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Who is responsible for this loss?

by Sunil Nair

Bamiyan Buddhas were the earliest evidence of Gandhara art that existed as proof of cultural association between the Classical Greek culture and Buddhism for over thousand years. The Taliban's blowing up the Buddha statuettes in 2001 surely sent out shockwaves among the community of historians and art lovers. The Taliban leaders knew that they were knocking out more than a millennium old historical evidence, apparently because they believed those sculptors were mere ‘idols’. While it was horrifying to see such images of destruction in the media, I wonder for a moment, looking back at similar lost treasure troves of India, how different many others are from these Bamiyan destroyers.

Men in this continent have given importance to art from the beginning of their organized settlements. The excavated potteries and statuettes from Harappa and Mohenjodaro tell us the importance given to art. Indian art deepened through various dynasties and peaked during the regimes of emperors Asoka, Kanishka and Shah Jahan. Their regimes witnessed creation of marvelous monuments and stupas, in addition to jewellery, coins and other splendid artifacts. But owing to many invasions, be it from Alexander, Timur, Genghis Khan or the British, vast hoards of Indian treasures were literally looted. This was especially true after the Mughal era. During the 1857 revolt in which the troops captured the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, Lal Quila, the royal palace constructed by Shah Jahan, was literally emptied. It is known that most of the precious stones from the interior walls of the mughal forts, and even of Taj Mahal, were lost during this time. Most of the artifacts belonging to various Indian dynasties can today be found in the museums in western countries. Only a few antiquities are with India. The country had to also silently bid farewell to its most precious Koh-i-Noor, one of the largest diamond in the world, as the then British officers wanted India to present it to Queen Victoria (Maharaja Duleep Singh had to present the diamond to the Queen in England).

After independence when many kingdoms lost their princely power, the ruling families left the country with as many royal treasures as they could. Unfortunately there was no regulations to stop such appropriation. One such loss was that of the most extravagant ‘Baroda Pearl Carpet’, one that even today resurfaces at international auctions. The speciality of this carpet was that it was made of pearls and embroidered with rubies, diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. It was last exhibited at the ‘Indian Art Exhibition’ during the Delhi Durbar in 1903. This masterpiece, commissioned by the Maharajah Gaekwar of Baroda in the eighteenth century, was supposedly sold by Maharani Sitadevi of Baroda. The carpet since then has surfaced in auction in New York in 1985, again in 1994 and recently in 2009 at Sotheby’s at Doha. It was reportedly sold for USD 5.5 million.

There are many more splendid Indian antiquities - the peacock throne, royal chariots, daggers, swords, royal clothes, ornaments, metal and stone idols, paintings, and even accessories used by Mahatma Gandhi - that are to be found in museums elsewhere. Perhaps India is one of the least concerned when it comes to protecting and preserving its art heritage. Many of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings even today manage to go out of the country and surface in international auctions. Those in possession of historical artifacts only seem interested in making money and least bothered the role they could play in preserving the rich heritage of the country.

Possibly the only way to stop such art smuggles is when the concerned government authorities fathom the seriousness of this loss, keep a high vigil and introduce strict laws forbidding those benefiting from such transactions. While now and then we hear of smuggling acts being unearthed, the big fishes always manage to escape and continue the business without fear.



An excellent article. The author has gone indepth in collecting various facts. My hearty congratulations.

Kavya said...

Pretty informative!

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