A large number of antiques and valuable artefacts have been stolen from and smuggled out of India in the past years. The loot and plunder of Indian antiques can be traced back to the time of the early invaders, making it a consistent problem. Though not an exhaustive list, here we bring forward some interesting accounts of a few more famous stolen Indian antiques - how they found their way out of the country and where they surfaced later. These accounts are both from pre and post-independence India. The return and recovery of such looted artefacts from the past have been underway for many years now. We discuss the journeys of recovery of these objects and the impending problems in bringing back several of these antiques to India. There have been many successes so far and many more are yet to come.
Stories of plunder constitute an important part of the history of India’s various conquerors. The practice of forcefully extracting treasures from defeated rulers was not an uncommon phenomenon even in pre-colonial India. Before the establishment of strong monarchies, there were clans and chiefdoms often in conflict with one another over cattle and land. The triumphant chiefs and kings would redistribute the spoils of war among the soldiers, after keeping a substantial amount for themselves. Gradually, the chiefdoms gave way to bigger and more complex kingdoms. This resulted in battles between powerful monarchs with large, disciplined armies. The plundered items were usually those that had once symbolised the authority of the defeated rulers. The victorious monarchs generally re-installed these items to legitimise their rule over the newly acquired territory and people.
However, the context of the East India Company’s plunder is a little different. These were officials of a trading Company rampantly looting the conquered provinces. They took back the valuables to their own countries, sold them or decorated their gardens and living rooms with those antiques. Later when the British government took over the control of India, many of the Indian valuables were transported to England under the pretext of better preservation there. In the perception of the colonisers, the Indians were inferior and incapable of conserving their own heritage. Thus, the colonial era was marked by the large-scale transfer of artefacts from India to Europe, either through theft or with a justification of preservation.
Today, many such artefacts, generally obtained through unfair means from former colonies, are displayed in the museums and galleries of the countries that colonised them. The artefacts, out of their original spaces, lose their context and true essence. Additionally, the countries that these artefacts originally belonged to, lose control over the evidence of their own past and heritage. In many countries now, a discussion has begun about the rights of the formerly colonised countries over their artefacts. Many such objects have already been returned by countries like the Netherlands, France, and Germany in the recent past.
The theft of historically valuable objects, however, did not stop with the end of colonialism. The smuggling of artefacts remains a pressing concern to date. The illegal trade in smuggled antiques is a profitable venture for smugglers. It has become a global concern today. Many artefacts from India have been stolen in the decades after Independence. Often, these surface later in various countries. Such items obtained by fraudulent means are sold for exorbitant amounts of money. To combat this problem, India passed the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act in 1972 for the protection and preservation of valuable objects of the past. The country's struggles for conserving and recovering its artefacts have seen considerable success so far. Nevertheless, there is still a long journey ahead.
The return of the stolen Vrishanana Yogini is of significance. Yoginis are understood as proficient female practitioners of Yoga or Tantra, often accorded the status of a deity. A large number of Yogini temples from about the 9th to 12th centuries are found in India. These are commonly open-air spaces with niches for multiple (usually sixty-four or Chausath) Yogini sculptures. An interesting 10th-century temple is located in Lokhari, in the Banda District of Uttar Pradesh,. This temple is notable for its animal-headed Yogini statues. In one of the niches of the Lokhari temple was the statue of the Vrishanana Yogini, a buffalo headed goddess carved in stone. This 400 kg statue was found in France after being stolen and sold to an art collector there. After his death, his wife gave the statue to the Indian Embassy in Paris in 2008, and in 2013 it was brought to the National Museum in Delhi. The sculpture depicts the Vrishanana Yogini seated in a meditative posture on her vehicle (a swan), with a club in her left hand. A similar goat-headed Yogini, stolen from the same temple in Uttar Pradesh in the 1980s has also been recovered. It was found in 2021 in a private residence in England and has been returned to India.
The Australian Government returned two Indian artefacts in 2014. These were stolen from India and sold to art galleries in Australia. One is a bronze statue of Shiva in his Nataraja form and the other is Ardhanarishvara, a depiction of a fusion of Shiva and Parvati. Both of these are believed to be from the Chola period. The Cholas were perhaps one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the world, with their earliest references found in the 3rd century BCE. The Chola kings continued to rule until the 13th century in the region towards the south of the Tungabhadra river. Among other things, they were known for their extraordinary temple architecture and bronze sculptures. Many of these bronzes were depictions of Shiva and Parvati in different forms. The Nataraja form shows Shiva as a cosmic dancer, set within a circular frame that symbolises a halo. The Ardhanarishvara is a reflection of the union of the male and the female forms, from which the universe is believed to have been created. The Ardhanarishvara statue was bought by the Art Gallery of New South Wales before being returned to India by the Australian Prime Minister.
