On the hunt for the stolen treasures of India


Indian historians and archeologists across the globe are trying to recover Indian heritage stolen during colonial times.

By Riya Sharma

The Indian government’s formal request to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum to return the 15th-century bronze idol of Saint Tirumankai Alvar has kindled fiery debates on cultural property among archaeologists and historians across the globe

The 15th-century sculpture was stolen from a temple of Sri Soundarrajaperumal in the 1960s, from a village near Kumbakonam in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, according to an independent scholar who found a photograph dating 1957 in the French Institute of Pondicherry, depicting the same idol, news reports say.

A year ago, several claims were made for the return of Indian cultural artifacts in a conference across governments and artistic establishments in Europe. .

According to the Indian Ministry of Culture, 101 artifacts from the country’s ‘Centrally Protected Monuments’ have been stolen between 2000 and 2016. Though, many archaeologists insinuate that the real number of the artwork unaccounted for may perhaps be in the several thousand.

Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) is an organisation that examines art crimes and works to promote cultural heritage protection across the globe.

Lynda Albertson, Chief Executive Director at ARCA said that the laws for cultural proprietorship are different for different countries.

“If you find Indian arrowhead points on some land in the US, the laws are such that the owner of the land can keep those artifacts because they were found on their land. But here in Italy, if you find anything that is ancient, it belongs to the state. It varies from country to country and we work around that,” she said.

“We work actively to restitute antiques which are stolen. In 2018, we worked with S Vijay Kumar from the India Pride Project in identifying a 12th-century Buddha sculpture that was stolen from Nalanda in the 1960s and assisted in its return to India,” Albertson added. 

“Heritage belongs to the communities it was intended for. And heritage that’s taken away without consent simply deserves to go back where it came from” is the motto of the Indian Pride Project (IPP), which is a network of Indian activists across the globe working on finding India’s lost heritage.

“We have moved from research to results, moved from this being an academic subject, to one that yields results. Our biggest success has been building this cause onto the national agenda; so India as a nation feels this is something they should act on, rather than just discuss,” said Singapore based Anuraag Saxena, co-founder of the IPP. 

“Sometimes you can make a claim on cultural objects and sometimes, it doesn’t make sense. There is a lot of politics involved in the process,” said Professor Sunil Kumar, Head of Delhi University’s Department of History.

“It doesn’t make sense running after the Kohinoor”, Professor Kumar said, “You’re never going to get it back.”

“The constraint is in India’s inability to bring back what has already been offered back to us. This needs building political and bureaucratic consensus, which we as a team focus on right now,” Saxena concluded.

“Viceroy Lord Curzon played a significant part in returning a large part of India’s heritage from the British museums that were stolen back during 1857,” said Professor Kumar.

“If something was stolen in the early part of the 20th century, then there is a common understanding of national antiquities, that it belongs to a particular state and you can ask for it to be returned,” he added.