Many happy returns: As more ancient artefacts make their way home, a look at a top 10
For hundreds of years, India has been losing ancient artefacts to theft, foreign invasion and colonisation. Some of these artefacts are nearly 2,000 years old. Many have ended up in private collections; some sit on display in museums around the world.
After the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972 was passed, the Archaeological Survey of India was tasked with preventing theft and illegal export and regulating the domestic trade of antiquities. It also retrieves artefacts listed as stolen and known to reside in other nations.
A total of 50 such antiquities have been recovered since 1972; 37 of those in the last six years. Three were returned just last month.Efforts are on to retrieve 119 more.
“Many could only be traced after the notorious art smuggler Subhash Kapoor was caught and arrested in the US in 2011 and his illegal export business exposed,” says former ASI joint director-general DN Dimri, who played a crucial role in retrieving many of the artefacts. Here’s a list of the most important recoveries:
Sri Devi, metal statuette
8th century; Tamil Nadu
This piece from the Chola period was smuggled out of India by the infamous Subhash Kapoor and retrieved after his arrest. It was traced to Germany, and returned in 2016. It depicts Sri Devi (also known as the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi) holding a lotus stem, decked in bangles, earrings, necklace, anklets, breast band and a crown.
1st century; Kota, Rajasthan
This sculpture was stolen from the ruins of a Vishnu temple. It was discovered after an illustration of it appeared in a 2010 edition of an arts journal in Hong Kong. The then Indian ambassador was tipped off by a French national, following which Interpol issued an alert to track the sculpture’s movements. It was finally seized by the US department of homeland security in New York in 2010, and returned to India in 2017.
Lakulisa, sculpture in stone
9th to 10th century; Uttarakhand
This stone likeness of Lakulisa (an incarnation of Shiva) belonged to the Katury dynasty, a medieval clan from what is now the Himalayan region of Kumaon. It was stolen from a temple there and turned up in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, Dimri says. It was returned to India in 2000. It is now housed in the ASI’s Jageshwar Museum in Almora.
Ardhanarisvara, stone sculpture
11th to 12th century; Tamil Nadu
The antiquities black market abounds in ancient stone sculptures of Shiva depicted as half male and half female, or Ardhanarisvara, symbolic of the wholeness of the self and everything else extending out to the universe. This particular sculpture, dating to the Chola period, was among two sets of antiquities returned from Australia in 2014.
Parrot Lady, sandstone figurine
7th to 8th century; Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh
A delicately fashioned woman carved from stone, holding a parrot to her right ear, this precious artefact was seized in Alberta, Canada, in 2010, in accordance with Canada’s Cultural Property Export and Import Act, says Dimri.
It took numerous rounds of negotiations, following the provisions of Unesco’s Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, for the figurine to make its way back home. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau handed over the Parrot Lady to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015.
Bahubali, metal sculpture
10th to 11th century, Andhra Pradesh
Bahubali, a standing image of the Jain representation of strength standing on a lotus pedestal, was seized following the arrest of the smuggler Kapoor. “Once the US authorities started examining the containers they tracked after Kapoor’s arrest, they found many smuggled artefacts,” says Dimri. The Indian embassy was intimated, as well as Interpol. When Narendra Modi visted the US in 2016, this was among the antiquities handed over to him. “It came back on the same flight as the PM.”
Seated Buddha, sandstone sculpture
1st century, Mathura
“After Kapoor’s smuggling ring was exposed, the National Gallery of Canberra realised that this artefact had been illegally acquired,” says Dimri. “Australia set up a committee to determine whether the export of it from India had been illegal and once they confirmed that it violated Unesco norms, it was returned.”
Durga (Mahishamardini), stone sculpture
9th to 10th century; Pulwama, J&K
Stolen during the 1990s, this piece was purchased by the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2000. An American of Indian origin saw it there and tipped off the ASI — because he’d read years earlier that the sculpture had been stolen from a temple in Pulwama. The FIR filed at the time was used by the ASI to prove ownership and recover to the antiquity, which was returned in 2015 and is housed in a museum in Srinagar.
Uma Paramesvari, metal figurine
11th century; Tamil Nadu
Retrieved from the Asian Civilisation Museum of Singapore, this figurine of Uma Paramesvari, a Shaivite deity, was stolen in 2006. Kapoor had managed to sell it to the museum. After his arrest, the museum verified its collection and realised this artefact had been illegally exported. It was returned to India in 2015.
Durga Mahishasurmardini, stone idol
9th century; Uttarakhand
This idol of an eight-armed Durga slaying the buffalo demon was part of an investigation launched at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018, to identify smuggled goods that had been unknowingly acquired. “Once they realised this was one, they asked the US government to initiate the process of return, on condition that they would not disclose details of how they had acquired it,” says Dimri. India was able to prove ownership based on mentions of the idol in historic records, and it was returned in 2018.