AuthorGupta, Vinay Kumar


India is one of the richest countries in terms of archaeological heritage and antiquity and hence one of the most vulnerable to the theft of heritage property. Loss of Indian cultural wealth can be divided into two periods--1) during colonial times, 2) post independence (post 1947). As a result of colonisation, many countries with old civilisations were confronted by organised looting on the part of the colonial powers, and India too faced a similar fate. It is now a matter of debate as to whether or not that looting should be considered a part of history which needs to be forgotten. In this article we shall analyse some of the issues related to these losses which occurred during colonial times. In addition, the post-independence period brought no respite from the loss of cultural heritage as the lawful and organised looting by the colonial powers changed to unlawful and disorganised looting which was possible because of the susceptibility of third world countries to the looters' power and money and also because of the lack of strong anti-smuggling laws in the former colonies. A strong change was expected with the entry into force of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970 ('1970 UNESCO Convention') and the enactment of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972 in India. However, even these could not serve as a sufficient deterrent to the smuggling of antiquities out of India. Why this happened will be analysed below with light being thrown on the changing perspectives and the retrieval of Indian antiquities back to India. A hitherto somewhat unexplored aspect of the smuggling of antiquities is the presence of fakes or replicas in western collections. Much information has been acquired recently on certain such cases and that may be a cause for consternation for a number of Indian art collectors.


India is one of the richest countries in the world as far as antiquarian wealth is concerned. Its rich cultural heritage is spread amongst a vast spectrum of cultures including one of the earliest Bronze Age civilisations, the Harappan Civilisation, and the widely known historic cultures such as those belonging to the Maurya, Kushan, Gupta and Mughal periods. The culture of this great land is a concordant amalgamation of art, religion, science, tradition and philosophy which is reflected in its antiquities. The cultural heritage and antiquities are well entwined in the fabric of the Indian way of life and thought; they have become inseparable making them so unique in character. Owing to their uniqueness and the great symbolism attached to Indian antiquities, they are among the most prized possessions of various antiquarian collections worldwide and this has led to widespread smuggling of Indian antiquities.

Let us first examine the various legislative enactments related to antiquities which are applicable in India. The first such legislation was the Indian Treasure Trove Act 1878, a statute which dates from the British colonial period and which is still applicable in India. Under the 1878 Act, any treasure with a value in excess of Rs. 10 and found under the soil at a depth of 1 cm or greater must be declared to the District Collector who possesses certain powers to adjudicate on issues related to such treasures. Then, post-independence, the Export and Import Control Act 1947 made the export of antiquities subject to the requirement to obtain a licence from the Government. Then in 1950, ample provisions were made in the Constitution of India to safeguard and preserve the great cultural heritage of the nation which is explicitly mentioned in at least at two places; one is in Part-IV 'Directive Principle of State Policy' in the form of Article 49 (Protection of monuments and places and objects of national importance) that directs the State to formulate legislation for the protection of cultural properties:

It shall be the obligation of the State to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest, declared by or under law made by Parliament to be of national importance, from spoliation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export, as the case may be. The second mention of protection of cultural heritage in the Constitution of 1950 is directed at the citizens of India in Part IVA i.e. 'Fundamental Duties' in the form of Article 51A (f) (value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture):

It shall be the duty of every citizen of India ... (f) to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture; which seeks to make people aware of their responsibility towards the protection of traditional heritage and its by-products.

The majority of Indian cultural property consists of monuments and archaeological sites which are governed by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act 1958 and the AMASR (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010, while movable cultural properties consisting of antiquities and art treasures are dealt with under the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act ('AAT Act') 1972. The Customs Act 1962 also prevents the illegal export of antiquities. In addition, states and union territories also have their own legislative provisions. Under the provisions of the AAT Act 1972, no individual is allowed to export any antiquity. Such objects can be exported only by Central Government or an authority or agency under the Government and in accordance with the terms and condition of a permit issued for the purpose by such authority. As such, where antiquities are sent abroad for the purpose of temporary exhibition for a specific period, this must be under a permit issued by the Director General, Archaeological Survey of India. The 1970 UNESCO Convention also helps in preventing the illegal export or import of cultural property. India is also signing agreements with certain countries to prevent illegal export and import of antiquities on either side. In spite of having all the aforementioned laws and international conventions for the protection of cultural properties, vandalism, theft and illicit trading and trafficking in India remain rampant.

The loss of Indian cultural wealth can be divided into two periods--the first losses occurred during colonial times, and the second period of losses came after independence in 1947. As a result of colonisation, many countries with old civilisations were confronted with organised looting by the colonial powers, and India too faced a similar fate. Now, debate is arising as to whether or not that looting should be relegated to history and forgotten. The imperial rulers considered themselves superior in every aspect of life and for that reason they tried to showcase before the Indian people the heritage of India by researching India's past through studies of literary texts and archaeological explorations and excavations. Most of the excavations were unscientific and primarily intended to recover the sculptures and important treasures and antiquities hidden beneath the surface of the ground. A huge number of Indian antiquities were unearthed and these, along with those which were already above ground, were taken to Britain by the officials of the Imperial Government. There is no logical justification for this act of looting a country of its precious cultural heritage. These were not merely stone or metal artefacts, but were representative of the country's identity, its religious and socio-cultural life which still continue in India unlike many other countries where the ancient civilisations lost their continuity owing to the arrival of forces from outside. Those imperial powers which are now friendly civilised societies, cannot be forced to return those objects immediately through legislative measures, but they need to regard themselves introspectively and examine how they can rectify that mistake of the past. They should devise a mechanism by which they can initiate the return of certain objects of high religious or national importance to India. Though this process may be a slow one, it will generate significant goodwill among the Indian masses and also the wider international community. They can also devise a long-term achievable target for the return of all such antiquities to India in a phased manner. No matter how expert and appreciative a connoisseur of art one may be, the real interest of that art piece lies in the society to which it belongs. What purpose does an art piece serve in a foreign collection except for proving the might of that country at the time it was acquired? Even if it is not possible to return most such antiquities, a formal acknowledgement that these objects are displayed with mutual understanding and trust between the two countries and a formal request for long-term loan would serve to render relations more agreeable and would dilute the wrongdoings of the past to a certain extent. Another goodwill gesture would be to arrange visits of common people, particularly students to see their collections in the European museums where they are currently located. In the selection of visitors, preference could be given to those who are from the areas to which the major portions of such collections belong, such as Mathura, Amaravati etc. This exercise would also help to generate significant goodwill for the foreign museums. Frequent exhibitions of such objects in Indian museums on short-term loan would also help. This could be a repetitive exercise and the best decision would be to organise such exhibitions in local museums such as Mathura, Amravati, Nalanda, Chennai, Bhopal etc. in the regions to which the majority of the art works belong. This would give the local community a feeling of association with the once-looted objects and would help in filling the gap.

The post-independence period brought no respite from the loss of cultural heritage as the...

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