Will India ever get the Kohinoor diamond back? The contentious 13th-century stone, taken by the British from Punjab’s Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1850, is at the top of every list of national treasures that India wants back from its erstwhile colonisers.
Last year, Congress parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor gave an impassioned speech at Oxford to demand repatriation of India’s lost or stolen artefacts, prompting British parliamentarian Keith Vaz to push for the return of the Kohinoor to India. Now, the world’s most famous diamond is in the news again, after Union culture ministry told the Supreme Court this week that the Kohinoor was actually gifted to the British and not taken by force. In the midst of public furore, it took barely a day for the ministry to backtrack from this stance and claim it is making “all possible efforts” to bring back the diamond from the Tower of London.
Like India, the governments of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have also laid claim to the Kohinoor as their own national treasure. The diamond adorns the front of the Queen Mother’s crown, and British authorities have shown no inclination to return it to any of these countries.
But India’s passion for the repatriation of heritage antiquities isn't limited to the Kohinoor. India has a long list of national artefacts it would like back from foreign soil, which have been taken away either by former colonisers or by smugglers. While the central government does win a battle for artefact repatriation once in a while, here are at least four heritage treasures that the country is not likely to get back any time soon:
For more than 150 years, this 7.5-foot tall Buddha statue has been the star attraction at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It is now colloquially referred to as the “Birmingham Buddha”, but the statue might have been the pride of Bihar’s Sultanganj town had it not been shipped off to England in 1861.
The Sultanganj Buddha dates back to the Gupta-Pala period of 500-700 AD and was discovered in Bihar’s Bhagalpur district during the construction of the East Indian Railway. The statue, weighing more than 500 kg, was cast in pure, unrefined copper and depicted a standing Buddha with one hand raised in the abhaymudra position. Even though the newfound statue attracted thousands of local visitors, Samuel Thornton, a Birmingham industrialist, bought it for 200 pounds and had it shipped to his city for display at Birmingham’s new museum.
Along with the Kohinoor diamond, the Sultanganj Buddha is one of the top artefacts that the Archaeological Survey of India wants Britain to repatriate.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s throne
In the 1820s, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh was at the height of his power as the founder of the Sikh Empire in Punjab, his goldsmith Hafez Multani made him an opulent wood and gold throne. Built in the distinct shape of a two-tiered lotus, the octagonal throne has a wood and resin core covered with sheets of engraved gold.
When Punjab was annexed in 1849, the throne was taken away by the British as “state property”. In 1851, it was displayed in the Indian Empire collection of the “Great Exhibition” of international art works in London. It is now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In recent years, attempts have been made by descendents of Duleep Singh – Ranjit Singh’s son who was made to give up the Kohinoor – to get Britain to return both the diamond and the throne to India.
A series of limestone slab carvings, the Amravati sculptures once formed the railings and gateways around an ancient Buddhist stupa found in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. While the stupa itself dates back to 3rd century BC, the limestone carvings were built in phases between the 1st century BC and the 8th century AD. The relief work on the series of slabs depict in detail the Jataka stories, narratives about the life of Buddha.
Ruins of the stupa were first discovered by a British officer in the 1790s and further archaeological excavations were undertaken in the 1840s by Sir Walter Elliot of the Madras Civil Service. Eventually, different fragments and portions of the Amravati railings found their way to various museums around India and the world. Perhaps the largest collection of around 120 sculptures, however, still rests with the British Museum after they were shipped to England in the 1850s.
The Amravati railings were on the list of several artefacts that the ASI wanted back from England, but the demand was rejected in 2010.
Saraswati/Ambika idol from Bhojshala
In the 1880s, the British Museum acquired a 4-foot high white marble statue of a goddess from Dhar, a city in present-day Madhya Pradesh. Based on the Sanskrit inscriptions at its base, the museum has identified the statue as an 11th century, Paramara dynasty sculpture of Jain figure Ambika. But for the past two decades, Hindutva organisations like the Hindu Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Janata Party have claimed that the idol is of goddess Saraswati, originally from the controversial Bhojshala complex of Dhar, that must be returned to India.
Bhojshala, or the centre of learning, is an ASI-protected monument in Dhar that is believed to date back to the rule of the 11th century king Bhoja. The site, however, has been in use as a mosque and a dargah for several centuries. To prevent repeated communal flare-ups between local Muslims and Hindus who claim Bhojshala was a Saraswati temple, the ASI allows Muslims to pray at the mosque only on Fridays while Hindus can visit the supposed temple site on Tuesdays.
Since 2003, however, the Hindutva groups have been demanding that the British Museum return the Saraswati idol to Bhojshala. While prominent BJP leaders like Uma Bharti and Subramanian Swamy have made this demand, the British government officially clarified, in 2003, that the statue in its museum is that of Jain figure Ambika.
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