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Gharwapsi of two 8th-century temple idols stolen from UP in 1970s: EAM Jaishankar presides over repatriation ceremony in London

On the final day of his five-day visit to the UK, Jaishankar unveiled the idols at India House, saying he was looking forward to their return to India.

On Wednesday (15th November), External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in London participated in a homecoming ceremony of two 8th-century Hindu temple idols that were stolen from India and recently found in England. 

The two temple idols named Yogini Chamunda and Yogini Gomukhi were stolen from a temple in Lokhari, Uttar Pradesh, between the late 1970s and early 1980s. The idols were recovered by the High Commission of India in London with assistance from the India Pride Project and Art Recovery International.

On the final day of his five-day visit to the UK, Jaishankar unveiled the idols at India House, saying he was looking forward to their return to India. “It is important today, as we look to appreciate each other’s culture, to ensure that cultural exchanges are legal, transparent and rules-based,” said Jaishankar.

“Where there have been deviations, whenever these are corrected I think this is something of great importance, not just in this case, but as a message that this is a practice which is not acceptable in this day and age,” he was quoted as saying.

The term ‘Yogini’ refers to female masters of the yogic arts, with 64 divine Yoginis worshipped as goddesses at Yogini temples like Lokhari. The Lokhari temple is said to have 20 Yogini statues depicting beautiful women with animal heads.

The temple was targeted in 1970 by a gang of robbers operating out of Rajasthan and Maharashtra and smuggling goods into Europe via Switzerland. Unknown numbers of statues were stolen, with others broken and the remaining unharmed statues removed and hidden by local villagers.

Chris Marinello of Art Recovery International commented on the issue and said that this is the fifth attempt that India is being provided with its old stolen artefacts from outside countries. “This is the fifth time we have been able to return important pieces of cultural heritage to India – in Milan, Brussels, and London three times. We work closely with the India Pride Project and when they identify one of these, we step in and negotiate with the possessors to reach an amicable resolution,” Marinello said.

The First Secretary of Trade and Economics at the Indian High Commission in London, Jaspreet Singh Sukhija, has been collaborating with the India Pride Project, an organization dedicated to restoring India’s lost artefacts, to arrange the restitution of these idols.

According to Indian High Commissioner to the UK Vikram Doraiswami, “Part of the objective of what we seek to do in these occasions is to find some acceptable and amicable solutions to enable our heritage to go back to where it is most appropriate, where it comes from, and where it is most appreciated.”

In the year 2022, a similar ancient Indian idol of a goat-headed goddess that had gone missing from a temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Lokhari village 40 years ago was recovered from London. The goat-headed Yogini idol was handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India yesterday by the Indian envoy to the United Kingdom Gaitri Issar Kumar.

As reported earlier, the stolen art recovery expert Christopher Marinello in October 2021 came across the idol when a widow in the UK requested help to sell the contents of her home, including the Yogini figure. Marinello, the founder of Art Recovery International, a company that specializes in recovering looted and missing works of art, later informed the India Pride Project which assisted the High Commission of India in recovering the idol.

Also in 2020, 3 priceless idols of Lord Ram, Maa Sita, and Laxman from the Vijayanagara period, stolen from a Vishnu temple in Tamil Nadu in 1978 were handed over to the Indian consulate in London by the British police.

Further in 2019, 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 was brought back to India. The two and a half feet 16th-century idol which was kept in the gallery in Adelaide, Australia for 17 years was traced in 2018.

In fact, last year, PM Modi revealed how his government has been successful in bringing back over precious 200 idols, which were stolen in the past, from abroad since he assumed office in 2014.

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