There are many kinds of thieves: smugglers, customs and conservation officials, museum staff, and your venerable neighbourhood priest.
When the American art collector Norton Simon paid one million dollars to buy a stolen 10th-century bronze Nataraja in 1973, he certainly had no idea that it was so much money down the drain. For when he sent the idol to the British Museum for repairs, it was impounded as stolen property by the Scotland Yard, acting under pressure from Indian officials. A protracted litigation followed during which Simon pleaded “innocent purchase”. Finally an agreement was reached whereby the Norton Simon Foundation in Los Angeles was allowed to keep the idol for 10 years until 1986, after which it was reinstalled at its original place of residence, the Sivapuram temple in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district.
It was only by good fortune that the Sivapuram Nataraja returned home, and credit for it goes to Douglas Barret and his book Early Chola Bronzes. An expert with the British Museum, Barret, during a visit to India in 1964, happened to see the original idol in the possession of an executive with a foreign company in Madras, a fact he recorded in his book. This led to an enquiry by the Tamil Nadu government in 1969, which soon brought to light the fact that the idol residing in the Sivapuram temple was a masterly fake. But, by then, the idol had already been sold and, changed hands several times to end up with Norton Simon in 1973.
The happy ending of the Sivapuram Nata-raja saga is one that evokes hope among those concerned about the fate of Indian antiquities. But the very fact that a saga is there to be told reflects the ease and impunity with which art thieves have been steadily depleting the Indian countryside of the treasures it is strewn with—bronze Natarajas from the Chola period being only one among them.
The Cholas were a powerful South Indian dynasty who ruled over half of India between the 9th and 12th centuries from their base in Thanjavur in today’s Tamil Nadu. They also controlled a sea-borne empire that extended to Sri Lanka and as far as Indonesia. Sri Lankan Tamils still revere the Cholas, from whom the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) have borrowed the emblem of the tiger to signify ferocity and fearlessness. But a more lasting and benign legacy of the Cholas are the incredibly graceful Nataraja idols they so favoured, which today rate as collector’s items alongside Ming vases and Greek sculptures.
But what is it that makes these Natarajas so special? “Siva’s cosmic dance in magnificent bronze sculptures of dancing figures with four arms whose superbly balanced and yet dynamic gestures express the rhythm and unity of life,” is how Fritjof Capra described them in his best-selling The Tao of Physics. An eloquent description indeed, but one that hastened the speed with which the Natarajas, and other Chola bronzes, left Indian shores for the sumptuous living rooms of private collectors and respectable museums in the West.
These bronzes stand out for the emphasis of maleness in the gods and beauty in the goddesses, says J.E. Dawson, an expert on bronzes at the National Museum in New Delhi. Chola artists breathed life into their work by using the cire perdue, or lost wax process, with minute details worked into the clay moulds closely following the Silpa Shastra texts. The craftsmen approached their task with the right Dhyana Shlokas pertaining to the particular deity so that their minds would be imbued with the essential quality of the deity. Materials were chosen with great care at every stage—fine beeswax, clay taken from termite mounds, and of course, the delicate proportions in the panchloha, or alloy, made out of five metals. Because the mould is broken once the casting is complete, no two idols can be alike and that essential uniqueness adds to the value of each piece for the worshipper and the modern-day collector alike.
Another famous Nataraja which went on a world tour is one stolen from the Easwaran temple in the Tiruvilakkudi village, also of Thanjavur, in 1978, and traced with the help of Interpol to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Recently, a Buddha head, believed to have been sold by the Hindu priest of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, found its way back from New York after a senior official of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) spotted it in a museum there.
Restitution of stolen artefacts becomes difficult unless the item in question has been catalogued or documented as being in India after Independence in 1947. This is because during the colonial era, whatever was taken out by Britain and other Indian princely states, was done ‘legitimately’ and so not returnable, and these include items such as the Kohinoor diamond, the marble bath of Shah Jehan, or the famed Amaravti marbles. This also covers whatever is claimed to have been taken out before 1947.
The Indian government is currently trying to prove that two gold mohurs, or coins, weighing about 12 kilograms each lying in the vaults of a bank in Switzerland were taken there after Independence by the present Nizam of Hyderabad whose ancestors received it from the Mughal emperors. Because of the gaping loophole offered by the colonial period, most antiquities stolen from India reach the UK which is a nodal point for further dispersion particularly to the US. It is a well-known fact that the auction house Sotheby’s conducts a thriving trade in Indian antiquities.
