A rare 1,300-year-old stone Durga that disappeared from a small temple in Kashmir at the height of militancy in the mid-1990s has been located at the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart in southern Germany.
Two experts from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) visited the Linden-Museum this May, and the ASI last week submitted several documents to the museum through New Delhi’s embassy in Berlin in order to make India’s claim over the idol “absolutely watertight”, officials said.
The museum has, however, said that “a lot of research” needs to be done before the “rightful owner” of the Durga is identified.
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Officials said the 8th century idol was stolen from a temple in the Tengpora locality of Srinagar, and is suspected to have reached the alleged antiques smuggler Subhash Kapoor, who might have sold it to the Stuttgart museum.
Kapoor was arrested in Frankfurt in 2011, and extradited to India the following year. His trial for smuggling antiques began in Chennai in March 2014.
ASI Additional Director General B R Mani told The Indian Express, “The registration number of ‘Tengpora Durga’ procured from the state government was sent to the museum. We have also provided them with a copy of the FIR lodged with the J&K Police after the theft… Pictures of the idol published in earlier issues of Indian Archaeology, A Review, have also been provided.”
Mani said a copy of the report submitted by Superintending Archaeologists Sunanda Srivastava and K C Noriyal, who had visited the museum in May to physically examine the piece, had also been sent to the German authorities.
“We have absolutely no doubt the idol belongs to India, and Germany must return it under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, of which it is a signatory,” Mani said.
Sources said India first took up the matter of the idol with Germany in January 2013, after Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, who was at that time New Delhi’s ambassador to Berlin, arranged a meeting between the Indian side and Germany’s Ministry of Science, Research and Art.
According to Mani, the ASI was first tipped off about the Durga’s whereabouts in 2011 by Rakesh Kaul, a US-based Kashmiri Pandit industrialist whom Subhash Kapoor had allegedly tried to “cultivate” as a client.
Kaul told The Indian Express over the phone from New Jersey that he had come in touch with Kapoor after he moved to New York in 1997. “Kapoor had come to the US in 1974. He started a store, Art of the Past, in Manhattan, and quickly established himself as a leading dealer in antiquities. He tried to cultivate me as a client and, frankly, I was stunned by the quality of the pieces he had. I first saw the Tengpora Durga then,” Kaul said.
In 2007, Kaul met Dr Pratapaditya Pal, a leading authority on ancient Indian and Himalayan art and culture. Kaul was co-chairman of an exhibition on the arts of Kashmir, which had been curated by Pal.
In 2010, Pal — who had been honoured with the Padma Shri the previous year — published a book of essays titled Godess Durga: The Power and The Glory, which had a picture of the Tengpora Durga on its cover. Pal sent Kaul a copy, Kaul said.
“I was as intrigued by the murti as Pal… The murti is a dynamic energy centre, and has been part of the Kashmiri Pandit culture. In the 1990s, this piece, like many others, was taken out of the temple and picked up by someone in the trade. It eventually landed up in Kapoor’s New York store. Pal, while casually walking around the store one day, spotted it. Since he had documented it in his book, he confronted Kapoor, who said it might be a case of mistaken identity and promised to do the needful,” Kaul said.
However, some months later, Kaul said, Pal visited the Linden-Museum to deliver a talk and, while he was being given a tour of the museum’s assets in the building’s basement, he saw, “to his horror”, the Tengpora Durga.
“The then curator of the museum’s Indian department, Dr Gerd Kreisel, informed Pal that Kapoor had sold them the piece, along with all necessary paperwork and invoices. He (Pal) immediately got in touch with me, and I flew down to India in 2011 to inform ASI officials about Linden-Museum being in possession of the idol,” Kaul said.
Despite repeated attempts, Pratapaditya Pal, who is based in the US, could not be reached for a comment.
Among the documents submitted to the museum by ASI is the “eyewitness account” of Asian arts scholar John Siudmak, who has claimed to have seen the Durga in the Tengpora temple before it was stolen. Siudmak’s account makes the ASI’s case “extremely strong”, Director (Antiquities) D N Dimri told The Indian Express.
Siudmak was in charge of the department of Indian and Islamic Art at auctioneer Christie’s before becoming a private consultant. He has claimed to have seen the Durga in 1990 in the “village of Tengpura” along with the great oriental scholar, Prof Simon Digby, and Assadouleh Beigh, who was at the time assistant curator of Srinagar’s Sri Pratap Singh Museum, “who have now both passed away”.
“It was in a small shrine protected by an iron grill. Ironically, the villagers would not allow us to photograph the piece since they thought that this would result in it being stolen. Beigh supplied me with the photograph that was used in my PhD thesis. At the beginning of the militancy, I was informed that it had been stolen, and I sent copies of Beigh’s photograph to Martin Lerner (MET) and Stan Czuma (Cleveland) to alert them. Dr Pal was also informed and certainly knew about it in 1994 since he was one of my examiners,” Siudmak is learnt to have written in an email to Rakesh Kaul.
The ASI is learnt to have perused this communication. Siudmak was travelling at the time of filing this report, and was unable to give a comment.
Linden-Museum director Dr Inés de Castro told The Indian Express by phone from Stuttgart: “We do not know at the moment how the piece has gone out from the country (India) and how it landed up in Germany. The team of Indian archaeologists who visited Linden have said they believe the piece must be returned. But we will take action as per German laws. Right now, Germany has taken no official position on this matter. Germany too has lost a lot of Holocaust heritage but never got it back. Both sides need to do a lot of research to establish the claim of the rightful owner.”