UK to return rare Buddhist artefacts to Afghanistan
Seized during the political turmoil in Afghanistan, the items had been illegally exported from the country to the UK. They were likely pillaged from Buddhist monasteries, according to experts at the museum.Updated: Jul 10, 2019 14:05 IST
Priceless items described as ‘stunning’ and dating back to the Gandharan era found in badly-made crates that arrived in Heathrow from Peshawar in September 2002 are to be returned to Afghanistan under a plan overseen by the British Museum.
Seized during the political turmoil in Afghanistan, the items had been illegally exported from the country to the UK. They were likely pillaged from Buddhist monasteries, according to experts at the museum.
The wooden crates contained what the museum described on Tuesday as ‘a magnificent Bodhisattva torso’ in grey schist and a group of nine heads sculptured in clay and then painted.
“The latter belong to a well-known class dating between the fourth and sixth centuries AD, some very typical of the tradition of Hadda, near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, and the remainder of Buddhist sites in the Kabul region of central Afghanistan,” the museum said.
The items include a portrayal of Buddha, the turbaned heads of meditating Bodhisattvas, the bald head of a monk and three larger heads belonging to female and male individuals, one possibly to be identified with Vajrapani, the spiritual guide of Buddha, and the others perhaps lay donors or Bodhisattvas.
St John Simpson, a senior curator at the museum, described the items as “stunning,” adding that the sculptures were most likely removed at the height of Taliban-related troubles in 2001, when the giant Bamiyan Buddha statute was blown up.
He said: “The return of any object which has been illegally trafficked is hugely important symbolically. But these pieces will form one of the largest groups of Buddhist art to be returned to the Kabul museum. When you think what Kabul has been through since the 1990s, this is a huge event.”
A museum spokesperson said the objects to be repatriated are not from its collection, but are part of the museum’s work on cultural heritage involving the partnership with law enforcement agencies on illicit trade being brought into the UK.
“Objects that are seized are brought to the British Museum for analysis, conservation and cataloguing. The museum then liaises with colleagues in the national museums of the countries concerned to arrange for the return of these objects.”
These objects will be returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan through the British Museum.