But while the British may have plundered the country of its cultural artefacts during two centuries of rule, they also set up the ASI and began the task of excavating archaeological sites and cataloguing items. The task is still far from complete and is not likely to end anytime soon due to lack of funds and expertise. Open-air warehouses set up in British times at the sprawling archaeological site in Khajuraho still exist, and now contain several thousand pieces of exquisite stone sculptures yet waiting to be properly housed. That itself is partly responsible for the rampant idol theft, says D.K. Sinha, retired director of the ASI. There are so many archaeological sites and many are situated in remote areas often inaccessible by road, which cannot possibly be monitored by the ASI.
Sinha says the real enemy is the massive poverty and ignorance at home combined with the high prices that items like Chola bronzes command abroad. Often foreigners, who are likely to be more aware of the true value of antiquities than the impoverished villagers who live near archaeological sites, are involved in the thefts. Some years ago, two Thai students were caught with stucco heads of the Buddha they had removed from Nalanda in Bihar, site of the world’s oldest university.
It does not help that laws against cultural theft is very weak. Last year, the CBI seized 42 heads of the Jain saint Mahavira which turned out to have been removed from the 2nd-century Jain temple in Shivpur in the Guddar district of Madhya Pradesh. Nine persons are now undergoing trial for it, but if convicted they face imprisonment of just six months and a fine of INR 1500 under the 1971 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act. For tougher sentences, it is possible to charge the thieves with other offences such as desecration of public places, but that is left to the discretion of the prosecutor. “What we need is to make the trafficking of antique items a cognisable offence attracting far more severe punishment,” says M. Ram, superintendent of the antiquities wing of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), adding that it is easier to tackle local thieves who are at the root of the problem than chase after items which have gone abroad.
It is possible that many idols that are now in the temples of Tamil Nadu may in fact be fake, with the originals having long been spirited away, says Ram. Sinha agrees, adding that the theft or disappearance of ornaments used on deities are not uncommon and simply cannot happen without the knowledge of priests, many of whom consider it their sole right to dispose off temple property. For their part, ASI officials complain that they cannot verify the authenticity of the various statues since priests or owners of private temples are reluctant to allow them entry into the sanctum sanctorum where the idols are kept. This is either because they have something to hide, or, as happens in many cases, the temple custodians are afraid of offending the deity.
But CBI’s Ram goes further and says that temple priests alone cannot be blamed for the stealing and export of “living idols”, meaning idols which are still worshipped. Officials at several levels including those from the ASI and the customs are also involved, he claims. The ASI issues no-objection certificates (NOC) to replicas of valuable artefacts to be exported as ordinary handicraft, and it is quite easy for some ASI and customs officials acting in collusion to send out originals. In some cases, however, the ASI is duped into providing NOCs against a fake and the real stuff is exported ‘legally’. Photographs of the original and the replica are tagged to the NOC, but it takes a trained eye to spot any difference, a task the customs is hardly equipped to deal with.
Both Ram and Sinha agree that a major problem was the fact that only 10 percent of exports are actually examined at air and sea ports, and it is the case that customs officials are often in cahoots with art smugglers. There are also known cases of Indian antiques being smuggled out in diplomatic bags and the CBI is unable to proceed for fear of starting up a diplomatic row. Yet, over the years, the CBI has seized so many antique pieces that there is even a move on the part of the investigative bureau to establish a museum of its own.
The CBI has also been taking a close look at the activities of agents for Sotheby’s who have been scouring the Indian countryside with the connivance of Indian art smugglers for items for their famed auctions, a fact that has been recorded by arts reporter Peter Watson in his book Sotheby’s: Inside Story. CBI official Ram says there exist networks of antique smugglers operating in the major metropolitan cities which have contacts with foreign buyers, the most notorious of whom are Britishers Bruce Miller and George Fletcher.
Ram also say that customs channels are so porous that there have been instances when items in the possession of art dealers have left India and were returned once suspected by the CBI. He gives the example of a terracotta panel depicting the fight of the monkey gods, Bali and Sugreev, which was promptly returned to an Indian art dealer after a cautious buyer referred the item to the CBI before buying it in London. “We couldn’t proceed because there was no proof that the item, registered as being in the legal possession of the art dealer, had actually been sold in London. Anyway, it was back in India,” he says.
But for every item returning to its land of provenance, there will be hundreds leaving its shore. And the exodus is not likely to to stop anytime soon.