In a short, multi-part series, we explore some of the masterpieces of art that were spirited away by colonial powers from what stands as modern India — all of which have not been returned till date. In part II, we get a glimpse at some of the most brilliant and sacred treasures that continue to remain far from Indian soil. You can read part I here.
Koh-i-Noor: Jewel in the crown
Currently: Part of the British Crown Jewels
This gem is called the ‘Mountain of light’ (in Persian). It has inspired fascination and tumult across history, and even today, continues to do so. Even as a roughly hewn jewel at 191 carats, it may have lacked visible fire, but lit up the hearts of kings and conquerors across the Indian sub-continent. When acquired by Britain, it was recut to enhance its brilliance to a 105.6-carat shallow oval gemstone, and today rests in the Crown of Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother).
(Actually, the diamond is on display in the Jewel House at the Tower of London with crystal replicas of the diamond set in the crown.)
The Koh-i-Noor has long been a subject of diplomatic controversy, with India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan all demanding its return from the UK at various points. The Government of India, believing the gem was theirs, first demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor as soon as independence was granted in 1947. More demands were to follow. Each time, the British Government rejected claims, saying that ownership was non-negotiable.
The diamond may have come from India’s alluvial mines thousands of years ago, but it was Turco-Mongol emperor Babur who first wrote about a 187-carat diamond, which many historians believe is the earliest reference to the Koh-i-Noor, having been acquired via Alauddin Khalji. Eventually, fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had the stone placed into his ornate Peacock Throne. It left Delhi once more with Nadir Shah and decades later, via the heirs of Ahmad Shah Durrani, it reached Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire. It exchanged several hands before finally, following the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the Kingdom of Punjab was formally annexed to East India Company rule, and the precious marvel went into Queen Victoria’s assets.
It was an unmistakably unwieldly stone at the time — not yet asymmetrical and certainly not as brilliant as it is today. Yellow flecks ran through a plane at its centre, one of which was large and marred its ability to refract light. However, it was expertly cut over 38 days, and in the end, the gem was much lighter but considerably more dazzling.
Nassak diamond: The eye of the idol
Currently: At a private museum in Lebanon (unconfirmed)
Nassak comes from Nashik, the city in the state of Maharashtra, indicating the history of the diamond as an adornment in the Trimbakeshwar Shiva Temple here, reportedly from at least 1500 to 1817. The diamond is believed to have fallen in the hands of the British Raj via the Peshwas, and was eventually sold off in London. At one point, the Marquess of Westminster had bought and mounted the diamond in the handle of his dress sword. Already, circa the 1930s, it was reportedly described as a “flawless, blue-white stone with a reputation of being the finest diamond outside crown jewels collections.” It was in 1940, when famed American jeweller Harry Winston acquired the Nassak in Paris, that it was expertly recut into its current avatar — a flawless 43.38 carats of emerald cut gemstone.
As far as it is known, the Nassak Diamond was last officially heard of in 1970, when it was sold at an auction in New York to Edward J. Hand, a 48-year-old trucking firm executive from Greenwich, Connecticut. Currently, the diamond is believed to be held at a private museum in Lebanon, even as calls are being made to repatriate it to India by private individuals.
The Sultanganj Buddha: The fearless, tall copper idol
Currently: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England
“The figure stands in the ‘Fearless Posture’, with his right hand raised in abhayamudra (a gesture of reassurance or protection), and his left hand is held downwards with palm outwards, said to indicate granting a favour. The end of the monastic robe is held between the thumb and forefinger of this hand in the manner that is still practised by Theravadin monks.”
Such is the description of the tall copper Gupta-Pala sculpture, the Sultanganj Buddha, named after the spot in Bihar where it was found in 1861. Interestingly, it was excavated while constructing a railway line.
(A stone Buddha head, also from Sultanganj, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)
This is the largest known complete Indian metal sculpture. The statue is dated to between 500 and 700 AD, is around 2.3 m high and 1 m wide, and weighs over 500 kg. To the proper left of the Buddha is a kneeling figure of Maitreya (the Buddha of the future, worshipping his predecessor).
