The Idol Hunters Are Bringing Back India’s Stolen Treasures
The Idol Hunters Are Bringing Back India’s Stolen Treasures

The India Pride Project wants to bring back India’s stolen treasures, one temple statue at a time.


India’s temples draw in the heavy-hearted and the light-fingered in equal measure. According to a recent article in The Week, in every decade since the 1950s, the number of idols smuggled out of India is between 10,000 and 20,000. And, the looting continues to this day. The National Crime Records Bureau states that more than 4000 items were stolen from Indian temples between 2010 and 2012. So, why are we sitting on our hands about it?


“Heritage theft is not a ‘roti, kapda, makaan’ issue,” says Anuraag Saxena, spokesperson for the India Pride Project (IPP), a private effort to bring our idols home. The IPP is made up of a 12-member core team and about 700 volunteers, nearly all of whom have full-time jobs, who direct their energies towards IPP because they’re passionate about Indian art and history and share a romantic outlook towards detective work.


Regarding IPP’s goals, Saxena has memorised the brochure: “At India Pride Project, we’ve set three deliverables for ourselves — identifying and reclaiming our stolen heritage; creating mass awareness — why don’t people realise the implications of having our treasures stolen; and egging the government on to do a bit more. It’s an issue that people care about individually, but it doesn’t get discussed en masse. Our big objective is to make this personal issue a social issue.”


The typical journey of stolen sculptures begins in small temples in Tamil Nadu or Rajasthan. (Tamil Nadu is a hotbed because of the Chola dynasty, and Rajasthan because of the Jain temples.) From there, they’re smuggled to Hong Kong, given fake papers, and shipped to the western world, where art dealers and auction houses then do their job. Many thefts go unreported because the locals can’t tell they’re prostrating before fakes, and because India hasn’t archived its antiquities. One smuggler whose luck finally ran out in 2011 is Subhash Chandra Kapoor, currently on trial in Tamil Nadu. The value of the idols he stole is pegged at $100 million. Saxena, though, is miffed at the media for singling him out. “Hamara tel nikal jaata hai to explain to journos to not make this about one person. You guys are crazy if you’re focusing on Subhash Kapoor, just because he’s the only one who got caught.”






The IPP undertakes five steps when recovering stolen artefacts. “First is recognising it’s stolen in the first place. The second is putting out feelers on social media and our networks, on whether anyone has any information about it. In parallel, we work with a network of museum curators, people in customs and shipping, etc. The third is where we have to prove that this piece was stolen. We do visual matching and collect documentary evidence. The fourth step is the process of restitution. It’s one thing to convince someone they have stolen property, another thing to get them to give it back. That’s a diplomatic process. The fifth step is the biggest obstacle for us — to make sure the objects are returned to the same location or community.”


Thanks to IPP’s efforts, a few idols have been returned to India, by some rather prestigious hands. The former Australian PM, Tony Abbott, handed over an idol of Sripuranthan Nataraja to PM Narendra Modi in 2014; the former Canadian PM, Stephen Harper, returned the Parrot Lady, a 900-year-old sculpture from Khajuraho, in April 2015; and German chancellor Angela Merkel brought back a 10th-century Durga idol when she visited in October 2015. It would take a global manhunt to bring them all home, of course. Even the IPP is only certain of the whereabouts of 2000 objects that India can stake its claim on. “Of the 2000, there are about 200 we can get back today if we wanted. These are the ones we’re tracking super actively. We’ve done back-channel negotiations, so that if the government moves, India can get them back.”


That’s one of the other big hurdles — the government. “Technically speaking, Mr Dimri [Director of Antiquity and Publication at Archaeological Survey of India] should be taking care of these things.” (Mr Dimri did not respond to our email.) “What frustrates us is they’ll get back one or two idols and see it as victories. How come they think they’re doing a good job by getting back artefacts in single digits, when our missing treasure is in the thousands?” Saxena gives the example of other developing nations. “Cambodia fought for its stolen treasures diplomatically. [US Secretary of State] John Kerry himself handed them over. There was a huge ceremony. Our treasures come home and are quietly kept in some warehouse. The current government talks so much about nationalism and patriotism, but there seems to be some lethargy in going after what’s ours.” The rest of the country can share the blame as well — a petition launched by IPP has received only 2500 signatures. Such is the sorry state of affairs that we’ve left it to the enthusiasm of a handful of citizens to protect thousands of years of our history. We might as well have placed a ‘welcome’ mat outside our temples for the sticky-fingered among us.







  • According to Anuraag Saxena, India is an easy target.





  • India does not have a dedicated enforcement wing for heritage crime like Italy has the Carabinieri Art Squad.





  • Heritage crime is a sophisticated crime, sort of like cybercrime. It’s unfair to expect a havaldar to solve it. You need a special workforce that understands art valuation, shipping, documentation, currency transfers, etc.





  • India does not have mandatory registration. If I buy a priceless heritage object, I can get away without any registration. To us, it’s a basic property rights issue. 




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