Partly covered in lichen, the columns - their bases each sculpted in the form of a lion - are thought to have stood in the garden of the Earl of Lichfield's country residence, Shugborough Hall, for 250 years.
The columns were identified by Richard Blurton, an Indian art expert at the British Museum, and feature in an exhibition on Hindu art that opened at the museum yesterday.
Research into how the lion columns came to Shugborough suggests that they had been removed from a 9th-, 10th- or 12th-century temple in south-east India in the mid-18th century, and shipped to England through the British-controlled port of Fort St David (now Cuddalore), which is 90 miles south of Madras.
The columns, weighing a ton each, were then, in the 1750s or 1760s, probably acquired by Shugborough's owner, an antiquities collector, Thomas Anson.
They possibly came via his more famous younger brother Admiral Anson, who was First Lord of the Admiralty while Thomas was developing his collection.
Thomas Anson developed a huge collection of classical and Chinese antiquities and decorated his garden and park with Greek, Roman and Chinese-style buildings and fake ruins.
By 1765, maps and documents on Shugborough, now in the Staffordshire record office, suggest that the columns may have been used in the park to flank a stone bench known as the ladies' seat which faced a Chinese-style
In 1795, many of the classical and Chinese structures in the garden were destroyed or irretrievably damaged by a great flood that swept across much of 400-acre (162-hectare) property.
Evidence from old estate maps and 19th-century letters suggests that the seat was taken away - and that the lion columns were moved to stand guard at the entrance to a secret grotto created in the early 19th century.
The grotto appears to have been a sort of romantic hideaway with a room carved into the rock and rock surfaces sculpted into the shapes of human faces.
By the late 19th century the grotto had fallen into disuse and the lion columns were moved, probably in the 1880s, to stand on a terrace adjacent to the house, where they stayed until last week when they were moved temporarily to the British Museum.
In India, the columns are thought to have formed part of a hall within a Hindu temple, built in the period of the Chola empire that ruled much of south India and (for a short period) parts of south-east Asia in medieval times.
It is possible that they came originally from a temple at or near Erumbur, inland from Fort St David.
The British Museum Hindu Art Exhibition (open until 10 April next year) includes 300 other pieces, two-thirds of which have never been seen by the public before.
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