One might think it clichéd to call K Raja Mohamed’s month-old India Shell Museum in Mahabalipuram, a ‘labour of love’. But when a man dedicates 33 years of his life to collecting shells (some as expensive as a double bedroom apartment in the city) and then sells his family property to facilitate building a museum to share it with the world, how many other ways are there to describe it? “I was born and raised in Pamban near Rameshwaram and the first thing we used to do every morning as boys, was go to the beach,” recalls the father of four, adding, “It was a fascination at first, which became a hobby and turned into an addiction.” So how did this 53-year-old fisherman by profession, with no formal education on the subject, manage to open a museum displaying 2,300 documented species of shells? “I approached Antony Fernando, a professor at the Anna University Marine Biological Department, in 2000. He was supportive and encouraged me with books and reference material,” says Mohamed, who got the books translated so he could learn from them.
Mohamed’s approximately half acre museum, located just opposite the Five Rathas, is hard to miss, what with a giant octopus perched atop the museum that houses 40,000 shells (2,300 species) collected personally from across the globe. His first trip was to Sri Lanka (all his trips were self financed) back in 1980, after which he travelled to Kenya, Thailand, Vietnam and America, among other places, where he searched, bought and bargained for shells. He has also based his arrangement of the shells on that of the National Museum in Washington. “The National Museum in Washington has the best collection of shells and I was inspired by their simple idea of displaying the shells mounted on nothing but metal wires,” shares Mohamed, whose collection is far from over. “There are around 6,000 species in the world, of which I have managed to collect 2,300. I know that collecting them all is impossible, but I hope to collect at least 200 more,” he smiles.
Inside the museum we are welcomed by a guide who takes us on a quick tour, sharing facts and figures along the way. We discover shells in various shapes and colours, from as small as a grain of sand (they give you a magnifying glass to appreciate the finer details) to as big as 50 cms long. Some with patterns so vivid and intricate, they almost have a hypnotic effect if you stare too long. “These are right-handed shells,” our guide points out to a display of at least a 100. “Only one in a million shells forms in a right handed pattern,” she adds, before ushering us to another part of the room. In shapes ranging from an elephants’ ear to a delicate carnation and one resembling the sort of thing a mermaid would use to comb her tresses, there is plenty to take in. We get lessons on the cultural significance (did you know that the cowrie shells are part of several rituals not just in Africa but parts of India too?) of some of these shells. And in addition to their region, rarity, year of origin and common names, the labels on the display also bear the scientific names of the shells, which make for some real tongue twisters (‘she sells sea shells’ is passé, try Architectonica Perspectiva for size).
Keeping it alive
Currently seeing about 1,500 walk-ins in a week, Mohamed hopes to gain the support of the tourism department to spread the word about his museum. Thankfully, shells require little maintenance (“keep them away from sunlight and dust,” are his golden rules) and his bazaar (also in the same premises) that sells a host of products made with shells, coupled with the Rs 50 entry ticket, provide a source of income to sustain the museum. But if all goes well, Mohamed should soon be able to realise his dream of making small upgrades like a projector room, to bring his museum up to international standards.
The Maya Bazaar, near Mohamed’s (pic) museum, has a collection of products varying from bracelets to wall hangings, necklaces and even spoons (Rs 100) made from or with shells. There’s also a collection of pearl jewellery sourced from China priced between Rs 200 and Rs 8,500. Our favourite are the six-foot mirrors with shell borders (Rs 15,000 onwards) that make for excellent conversation starters. Details: 9894495676
— Ryan Peppin