Two historical Indian sculptures came back to India this September, the first is a 12th century sculpture of Mahishasurmardini (Devi Durga slaying the buffalo headed demon king Mahishasur) while the second one dates back to around 5th-6th century AD and is a sculpture of a male deity. Both the sculptures were displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for many years, after they had been illegally exported from India to the United States. The process for return of sculptures had started almost an year back when the museum authorities had themselves approached the PM Modi led central government to initiate the voluntary return of the two historical and religious sculptures including the Mahishasurmardini sculpture. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had themselves shown interest in returning them to their home country after suspicions of them being stolen and illegally exported items arose.
The Devi Durga sculpture or Mahishasurmardini is an ancient statue made of limestone from a temple in Uttarakhand, while the male deity, identified as ‘Bodhisattava’ had been stolen from the archaeological site of Nagarjunakonda in western Andhra Pradesh. To begin and ensure the smooth flow of the return process, the Metropolitan Museum’s senior curator of South and South East Asian Art, John Guy, had flown to India on August 10th. He visited the headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in New Delhi and held many talks with the officials of the ASI. The ASI officials were pleasantly surprised by the approach of the Museum authorities who were eager to make amends and had every intention of sending back the sculptures to India, where it rightfully belonged. An ASI official said, “We were pleasantly surprised when the US museum officials contacted us in the matter. During verification of their antiquities, they had suspected the two sculptures were stolen from here and moved in their collection.”
The official went on to add how the US museum authorities had asked for proof to verify that the origins of the Mahishasurmardini and ‘Bodhisattava’ sculptures actually could be traced back to India and had been amply satisfied with the proofs submitted by ASI. The official added, “They had sought a detail about the sculptures which we provided immediately. The Durga statue has found mention in our 1969 publication, The Archaeology of Kumann by KP Nautiyal, in which it is described as being housed in the Chakravarteswara Temple at Baijnath, a medieval capital in Uttarakhand. The temple was constructed in 1204.”
Welcoming the stance taken by the New York Museum, ASI spokesperson DN Dimri said, “It is a responsible move and we hope other museums too will follow the suit in case they have our stolen antiquities.” India and New York museums have signed an agreement in the recent years following which the New York Museum did not want itself to be found on the wrong side according to the UNESCO convention 1970. There are many more artefacts, sculptures and idols from India and other South Asian countries which have been illegally sold to British and Australian museums. The British in particular looted and carried off valuable artefacts back to England during the colonial rule, the colonisers owe the return of historically and religiously important artefacts to India. PM Modi led central government should push forward and demand the return of the portion of India’s heritage and culture. The move by the New York Museum is a commendable step and should be taken into consideration by the governments in Western countries.