The ceremonial handing over of a goddess Annapurna idol to the Government of UP was held at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art by the Ministry of Culture. The idol, which was brought back from Canada recently, will be ceremonially installed at the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi on November 15.
Besides Union culture minister G Kishan Reddy, the event was attended by a host of Central and UP government ministers, including Housing and Urban Affairs minister Hardeep Singh Puri, minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani, minister of Education Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister of State in the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and Ministry of Civil Aviation General VK Singh, Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Anupriya Patel, Minsters of State for Culture Arjun Ram Meghwal and Meenakshi Lekhi, among others.
Speaking on the occasion, Reddy said that “with the efforts of Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the idol of Goddess Annapurna, which was stolen more than 100 years ago, has come back”.
The idol was received by the ASI on October 15, and now begins its journey towards the destination – its original location Varanasi.
The idol will be taken from Delhi to Aligarh on November 11, from where it will be taken to Kannauj on November 12 and reach Ayodhya on November 14. Finally, it will reach Varanasi on the 15th, where it will be placed at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple after appropriate rituals.
In one of the episodes of Mann Ki Baat last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the idol’s return. “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.”
Annapurna, also spelt Annapoorna, is the goddess of food. The 18th-century idol, carved in the Benares style, is part of the collection of University of Regina, Canada, collection at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. In 2019, 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, holding a bowl of rice, thought to represent Lord Vishnu, struck her as female. 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 the stone steps on the riverbank in Varanasi.
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 began its journey home last year, with its virtual repatriation ceremony on November 19. The idol was expected to land in Delhi in the middle of December 2020, but Covid delayed its return by almost a year. A thorough verification and documentation was carried out, after which a decision was taken about its final custody. The ASI has been tasked with ascertaining the security arrangements at the idol’s original location before handing it back to trustees at the temple.
Last year, then Union culture minister Prahlad Patel had said that between 2014 and 2020, the government was 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.