The hunt for lost treasure

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The ASI is mounting a hunt to recover the Kohinoor and other precious Indian artefacts lost to colonial greed, says Samrat Chakrabarti

EARLIER THIS month, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) joined an international network for the return of priceless artefacts. The Kohinoor tops the list, but are we aware that there are several others whose value and significance cannot be measured? ASI Director-General Gautam Sengupta says the list of India’s lost treasures was “too long to handle”. A concerted multinational effort, with the backing of UNESCO, is on to bring back India’s prized possessions.

What is the value we attach to our cultural heritage? Going by the evidence available, not much. Museums in India wear a dispirited look, monuments to our heritage, the ones that find some kind of protection, stand in disrepair and its walls often vandalised by juvenile declarations of love. But perhaps a further tragedy that confronts our historical legacy is that an inordinate amount of our cultural heritage lies no longer in our hands. A still unaccounted for number lies not even in public view, because every museum owns far larger exhibits than there is space to display them. So a good part of our history lies in storage rooms across Britain, unavailable to our historians and the land that created them.

But, a larger cost in the indifference to our cultural heritage is identity. In a globalising world, identity needs an active preservation against the tide of cultural homogenisation. To know our story is a starting point to the question of what we want to be. The seizure of our cultural artefacts, and their continuing illegitimate possession, is a mirror to the shameful loot of colonisation. Beyond the Kohinoor, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of artefacts lying in British museums. After 60 years of freedom, it’s time for them to come home.

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The Kohinoor

Once the largest known diamond in the world. Now housed in the Tower of London

Translated as Mountain of Light, Kohinoor is a 105-carat diamond that was once the largest known diamond in the world. It was first found in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district. Over centuries, it has belonged to Hindu, Mughal, Persian, Afghan and Sikh rulers, until finally being seized by the East India Company. It became part of the Crown Jewels when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877

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Sultanganj Buddha 500-700 AD

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Largest bronze figure of its kind

It was found in 1861 during railway construction in Sultanganj, Bhagalpur district, by the East India Company. Shifted to Birmingham after a British MP lobbied for it

 

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From the Royal Collection, UK

A genre of work, written as the official history of Shah Jahan’s reign, completed in 1646. It covers the first 10 lunar years of his rule. Its 44 illustrations include some of the finest Mughal paintings ever produced. In the two murals, Shah Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremony in 1628 (top) and the new emperor receiving the Persian ambassador

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Marble Relief Figure of Saraswati

11th century Malwa, Central India, British Museum, UK

The Goddess Saraswati stands in an architectural frame, the arch over her head bearing three small enshrined tirthankaras. Although a relief, the main image has been very deeply cut, and looks three-dimensional. Other attendant figSultanganj Buddha ures can be seen in the framing arch

 

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The Buddhapada

From the Great Stupa at Amaravati, Guntur District, Andhra Pradesh, India, 1st century BC, British Museum, UK

The footprints of the Buddha (Buddhapada) are one of the early representations of the Buddha in the anticonic (no statues) stage of Buddhist art (left). There are as many as 72 sculptures depicting scenes from Buddha’s life

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Too Many to Name

1 Folios from the Hamzanama
Illustrated manuscript of the adventures of Amir Hamza commissioned by emperor Akbar

2 Folios from the Akbarnama
117 folios of the official biography of Akbar written by Abul Fazl

Prajnaparamita manuscript
Translated as Perfection of Wisdom, it is an early 12th century classic Buddhist work dealing with the subject of transcendance

4 Tipu’s Tiger
Created for Tipu Sultan — an automaton representing a tiger savaging a European soldier

5 Ranjit Singh’s Golden Throne
Made by a Muslim goldsmith between 1820 and 1830. Decorated with sheets of pure gold over the throne’s wooden core

6 Early Rajput paintings
Including pages from Bhagavad Purana, an important 16th century manuscript

7 Jade wine cups
Carved from a single piece of the purest nephrite jade by the craftsmen in Shah Jahan’s royal court

8 Jain sutras
Mystical diagrams, including a splendid large yantra, dated 1447

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