[op-ed snap] Bringing back treasures: On stolen idols


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : Cultural Artefacts


Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will bring three cultural artefacts, during his 2022 visit to India. The sculptures include a pair of dwarapalas from Tamil Nadu and one nagaraja or serpent king from either Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh.


  • The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) voluntarily returned them to India after establishing that they were stolen. 
  • This ‘cultural repatriation’ comes in the wake of a similar return of idols in 2016. Washington handed over around 200 sculpture pieces valued at $100 million to India.


  • India’s historical artefacts are a treasure-trove of a rich cultural legacy and religious significance.
  • They are strewn across far-flung lands as a result of decades of trafficking. 
  • The most extensive and ruthless of smuggling rings is by Subhash Kapoor, who has taken the illicit trade in antiquities to a global scale. 
  • The NGA and many U.S. museums and art galleries had obtained artefacts from Kapoor in good faith.
  • Rigorous provenance research had proved that their acquisition was a mistake.

Issue of missing artefacts

  • We still see continued operations of idol thieves who are looting ancient temples.
  • We have to request foreign institutions collecting art to conduct a greater degree of due diligence before acquiring any Indian idols.
  • Even among Indian institutions, the inventory documentation of idols is poor. 
  • Southern Tamil Nadu has many ancient temples situated in small, abandoned premises of a village.
  • Investigative reports have revealed the extent to which certain sections of law enforcement have abetted the loot. 

Way ahead

  • Major institutional reforms are required to end the operations of smugglers.
  • India should leverage the power of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. 
  • Most major western nations are signatories. India should demand that they institute stricter vetting protocols for international trade in historical artefacts. 


Unless such multi-pronged action is taken by the government, targeting loopholes in domestic legislation and enforcement, idol trafficking will continue to erode India’s invaluable cultural heritage.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments