India is a vast country with a rich cultural heritage. So it is very difficult to safeguard the cultural heritage of India because of illicit traffic and smuggling in antiquities. Illicit traffic is motivated often by profit and some times by the demand for luxuries. The incidents of thefts have been observed usually from unprotected monuments, ancient temples etc. The thefts cases have also been seen in the protected monuments and museums as well. It is due to negligence of watchmen in museums, monuments etc. No thefts is possible from museums, monuments or sites without the involvement of local party directly or indirectly. After theft, antiquity finally reaches to the international market through the agents because of increasing demands of such art objects.
Few months back a big episode of theft occurred in” Dev Bhumi” Kullu in Himachal Pradesh from where one of the priceless idols of Lord Raghunath along with idol of Lord Hanuman 10 kg of silver ornaments and 1 kg of gold ornaments were stolen from a famous temple Raghunathpura, Kullu. The Raghunath idol made of Astha- dhatu ( a combination of eight metals including gold and silver), is the presiding deity of Kullu and his chariot leads the historic and famous Kullu Dusshera festivals at which approximately 400 idols of other deities are brought from whole of Kullu district to pay obeisance to the Lord Raghunath. The idol of Lord Raghunath has been brought from Ayodhya in 1637 by Raja Jagat Sukh of Kullu (H.P). Because of timely investigation by Addl.DGP (law and order) of Himachal Pradesh, the Himachal police recovered the same within few months before it was smuggled to some other countries.
History is witness to the fact that from time to time most of our antiquities and important documents were taken away by the foreign rulers and invaders from our temples, monuments etc. Many of them are still lying in various museums of many countries. In the late 19th century, various scholars like Professor Bijhler and many German Sanskrit scholars and other interested in ancient Orient lore visited state also, particularly Kashmir and took away many old birch-bark manuscripts, old coins and valuable objects at a low price.
There is a need for a more concerted approach for retrieval of Indian art objects stolen or illegally exported to other countries. The CAG report on Preservation and Conservation of Monuments and Antiques clearly indicates that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for this purpose needs to be more proactive and vigilant in its efforts and the ministry needs to develop an aggressive strategy for the same.
Some countries have made laws for the protection of cultural heritage. India is one of them. The Antiquity Act of 1947, Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972 particularly provide for the prevention of smuggling and illegally dealing in antiques. It is also true that after the law the incidents of theft of cultural properties has shown a downwards trend but at the same time the Government of India is not fully successful in preventing thefts /illicit traffic or smuggling of cultural properties. The Government of India has also set up advisory committee of exports to deal with exports of non-antiquities at each of five major ports apart from posting officers at the international airports and sea ports also. According to the National Mission for Monuments and Antiquities, the country has more than 70 lakh antiquities of which approximately 5 lakh are registered so for.
Recently ,the Union Culture Ministry replied in the Parliament session about the theft of eight antiquities in the year(2014). As a remedy , ministry suggested liberalizing the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, to create a more open market in India that might deter smuggling of Antiquities. But the opinion is divided. Any dilution in the Law would give free run to underhand dealers, given the more lucrative market abroad. As the corporate buyers in India cannot compete with the billionaires and museums in the west, ASI officials also privately say that slackness in law will only benefit wealthy lobbies.
Fortunately, some countries have returned the heritage artifacts/antiquity back to the countries of the origin. India has got 13 antiques back in 45 years, according to records with Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) since India signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of Prohibiting and Preventing the illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property. On Jan, 2014 U.S returned three looted pieces to India of 11th and 12th century worth about 1.5million dollars including a sand stone sculpture snatched from an Indian temple in 2009 in the State of Rajasthan and others.
In April 2015 American Museum (Honolulu Museum of Art) returned seven stolen artifacts to India. In September, 2014 Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot during his visit to India returned two 900 year old statues of Shiva (NATRAJA) to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi which had been previously stolen by an Indian dealer and sold them to Australian Art galleries. Recently, a 10th century Durga idol in (Mahishasuramardini avatar) which was stolen from a temple at Pulwama in Kashmir in the 1990s, was returned to India by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and handed over to Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the Government took up the issue with the concerned authorities in Germany.
There are some of the world’s most disputed artifacts that countries are still fighting over including the Koh-i-Noor diamond one of the largest diamond in the world. Despite India’s demand for its return the matter has not been solved hitherto due to the clear cut refusal by the British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Now, the time has come that the government of India immediately adopts a clear cut policy and banned the export of these objects so that the pilferage of artifacts may be stopped to a great extent rather than to beg before other countries. At the same time if our government is not successful in preventing illicit traffic of cultural properties then we have to take other steps to prevent all these at our own level as it is our moral duty to preserve our cultural heritage.
If any Individual as well as museum owner buys any object, he must be satisfied with the source of origin of art objects. In the event of any theft/destruction/encroachment of such artifacts or monuments, then we have to inform the police station and the concerned authorities must immediately including Museum Association of India, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), State Archives and Archaeology Department. So that the concerned authorities will circulate the news to all its member institutions in India and abroad to recover the stolen properties. We should also involve the local people and educate them regarding the importance of monuments and our cultural properties. One should also encourage them in the form of reward after giving any clue about the theft of our heritage.
The concerned authorities like National Mission on Monuments and Antiquits need to make a list of protected/unprotected cultural properties and immediately document all these and prepare a national database.
I personally appreciate the INTACH Chapter Jammu who is doing a commendable job in this regard. Now the UNESCO is also doing its best efforts to save and preserve the world’s cultural and natural heritage. But in case of our country we have to go a long way to reach at this stage. At the same time the concerned organizations have to adopt a wise policy with regard to the salary and other allowances of watch man and class 1V employees, and their transfers, otherwise the prevention of thefts will be a distant dream.