Another Chola period Nataraja statue, however, saw many problems before it could be brought back to India. This is the story of the famous Sivapuram Nataraja. Six metal antiques were unearthed from the field of a farmer in Sivapuram village in the Thanjavur District of Tamil Nadu. One of these was a stunning Nataraja idol. This was in 1951 and the statues were dated roughly to the 10th century. These idols were handed over by the District Collector to the authorities of the Sivagurunathaswamy Temple in Sivapuram. The temple authorities then sent these antiques to a sculptor for repairs. The sculptor, under the influence of two others, replaced five of these artefacts (including the Nataraja) with counterfeits and sold the originals to an art collector in Bombay. These artefacts eventually found their way out of the country. It was only in the 1960s that this deceit was discovered. In a book on early Chola bronze artefacts by Douglas E. Barrett, first published in 1965, it was claimed that the Sivapuram idols were fake. Barrett was a specialist in Indian art and looked after the antiquities from India at the British Museum. This merited urgent attention from the Tamil Nadu Government, and an investigation began under the Crime Branch. After much effort, the Nataraja idol was traced to the ownership of the Norton Simon Foundation in California. The Foundation had no knowledge about the theft when it purchased the idol in 1973, and had sent it to the British Museum for repairs. Here, the idol was identified and subsequently, the information reached the Indian authorities. Lawsuits were filed by the Indian authorities against the Foundation in both the United States and England in order to recover the idol. After a long-drawn legal battle, the issue was resolved and the Sivapuram Nataraja was brought back to India in 1986.
Similarly, in 1961, fourteen statues were stolen from a museum in Nalanda, Bihar. These were all bronze statues of the Buddha, probably dating back to the Pala Empire that ruled parts of present-day eastern India and Bangladesh in the 8th-12th centuries. In 2018, the London Metropolitan Police Service returned one of these statues. This was done as a gesture of goodwill on the 15th of August, marking the occasion of India’s Independence day. Interestingly, this Budhha statue was first spotted at a trade fair in London earlier in the year. The owner was unaware of its origins and agreed to return the artefact after being informed.
In the same year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also returned two stolen artefacts to India. In 2015, a statue of Goddess Durga in her Mahishasurmardini form was donated to the Museum. The staff there identified it with the stolen statue from the Chakravarteshawara temple in Baijnath, Himachal Pradesh. As the name suggests, the Mahishasurmardini is the slayer of Mahishasura, a powerful asura. In the legends and myths of India, the stories of battles between the devas and asuras (gods and anti-gods) are important. As per a legend, in one such battle, when the gods failed to defeat Mahishasura, they created a feminine form of energy or Shakti, possessing great strength and power. This Goddess is identified with Durga, and the form in which she kills Mahishasura is known as Mahishasurmardini. The stone statue of Mahishasurmardini returned by the museum dates back to the 8th century. Along with this statue, the museum also returned a limestone sculpture that resembled the ‘Head of a Male Deity.’ The museum received this sculpture as a donation in 1986 and later identified it as a part of the excavated materials from the site of Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh.
Numerous such stolen antiques have been brought back to India in recent years from various countries like Britain, Germany, and the United States. The process of locating and returning stolen antiques is arduous and requires multiple rounds of negotiations. Nevertheless, the attempts at preventing illegal trading of Indian antiquities and the recovery of smuggled objects continue tirelessly.
When it comes to retrieving artefacts that were taken from India during colonial times, the struggles get a little complicated. In 1978, UNESCO had constituted the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property (ICPRCP) with the purpose of encouraging discussions and agreements between countries for the restitution of such properties. However, many countries like Britain have strict laws that prevent the removal of antiques and artefacts that are a part of public collections. Moreover, the British authorities also have the particular concern of their museums emptying out if they begin returning artefacts to their origin countries. A justification that is often given is, objects that were removed from India and taken to Britain in the colonial period cannot be considered stolen or illegally exported. As India was a part of the British Empire then, the transfer of artefacts to England was only considered a matter of relocation.
One such antique is the stunning Sultanganj Buddha or later termed as the Birmingham Buddha. A railway line was being constructed in the early 1860s, in the town of Sultanganj in Bihar. The labourers, working under the supervision of E.B. Harris, dug out a complete bronze sculpture of Buddha. It was 2.3 metres in height and weighed around 500 kg. The Buddha was found under a pile of very old mud bricks, believed to be ruins of Buddhist viharas. The statue has been broadly dated to the 6th-8th centuries and Harris was of the view that it had been buried intentionally for safekeeping. The bronze Buddha stands tall with one hand in a posture of ‘fearlessness’ and the other with palm upwards, signifying a posture of giving. This statue was taken to the Birmingham Museum in 1864 with the persuasion of a former mayor of Birmingham, Samuel Thornton. Today it stands there for public viewing, as an object of awe and grandeur. The museum says that it was one of the first objects that entered the museum collections, and remains one of the most important objects on display.
In the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, London, one can find the white jade wine cup of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The cup was made in 1657 and it displays a harmony of elements belonging to different cultures. The gourd-shaped body is believed to be a result of Chinese inspiration, while the animal-shaped handle and the lotus carvings at the bottom appear to have been taken from ‘Hindu art.’ It was acquired by the British perhaps in the 19th century and changed hands many times until it came to the possession of the V&A Museum in the 1960s.
The same Mughal ruler, Shah Jahan, commissioned a grand royal seat - the Peacock Throne - in the 1620s. On the peacock’s head, right at the top of the throne, was the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond. This precious stone travelled many miles after the invasion of Nader Shah in the 18th century and finally came into the hands of Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Punjab, in the early nineteenth century. The British acquired the diamond in the 1840s as they took over Punjab from the child-king Duleep Singh, after the death of Ranjit Singh. Thus, the diamond became the property of the British royal family. From the throne of the Mughal Kings, the Koh-i-Noor went on to become the jewel of the British crown.
The list of such objects that are housed in Museums across Britain is endless. However, the claims of India over its antiques, especially those more valuable and rare, have been consistently turned down. The reclaiming of the objects of our past is an ongoing battle and one which has many hurdles to cross. While the road ahead seems uneven, hopes of gaining rights to our own tangible heritage shall not be extinguished.