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Article in Museum Publication : Sphaera No. 4 (Autumn 1996) 'Sphere No. 4 : the 'Bhugola'

Sphere No. 4 : the 'Bhugola

The Museum has many fine oriental pieces in its collections. Amongst them is a sixteenth-century piece of Indian metalware known as the 'Bhugola' or 'Earth-Ball'. Essentially it is no more than a thin brass box roughly spherical in shape but its relevance for the Museum lies in the fact that on its outside is engraved a representation of the earth as known in Hindu cosmology.

Brass boxes of circular section are among the most characteristic and common pieces of Indian metalware. They were usually used to store foodstuffs, particularly the ingredients of 'pan' - the mixture of betel, lime and areca nut chewed all over Southeast Asia and the subcontinent. Probably the Bhugola was meant primarily only as a container and it was decorated in a manner considered appropriate to its shape.

The representation of the earth as engraved on the Bhugola's surface is actually an attempt to reconcile ideas from two different systems: the traditional ideas of Hindu cosmography as set out in the Puranas, in which the universe is likened to an egg balanced on its big end divided in two by the crust of the earth (which is therefore of a flat-disc shape); and the concept of a spherical earth, which had been introduced with Ptolemaic astronomy by Sanskrit writers.

The engraving is very rich, the general scheme being based around bands of land separated by seas, including a sea of milk and curds and one of sugar-cane juice. Land and sea are liberally populated with figures. Deities such as Brahma and Shiva are seen in the mountains while humans and animals inhabit the lowlands and are pictured in scenes representing the delights of a fertile land - parties of musicians playing instruments, dancers, groups of women talking, elephants bathing and turtles cavorting.

Each area of the Bhugola is labelled in Sanskrit and as a whole it bears the inscription: 'In the Saka year 1493 in the region of the earth-lord Viraji by Ksema Karna the learned was the earth-ball created.'

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