“Does a thousand-year-old sculpture worshipped in a thriving religion belong to a foreign museum or to the temple from which it was extracted?” That`s Shashi Tharoor in his Empire-bashing mood. The British Museum had just posted on-line its prized sandstone sculpture, saying “sculptural pieces like this, once decorated the outside of temples. Here the gods Vishnu (‘Hari’) and Shiva (‘Hara’) are combined in the deity Harihara…” Predictably, there was a flood of angry tweets from India basically saying ‘Return our looted artefacts!’
It`s a debate which has been going on for years. For example, demands for the return of the Kohinoor diamond were made officially as early as 1947. These were followed up in 1953 and 2000, and were repeated in 2016, even though in the interim, the Solicitor General had said to the Supreme Court that India had accepted the fact that Kohinoor was given ‘voluntarily by Ranjit Singh to the British as compensation for help in Sikh wars… The Kohinoor is not a stolen object.’
The Kohinoor changed hands multiple times ever since it was mined in Golconda. From Alauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate in early 14th century, to Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire in 1526 until the 1739 invasion of Delhi by Nadar Shah, the Afsharid Shah of Persia, who took it to Afghanistan. It would have remained there except that as a result of internecine warfare, one of the royals fled with the Kohinoor to Lahore where Ranjit Singh gave him sanctuary, on condition that the Kohinoor be given to him. When years later Ranjit Singh`s son Duleep Singh lost the Second Anglo-Sikh war, the diamond went to the British, ‘voluntarily’ under the terms of the Last Treaty of Lahore. Pakistan woke up to this fact in 1976 and asked for the Kohinoor`s ‘return’. Afghanistan woke up even later, in the year 2000, saying its claim was ‘stronger than India`s’!
The Kohinoor we see today in the Jewel House of the Tower of London, isn`t even like the original Kohinoor! Apparently when it was shown in 1851 in the Great Exhibition in London, it left everyone unimpressed because of its lacklustre cut. Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, ordered a re-cut, reducing its weight from 186 to 106 carats, but enhancing its brilliance manifold. So whose jewel is it?
That`s not a question you need to ask about the Parthenon Marbles (cheekily called the Elgin Marbles after Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, British Ambassador to Turkey who spirited them away to England). A collection of classical Greek marble sculptures from 447 – 438 BCE, they adorned the temple of Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. The Marbles lined up to almost 500 feet in length and must have been a breath-taking sight. Elgin`s intentions were honourable to start with: he wanted to document the sculptures, take casts and get drawings made. Perhaps he found that no one was bothered, so took them away. He managed to take only half, shipping them to England for personal use. When financial problems later forced him to sell them, he resisted the temptation of an attractive offer from Napoleon Bonaparte, selling them to the British government instead at a throw-away price. There`s honour even among thieves.
Incidentally, there was a fair deal of opposition to their acquisition even at that time, the poet Lord Byron writing “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed/ By British hands…” In opinion polls, a majority of the general British public too says the sculptures should be returned to Greece. In the meantime, the Acropolis Museum has lined up the remaining half, with space left for the half with the British Museum, a poignant reminder of what should have been.
The British Museum also has the Rosetta Stone, a Granodiorite Stele (an upright stone slab) on which is inscribed a decree issued by King Ptolemy V of Egypt in 196 BCE. What makes this stele unique is that it has three versions of the decree engraved on it, the top and middle texts in Ancient Egyptian using Hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts respectively, while the bottom version is in Ancient Greek. Since the texts are virtually the same, they became the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, thus opening a window to ancient Egyptian history. Now Egypt wants Rosetta back.
All museum are resisting these demands for repatriation, mainly because the major part of their collections is made up of objects from all over the world. A second reason (like in the case of Kohinoor) is disputed ownership. A third reason can well be that if it weren`t for institutions like the British Museum, much of the world`s heritage would be lost. The Rosetta Stone, for example, was used as building material and was saved only because a French soldier of Napoleon`s army in Egypt realised its importance! A compromise of sorts could be the recent agreement between the British Museum and the Nigerian government regarding the priceless Benin Bronzes in its collection which the British army had plundered in 1897 from Benin city, in what is now southern Nigeria. The Museum is not returning them to Nigeria but loaningthem. On the other hand, just recently, the Macron government in France agreed to return 26 thrones and statues to the West African country of Benin while the Met in New York is sending back to India a 3rd century figure of a male deity and an 8th century statue of a goddess which were donated to it by collectors.
I will end, as I began, with Shashi Tharoor. If the Harihara sculpture had remained where it was on the outside of a temple, and assuming it was looked after (which is a very big if to start with), how many people would have seen it, or even noticed it? On the other hand, when the British Museum posts it on-line, how many millions all over the world will get a chance to appreciate this small part of our ancient heritage? Ours is a world of many shades of colour, and the answers to big questions are not always in black and white.