India’s Stolen Gods and Goddesses

Recent Features

Features | Society | South Asia

India’s Stolen Gods and Goddesses

The looting of India’s history continues: “We are estimating close to 10,000 major work of arts leaving India every decade.”

India’s Stolen Gods and Goddesses

Four Indian statues on display during a ceremony marking the repatriation of over 200 artifacts to the Indian government, at Blair House in Washington, Monday, June 6, 2016. Statues from left are identified as: Idol of Saint Manikkavichavakar also known as Sampanthar, Parvati, from South India, Tamil Nadu Chola Dynasty 12th century, Jain Figure of Bahubali, from South India, probably Karnataka 14th century, and Hindu God Ganesha, from a Temple in Tamil Nadu, India.

Credit: P Photo/Cliff Owen

The United States recently returned a staggering haul of 248 Indian antiquities, worth an estimated $150 million, to India, the largest single repatriation of artworks smuggled out from the country. This followed close on the heels of President Joe Biden’s administration handing over a cache of 157 artifacts to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to the United States in September, following both nations’ commitment to “combat theft, illicit trade, and trafficking of cultural objects.”

Both episodes highlight how India’s priceless heritage and cultural wealth remain vulnerable to smugglers and pilferers despite provision of laws. The U.S. deportation of antiques was the result of a meticulous probe by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The investigation focused on tens of thousands of antiquities allegedly smuggled into the United States by notorious Indian antique dealer Subhash Kapoor, who has denied the allegations even though some antiquities were recovered from his own storage units in New York.

Overall, Kapoor is accused of having trafficked some 2,600 objects worth $145 million into the U.S. in sync with an international gang of smugglers and art restorers operating across Brooklyn, Hong Kong, India, London, and Singapore. He is currently on trial in India on several cases of fraud and antique pilferage. Kapoor grabbed headlines again this August when Australia deported Indian antiques worth $2.2 million allegedly also smuggled by him.

These large-scale returns are anomalies, however. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, India’s premier crime investigation agency, between 2014 and 2021 – before the mass retrievals of this summer and fall – just over 200 Indian antiquities were either returned or were in the process of being deported from the United States, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Canada, and England.

This compares poorly with the huge number of antiques smuggled out from the country that still remain untraced. According to an audit by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, a government department, in 2018, 1,200 ancient idols were stolen between 1992 and 2017 from the temples of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu alone. Overall, 4,408 items were stolen from 3,676 protected monuments across India during the same period, but only 1,493 were intercepted by police. Of the remaining artifacts, around 2,913 items are feared to have been shipped to dealers and auction houses worldwide.

According to Singapore-based, Indian-origin shipping executive S. Vijay Kumar,  who has written a book – “Idol Thief” – on smuggler Subhash Kapoor, an estimated 1,000 pieces of ancient artworks are stolen from Indian temples every year and shipped to the international market, with only 5 percent of the thefts being reported.

“We are estimating close to 10,000 major work of arts leaving India every decade,” said Kumar, who has been tracking the theft of gods and goddess for 15 years.

According to the expert, idols in temples and artifacts from museums are stolen, smuggled to various countries, and sold to the highest bidders at auctions organized by globally reputed auction houses, who send their top executives to pick and choose art pieces.

According to Kumar, India needs a powerful law to protect its artwork. “Almost all stolen Indian artworks in the international market are without documents. There is no archive on most of the Indian artwork,” lamented Kumar, who has helped nab many idol thieves and smugglers.

Historians point to the inefficacy of India’s laws to check the theft of historical treasures. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, for instance, aims to protect “antiquities,” an omnibus term that includes, among other items, sculptures in stone, shrines, terracotta, metals, jewelry, ivory, paintings in paper, wood, cloth, skin, and manuscripts over a hundred years old.

The act mandates that owners of antiques register them with the Archeological Survey of India, the nodal agency responsible for archaeological excavations, conservation of monuments, and protection of heritage sites. The law also prohibits export of antiquities and allows their sale within the country only under a license. Failure to comply with these rules can result in jail sentences of up to three years, a fine, or both.

However, critics point out that these punitive measures are hardly enough. “Sadly the Antiquities Act has no penalizing provisions and the only section available for heritage thefts is IPC Section 370, which predominantly deals with house breaking theft and carries a maximum penalty of six years and Rs 3000 ($40). It needs to be revamped and made more stringent,” said Delhi-based historian Shalini Mathur, formerly a history professor at Delhi University.

On the contrary, the rewards accruing from smuggling are disproportionately large. Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimates that illegal trade in paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts is one of the world’s most lucrative criminal enterprises, worth $6 billion a year.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the government agency tasked with conservation and preservation of cultural monuments in the country, which functions under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, highlighted in 2020 how it had retrieved 36 antiquities from overseas since 2015.

Minister of State for Culture and Tourism Prahlad Patel mentioned in Parliament last year that all the antiques recovered were given voluntarily by museums and related authorities of three countries, including the United States, Australia, and the U.K. He asserted that all required steps are being taken “to prevent the theft of antiquities.”

However, experts say the government needs to do much more. They add that loopholes in existing laws, lack of stringent punishment to notorious smugglers like Kapoor, the country’s porous borders, and a lackadaisical government attitude continue to bedevil efforts to guard the country’s staggering cultural wealth.

“For all the noise we make about our culture and heritage, we do precious little to preserve it,” said Vijaya Amujure, director of the Architectural Heritage Division, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, New Delhi. “Preserving cultural wealth in India is just not seen as a priority even though the matter requires urgency.”

Among other suggestions, the expert advocates that the general public, especially the youth, be educated about the importance of Indian heritage “by making them equal stakeholders in government initiatives.”

According to Delhi-based archeologist Dr. Kirit Mankodi, security lapses that facilitate the smuggling of priceless antiques from the country underscore an urgent need for the cataloging, archiving, and documentation of such artifacts. The historian recommends that the ASI create a comprehensive national roster of every temple and archeological site to protect them better against incursions.

“If at all, only police complaints are lodged when antiques or temple idols go missing,” elaborated Mankodi, who runs a website called “Plunders of the Past,” where he catalogues stolen antiques and their provenance, among other things. But what also needs to be done is that citizens and government departments publicize heritage theft widely as soon as it takes place through newspaper ads and community newsletters, added the historian.

This widespread publicity will act as a major deterrer to pilferers while alerting future buyers to avoid picking up such pieces, explained the expert. “Because once the antique leaves the country, it’s tough if not impossible to retrieve it. And  because the international buyer doesn’t know it is stolen property, he goes ahead and buys it, which encourages smugglers creating a vicious cycle. However, if we have documentary proof, we have the first important step to its repatriation,” Mankodi concluded.