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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Explained: The journey of an Annapurna idol, from Varanasi to Canada and back

In the November 29 episode of Mann Ki Baat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that an ancient idol of the goddess Annapurna, stolen from India about a century ago, is being brought back from Canada.

Written by Divya A | New Delhi | Updated: December 1, 2020 7:17:30 am
The Annapurna idol at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. (Photo: University of Regina)

In the November 29 episode of Mann Ki Baat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that an ancient idol of the goddess Annapurna, stolen from India about a century ago, is being brought back from Canada.

“Every Indian would feel proud to know that an ancient idol of Maa Annapurna is being brought back from Canada to India. This idol was stolen from a temple of Varanasi [Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency] and smuggled out of the country around 100 years ago somewhere around 1913,” Modi said. “Mata Annapurna has a very special bond with Kashi [Varanasi]. And the return of the idol is very pleasant for all of us. Like the statue of Mata Annapurna, much of our heritage has been a victim of international gangs.”

How it reached Canada

Annapurna, also spelt Annapoorna, is the goddess of food. The 18th-century idol, carved in the Benares style, is part of the University of Regina, Canada’s collection at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. Last year, when Winnipeg-based artist Divya Mehra was invited to stage an exhibition at the gallery, she began to research the collection, which was built around a bequest from lawyer Norman MacKenzie in 1936. One sculpture thought to represent Lord Vishnu struck her as female; it was holding a bowl of rice. Looking into records, she found that the same sculpture had been stolen from an active temple in 1913 and acquired by MacKenzie.

Siddhartha V Shah, Curator of Indian and South Asian Art at Peabody Essex Museum, US, was called upon to identify the statue. He confirmed it was indeed of the goddess Annapurna. She holds a bowl of kheer in one hand and a spoon in the other. These are items associated with the goddess of food, who is also the deity of the city of Varanasi.

Mehra’s research showed that MacKenzie had noticed the statue during a trip to India in 1913. A stranger had overheard McKenzie’s desire to have the statue, and stole it for him from a temple on stone steps on the riverbank in Varanasi. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

The process of return

Mehra spoke to John Hampton, interim CEO at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, and requested that the statue be repatriated. The Gallery agreed. After reading about the discovery of the stolen statue, the Indian High Commission in Ottawa and the Department of Canadian Heritage reached out and offered to assist with the repatriation.

The statue will begin its journey home next month, with its virtual repatriation ceremony having taken place on November 19. “As a university, we have a responsibility to right historical wrongs and help overcome the damaging legacy of colonialism wherever possible,” said University of Regina’s Vice-Chancellor Thomas Chase. “Repatriating this statue does not atone for the wrong that was done a century ago, but it is an appropriate and important act today.”

After it reaches India

The idol is expected to land in Delhi in the middle of December, as per sources in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), who are the official custodians of all such repatriated artefacts. A thorough verification and documentation will be carried out, after which a decision will be taken about its final custody. The PM has said the statue will be back in Kashi; the ASI has tasked with ascertaining the security arrangements at the idol’s original location before handing it back to trustees at the temple.

Other objects returned

A few weeks ago, Union Culture Minister Prahlad Patel handed over 13th-century bronze idols of Lord Rama, Lakshmana and goddess Sita, which were repatriated from the UK recently, to the Tamil Nadu government. During the handover, Patel put the onus on the respective state governments to keep antiquities in safe custody so that such situations of theft and legal battles don’t arise in the future.

Between 2014 and 2020, the government has been able to retrieve 40 antiquities from various countries; between 1976 and 2014, as per ASI records, 13 antique pieces had been repatriated to India. Patel had said the return of another 75-80 stolen antique pieces is in the pipeline, but the legal process takes a long time.

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