The Australian government has decided to return three Indian artefacts of cultural significance during the official visit of Prime Minister Scott Morrison to India in January next year.
According to the reports, three culturally significant artefacts, a pair of ‘Dwarapala’ (door guardians) from Tamil Nadu and one ‘Nagaraja (serpent king)’ from either Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, purchased from idol smuggler Subhash Kapoor will be returned to India by the Australian government during Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to India in January 2020.
“The return of these artefacts is the right thing to do. This is another demonstration of the deep relationship between Australia and India,” said Scott Morrison.
The serpent king (Nagaraja) idol dates back to the 6th or 8th Century and is believed to be from Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh. The ‘Dwarapalas’ from Tamil Nadu are said to be from the 15th century.
A joint media statement from PM Morrison, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Marine Payne and Paul Fletcher, MP and Minister for Communications Cyber Safety and the Arts, read, “The artefacts which were held by the National Gallery of Australia (Gallery), were purchased in good faith, but extensive research undertaken by the gallery has led to its decision to voluntarily return these artefacts to India.”
Reportedly, both India and Australia are a party to the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Foreign Minister Payne added, “The strong ties Australian and Indian institutions have made in recent years have helped develop important professional relationships and share culture. The return of these artefacts also underscores the world’s debt to India’s magnificent culture, history and legacy.”
An investigation into the National Gallery’s Asian Collection by former Australian judge Susan Crennan in 2015 had found 30 such ‘problematic’ artefacts, including the three idols being returned in January. As per media reports, all of them were sold by Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor is facing charges for trafficking antiquities worth over 140 million USD.
In September this year, efforts were made to bring back a 600-year-old Nataraja idol worth Rs 30 crore which was stolen 37 years ago from a temple at Kallidaikurichi in Tirunelveli district, Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The two and a half feet 16th-century idol which was kept in the gallery in Adelaide, Australia for 17 years was traced a year ago.
Three years ago, Australia had returned three artefacts, including an idol of goddess Pratyangira, stolen from a Shiva temple in Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu. In 2014, then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had returned two statues of Nataraja and Ardhanariswarar stolen from temples in the state.
The Tamil Nadu govt’s idol wing led by AG Ponn Manickavel has been working tirelessly to bring back the stolen idols from various countries. The Tamil Nadu government are also in talks with the National Gallery of Australia to get back 7 stolen ancient idols.
The state government has also claimed a 1,300-year-old standing Sambandar bronze idol, another rare bronze, a 1000-year-old dancing Sambandar, stolen from the Naganathaswamy temple at Manambadi village in the Tiruvidaimaruthur taluk of Nagapattinam district which was sold for Rs 4.59 crores.
The state has claimed many idols, a 1000-year-old of Arumugan from Manambadi, an 1100-year-old Nandi idol, Bhadrakali idol of the Kailasanathar temple at Kollumangudi, in Mayiladudurai taluk, and two stone Dwarapalakar idols from Udayar Sivan temple in Atthanallur, Tirunelveli. These idols were smuggled out of the country by various antique dealers at various points in time.
Last year, the authorities in London had returned a 12th century Buddha idol taken from Nalanda.
It is notable here that hundreds of priceless ancient idols and artefacts have been smuggled out from India over the decades. Many renowned art galleries and auction houses have been known to receive such items through middlemen and antique smugglers.