Lost and Found Treasures of India
Over the last few years, India has been able to steadily retrieve several ancient artefacts of cultural importance illegally taken away from the country. We look at some of these returned heritage pieces and their significance
In November last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that an ancient statue of Devi Annapurna, stolen from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh about a century ago, is being brought back home from Canada. The statue of the goddess of food, holding a bowl of rice, is said to be an 18th-century idol carved in the Benaras style. The return of the idol is a major success story in India’s quest for its lost ancient treasures, a mission being spearheaded by PM Modi. “Every Indian will be proud to know that a very old idol of Devi Annapurna is returning to India from Canada…. the coming back of the idol is pleasing for all of us. Just like the idol of Mata Annapurna, a lot of our invaluable heritage has suffered at the hands of International gangs,” the Prime Minister said.
India’s archaeological treasures have been a constant victim of plundering and looting, which has left several rare specimens of antiquity scattered across the world. Under the guidance of PM Modi, the initiative to bring them home has been revived and has transpired into a mission. Several programmes and efforts have been initiated by authorities to procure these artefacts from the world over. The Ministry of External Affairs, along with law enforcement agencies, has been actively pursuing the retrieval of stolen and smuggled Indian artefacts, and several pieces have been returned to India from various countries, including the US, Australia, the UK, Canada and Germany. Here’s a look at some of them that have successfully found their way back home. The United States of America has, over the last few years, returned several antiquities to India. The list includes some of the finest pieces of terracotta idols belonging to various periods along with elegant statues of religious and sentimental value. One of the most significant in this consignment is a bronze idol of Manikkavachakar, a saint who had found patronage under the Chola dynasty (9-13th century AD). The idol had allegedly been stolen from a temple in Sripuranthan village in Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu and smuggled to the US. The idol, worth at least a million US dollars in the open market, was recovered by American authorities in 2015 and returned.
Another important idol returned by USA is an idol of Manjusri, a Bodhisattva associated with Mahayana Buddhism. Dating back to the 12th century, the idol depicts Manjusri holding a sword and a lotus in his hands, and is painted in gold leaf. It has immense significance in the history of Buddhism, with the sword symbolising the Bodhisattva’s intent to cut or remove the fog of illusion and bring forth light. The idol also denotes wisdom and is highly revered in the Indian and Buddhist pantheon. The statue was allegedly stolen from a temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, in the late 1980s. It was repatriated in 2018 from Auckland Art Museum of the University of North Carolina. Along with the idol of Manjusri was returned a granite phallus idol of Lord Shiva. The iconic Shiva Linga dates back to the 12th century and traces its origin to the Chola dynasty rulers of Southern India. Carved in accordance with the laws of traditional iconography, the idol depicts the Lord holding a parasu or battle axe along with Krishna Mruga or a deer. It was stolen from Tamil Nadu and was on display at the Birmingham Museum in Alabama. In November 2020, a set of three bronze idols of Lord Rama, Lord Lakshmana and Goddess Sita was returned to India by authorities of the United Kingdom. These bronze idols, rich in artistic heritage and belonging to the Vijayanagar reign (1336–1646), had been stolen in the 1970s from a temple in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam district and were recovered from a private collector in London.
Another valuable statue that was returned to India last year by the UK is an ancient Lord Shiva idol, which was stolen from Ghateshwar temple in Baroli, Rajasthan. The idol, around four feet high, depicts Lord Shiva in Chatura Nataraja pose and dates back to the 9th-10th century. It was in the possession of a private collector. The High Commission of India in London played an active role in the repatriation of this priceless piece of art. Canada too has returned several heritage artefacts to India in the recent years. Among them is the statue of the “parrot lady”, a prized cultural representation of Indian history. The delicately-carved sandstone statue of a woman holding a parrot is almost 900 years old and represents aspects of everyday life in ancient India. The sculpture that was in the possession of a private collector was returned to PM Modi by former Canadian PM Stephen Harper in 2015, during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Canada. Among other Chola dynasty artefacts returned to India are the bronze idols of Nataraja and Ardhanarisvara recovered in Australia. The idols date back to the 11th century AD and are regarded as one of the finest specimens of skilled bronze casting from the Chola period. Ardhanarisvara is an amalgamation of Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati in a half man-half woman form. Along with these, a stone relief of a pair of dwarpalas (mythical temple guards) had also been retrieved from Australia. Australia has also returned to India a stone statue of Nagaraja (serpent king) from the 6th to 8th century period. These statues had been allegedly stolen from Indian temples. In a similar appreciable and welcoming gesture, Germany returned a piece of Indian history during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to India in 2015. The 10th-century idol of Mahishasuramardini, a form of Goddess Durga, which was returned, had gone missing from a temple in Kashmir over 20 years ago.
Over decades, India has lost thousands of artefacts of cultural importance. In the recent years, the government of India has been assiduously working towards repatriation of stolen art objects and the records of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) show that the government has been able to retrieve 40 art objects between 2014 and 2020, and 75-80 art objects are in the pipeline to be returned. These priceless artefacts returned to India facilitate research and analysis on their origin and antiquity that further enriches our history and culture. Dr BR Mani, former director general, National Museum, New Delhi, said: “Due to the efforts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his emphasis on the importance of preserving national folklore and culture, returning of lost treasures and heritage exchange between nations have gained incredible momentum. This process has compelled other countries to look up to India as a cultural icon.” Such pursuit of bringing back pieces of our history and filling gaps in historical information is of utmost importance in integrating a sense of cultural assimilation. Artefacts of cultural significance are an integral part of Indian heritage and play an important role in defining the historical context of the country. These rare antiquities have not only helped revive India’s impressive past but have also managed to build and foster strong cultural, social and economic ties with other countries and their people.