Today, it is also referred to as ‘the Birmingham Buddha’, given its place of residence for decades together.
Amaravati Marbles: Marvels of inscribed limestone
Currently: In the British Museum, London
It was hundreds of years ago that the Great Shrine of Amaravati or the Amaravati stupa, a ruined Buddhist monument dating back to 3rd Century BCE, was unearthed in Amaravati by the British. These relief sculptures carved on limestone slabs depict key episodes in the life of the Buddha, as well as Buddhist emblems and symbols, and the plaques once covered the façade of a stupa. Amaravati art is considered one of the three major styles of ancient Indian art along with the Mathura and Gandharan style. It had great influence on the art of Sri Lanka and south-east Asia.
It was dismantled piece by piece and majority of its remains whisked off to Britain. While others came before him, it is said that the greatest plunder of the Amaravati stupa was carried out by Sir Walter Elliot, commissioner of Guntur circa 1845. He transported a total of 121 sculptural pieces from the site to London in 1860, which came to be known as Elliot Marbles. Some of the excavation done here was also distributed to other museums (10 of which are in India, and others across France, Singapore, the UK and the US) — here primarily including what is today the Government Museum in Chennai. When the pieces were finally deposited in the British Museum in 1880, initially, they were installed in the main stairwell of the museum, before being removed for safekeeping during World War II. In 1950 they were brought out of storage, but the poor atmospheric conditions raised further concerns that they were damaging the sculptures, resulting in them being moved to an air-conditioned basement for the next 33 years in 1959. In 1992, the sculptures were moved to their current exhibition space, with controlled humidity and cooling.
Ambika Statue from Dhar
Currently: In the British Museum, London
Since 1880, an intricate statue of the Goddess Ambika, revered in Jainism, has been ensconced in the collection of the British Museum. The statuesque, 4-foot-high sculpture is famous for its long inscription in Sanskrit on the base that provides a direct link to the royal court of the Paramara dynasty.
Carved from white marble in high relief, the goddess wears a tiered headdress, with her hair tied in a small bun to one side. Two arms of her original four are missing; in the remaining ones, she clasps an elephant goad (aṅkuśa) and either a noose or the stalk of a plant. On the base are shown various other deities and a kneeling female donor with the aforementioned inscription below.
The statue was reportedly discovered amongst the ruins of the city palace at Dhar, Madhya Pradesh in 1875 by one Major General William Kincaid, a local political agent of the British Raj at the time.
Sandstone sculpture of Harihara
Currently: In the British Museum, London
It has been described as a 1,000 years old, carved in exquisite detail out of formidable, subtly glittering sandstone. This standing figure of Harihara emerges from a single buff-coloured slab, and is believed to have been acquired by the British Museum sometime in 1872, around 40 years after it was sold at Christie’s to a Briton. Harihara is also sometimes used as a philosophical term to denote the unity of Vishnu and Shiva as different aspects of the same Ultimate Reality called Brahman. This concept of equivalence of various gods as one principle and “oneness of all existence” is discussed as Harihara in the texts of Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. So, the gods Vishnu (‘Hari’) and Shiva (‘Hara’) are combined in the deity Harihara. Known as Shankaranarayana (“Shankara” is Shiva, and “Narayana” is Vishnu), Harihara is thus revered by both Vaishnavites and Shaivites as a form of the Supreme God.
In this spectacular artwork, the fused deity is shown as four-armed and holding Shiva’s trident (trishul) and rosary on the left, and Vishnu’s conch (shankha) and discus (chakra) on the right. The museum further describes it as with “headgear symmetrically divided between Shiva’s matted locks and Vishnu’s jewelled crown. The image has a multi-banded halo, stands on a lotus and is set in a frame carved with a host figures in relief. Specific iconographic figures are shown on each side of Hari-Hara: those on the right represent the incarnations of Vishnu and those on the left the manifestations of Shiva”.