We are reclaiming our lost cultural legacy and civilisational pride as governmental and non-governmental missions bringing back our ‘Gods’ which were once smuggled out of this country. At the same time, we need to ensure that our ancient artefacts and idols, the only remnants now leftover which link us with our rich heritage, should not fall in the wrong hands again in the future
Ganesh Krishnan R
The recent Australian visit of Cultural Minister Mahesh Sharma in September this year was a memorable as well as remarkable one. International Media with due recognition by giving a wide coverage for the special event held at National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra on September 19, in which his Australian counterpart Mitch Fifield handed over three ancient artefacts smuggled out of India and inadvertently acquired by National Gallery of Australia. The returned artefacts were Seated Buddha, Goddess Pratyangira and Worshippers of Buddha. Many regarded it was a generous diplomatic gesture extended by Australia and praised the flourishing relationship between two countries. But apart from all, it was marked by reclaiming the cultural heritage of 1.25 billion Bharatiya population and reinstating their pride.
Yakshi sculpture, Madhya Pradesh
This Yakshi sculpture from Barhut was looted from Satna in Madhya Pradesh.
With the then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott presenting two statues to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Bharat visit last year, more media attention has been drawn to the much unexplored area of Indian artefacts smuggling, a thriving business in the international market. As the number of such stolen artefacts came out of the veil, many began to raise questions if we can ever reclaim our lost grandeur legacy which is now being showcased in the museums across the world. Both the antique statues, Nataraja and Ardhanariswara, were stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu. The Nataraja was brought back to Bharat by Tony Abbott after members of the India Pride Project, a global volunteer group, proved it was stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu.
Life of Lord Buddha, Andhra Pradesh
This stone relief sculpture depicting the life of Lord Buddha was stolen from Amaravathi in Andhra Pradesh.As readers may know, Amaravathi has been a hub of Buddhist heritage for centuries and even boasts of a Buddhist Museum.
Degree of Offense
It has roughly been estimated that more than 20,000 idols and artefacts have been smuggled out of India. Anuraag Saxena, a co-founder of India Pride Project, says, Advocacy group Global Financial Integrity has estimated that the illegal trade of arts and artefacts is worth Rs 40,000 crores a year. It poses a serious threat to the existence of our cultural identity as it, in the long-run delinks a nation from its rich heritage. Beyond the monetary value estimated in the international marker, who can determine the emotional and cultural value associated with these artefacts?
The Kushan Buddha, Uttar Pradesh
This Kushan Buddha was stolen from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh a decade ago.
The NGA Report: Why Australia?
According to Asian Art Provenance Project National Gallery of Australia (NGA), of the 36 Asian art objects acquired by the NGA between 1968 and 2013, only 12 have satisfactory provenance. At least 22 pieces acquired by the National Gallery have questionable ownership. Of those 36 objects, 14 were purchased between 2002 and 2008 from a commercial gallery in New York run by a dealer in Asian Art, Subhash Kapoor.
In the NGA Report, the reviewer Susan Crennan (a former high court justice) sheds more lights into more other illegal acquisitions and the role of Subhash Kapoor in it. An Indian born American citizen, Kapoor was the principal of a famous commercial gallery in New York. One of the 14 statues acquired from Kapoor was a Chola-period Bronze, the Shiva Nataraja (the one which has been returned to India on September 5, 2014). Later it has been found that the export of the statue was in contravention of Indian legislation. In connection with this, Kapoor was arrested in Frankfurt on October 30, 2011 and extradited to India and, is imprisoned and awaiting trial in Chennia, India. According to local police reports, Kapoor faces charges of criminal conspiracy to commit theft of antiquities.
Criminal Nexus and Terror Money
According to some reports of United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the terrorist organisations like Islamic State (ISIS) use idol smuggling as a tool for generating income. In response, the United Nations Security Council went so far as to adopt a resolution recognising art and antiquities trafficking as a terrorist financing tool. Many countries have already taken stringent measures to curb this menace. For example, the Interpol has a special wing to tackle “art and heritage crimes”. But so far, apart from being a worst victim, India has not taken any serious steps to deal with this deadly business.
The Success Story of Sripuranthan
The Brihadeeswarar Temple in Sripuranthan, in Ariyalur District, was built by Kulothunga Chola-I. Ariyalur was Chola kingdom’s capital. In fact, people in the village claimed that the temple had not witnessed daily poojas for a long time even before the thefts became to light. It was a small and sleepy hamlet but it came to popular after the disappearance of 18 rare panchaloha, also known as panchadhatu (five-metal alloy) idols worth 31 crore from this temple.
Owing much to the serious lack of awareness about the significance of protecting our ancient artefacts, the threat looms large over us. Yes, of course, the new Government has taken so many initiatives to reinstate our lost pride. As a major achievement towards this direction, in June this year, the US returned over 200 stolen artefacts during Prime Minister’s US visit. Some of them are dating back to 2,000 years and are worth $100 million in international market. Global volunteer agencies like India Pride Project are also contributing remarkably that deserves rounds of applauds. Public awareness and serious dedicated efforts from governmental agencies are the need of the hour. Along with comprehensive legislation, the Government should take immediate measures to enforce the existing law. Besides all, creating public awareness and spreading the message of conservation of our heritage are also vital. For us, an idol or an artefact is not just a piece of art. They are the only remnants now leftover which link us with our rich heritage and cultural roots. They are the only evidence with which we can define or redefine our cultural legacy, identity and heritage. n