Apsara, one of India’s most precious stolen antiques is coming back to India

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Named the ‘Apsara’, the priceless stone sculpture which is around 1,000 years old and currently housed in a US museum, is all set to be brought back to India soon. As per the Union Culture Ministry, the valuable sculpture dates back to the 10th century.

It wasn’t plundered in the Middle Ages but stolen precisely two decades ago, in 1998, from a Shiva temple in the Badoli Village in Sikar, Rajasthan. Following the Ministry’s extensive discussion with the US Government over the years, plans are now in place to bring back the prized antiquity to India. Presently, it is kept in a Los Angeles museum in the US.

It is to be noted that recently, the UK had committed to return yet another priceless ‘Nataraja’, which was stolen from the same temple in Rajasthan.

“Presently, Apsara statue is kept in a US museum and soon officials from the ministries of External Affairs and the Culture will travel to the US to work out details to bring the antiquity back to India,” the Daily Pioneer quoted a source in the Union Culture Ministry.

The Apsara will add to the list of 18 valuable antiquities that have been brought back to the country in the last three years ,as per the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The UNESCO convention on prohibiting illicit trade in cultural property, ratified in 1970, offers legal and political tools to be implemented in the national law and permits broad and sustained international cooperation. It mandates that museums must do due diligence and proper evaluation when acquiring antiques. However, this is hardly followed.

The 18 valuable antiquities set to return to India include the famous Yogini Vrishanana, Nataraja, Parrot Lady and Uma Parameshwari, with many countries like Australia, Canada, and France returning them voluntarily.

 Though Union Minister Mahesh Sharma has been selectively quoted and made to look controversial by the media, his efforts go much beyond the casual statements made in front of the camera. In a written reply to the Lok Sabha recently, Mahesh Sharma said India has got as many as seven objects from the US, followed by the UK (3) and Australia (2) and one antiquity each from Canada, Germany, Singapore, Holland, and France.

Over the years, outdated national policies have been a prime reason for the inability to curb illicit trade and the investigating agencies have contributed little or nothing in bringing back antiques.

A report in The Print dated 2017 provides startling data. Since 2014, the Indian government has retrieved 24 Indian antiquities from around the world that were either stolen or smuggled out. This is in contrast to the period between 2009 and 2014, when just one such object was brought back to the country, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has said in the report.

Between the years 1976 and 2013, a total of 13 antiquities were brought back to the country, while the period between 2004 and 2009 saw no antiques being brought back.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reaching out to world leaders has also been a key reason in bringing back the idols. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the US in 2016, the US agreed to return 200 antiquities to India.  Though only 16 objects have come back till now, one hopes the concerted efforts of Prime Minister and the Ministry will get back more antiquities. Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott handed back the 900 year-old bronze “dancing Shiva”, which was taken from India by cultural traffickers.

Other returned artefacts that have come back to India include the Yogini Vrishanana, which was brought back from Paris in 2013, while Ardhanariswara which was stolen from Tamil Nadu were brought back in 2014 from Australia.

The 900-year-old Indian sandstone sculpture of a woman holding a parrot, famously called as ‘Parrot Lady’ was handed over by the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper PM Narendra Modi in 2015. The idol of Mahisamardini, which was stolen from a temple in Jammu & Kashmir, was returned by Germany in 2015 and Singapore also returned the Uma Parameshwari in 2015.

Over the years, government and political apathy have been one of the prime reasons that a continuous loot of antiquities continued. According to the sources in the Ministry, between 2000 and 2016 a total 101 antiquities have been stolen from the Centrally Protected Monuments. This exposes the lack of security and ill will on the part of the authorities in charge.

Earlier this year Ashton Sequeira, an NSUI leader from Karnataka had been arrested among 5 others for stealing and attempting to sell antiquated idols of Jain Tirthankaras worth crores of rupees.

It is to be noted that Subramanian Swamy had levelled serious and sensational allegations about Sonia Gandhi’s sister in Italy running a shop of Indian antiques. “The antiques, which are being sold by Sonia Gandhi’s sister, were stolen from India,” Swamy had alleged.

The extradition of antique dealer Subhash Chandra Kapoor from Germany will also be a key in getting on the trail of stolen antiques.

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