid out and dimly lit. Don’t let this discourage you. There are some incredible things to see; you just have to find them.
- There are almost no signs to point you in the right direction. Save this map on your phone, or take a photo of the one on the wall, so you can find your way around.
- There are drinking water dispensers on each floor in the corners of the central block, and a cafeteria on the ground floor. There’s also a tiny snack bar on the first floor of the western block.
- There aren’t too many places to sit, so you might have to spend quite some time on your feet.
- We definitely recommend seeing the Veiled Rebecca and the Arabic and Persian manuscripts in the central block, and the gallery of European paintings in the western block.
- Also popular are the large musical clock, the throne of Tipu Sultan and the daggers of Aurangzeb in the central block.
- If you’re taking a taxi, make sure you alight and/or get picked up from outside the main gate. If the taxi enters, the driver or you might be asked to pay a parking fee.