A catalogue of all that’s valuable

State and public initiatives to compile registers of antiquities must be closely coordinated

Over the last two years, the Madras High Court has become the site of high drama in the most unlikely of ways. Binding spirited advocates, a famed industrialist, a gritty police force, and various other state agencies is the somewhat overlooked question of antiquities conservation. Tasked with the onerous mandate of investigating theft of idols and antiquities, Tamil Nadu Police’s Idol Wing has been engaged in a tense confrontation with the State’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department, a body charged with, among other things, the upkeep and safety of a vast collection of invaluable temple artefacts.

Only in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu is rich feeding ground for idol thieves and smugglers because of the sheer number of temples within its borders. It is not surprising that the State should then have a court designated specifically to deal with such matters. Earlier this year, the then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court constituted a special bench consisting of Justices R. Mahadevan and P.D. Audikesavalu to hear cases relating to idol theft.

But it was in July last year that a remarkable development took place in this area of law. Justice Mahadevan passed a momentous order as far as the legal framework on antiquities is concerned. Noting the lack of coordination between departments responsible for custodianship of our cultural heritage and law enforcement agencies, the court observed: “It is their [the HR&CE Department’s] primary duty to protect the temples and safeguard the valuable idols/antiques, which, this Court with great anguish expresses that the department has failed to do…One more important point to be noted is that the department has not computerised the stock, provided adequate ICON Centres with surveillance to keep safe custody of the valuable idols in the Centre and in the temples… It also appears that the Idol wing is interacting with the respective departments of the Central Government only to recover the stolen Idols and antiques, but there seems to be no-coordination between them to curb the crime.”


The court also passed detailed directions to be followed by the respondent State actors, including the following: “The stock of Idols maintained in the manual books in the State must be computerised within a period of four weeks, if not already computerised. Similarly, a list of stock of Idols in the temples must be computerised and the same must be reported to this court.”

Significantly, this did not come in the course of interpretation of the statute that occupies the field (the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972), but despite it.

Records do not indicate that a complete and computerised record of temple idols in Tamil Nadu has been submitted to the court so far. This is not to say such a record may or may not exist — but its inaccessibility to the layman, the scholar or the police brings into perspective the larger issue of creating an efficient and comprehensive database of antiquities.

A vital resource

In the absence of such a searchable catalogue, the risk of antiquities theft and loss of cultural property is multiplied enormously because it becomes that much easier for art criminals to manufacture the provenance of a certain artefact. Without a reliable reference point to confirm the origins and the trail of ownership of a certain antiquity, its sale abroad becomes relatively harder to track. This concern has been voiced by academics and art enthusiasts alike, and was abated to a certain degree by the creation of the National Register on Antiquities.


Established in 2007 under the aegis of the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (now under the administration of the ASI), the Register is a publicly accessible repository of documented and registered Indian antiquities. There is also the India Pride Project, a volunteer-network of private individuals interested in protecting Indian antiquities, that has been instrumental in the repatriation of several works of incalculable archaeological and aesthetic value.

But cause for concern still remains. Though the Register on Antiquities gets diligently populated on the basis of already registered antiquities and objects catalogued in public collections of museums or universities, there are still artefacts yet to be registered or documented. And the problem of non-coordination and lack of information highlighted by the Madras High Court still looms large. One easily identifiable example is that of the quantities of registered antiquities that have found their way into the NMMA’s Register. While the Ministry of Culture’s annual report for 2017-18 states that a mammoth 15.2 lakh registered antiquities have been documented through the NMMA, the Register only provides information for about 4.7 lakh of these. Similarly, if there indeed has been sharing data problem between two state agencies (HR&CE Department and the Idol Wing), what might be scale of this data asymmetry between a local body and the National Mission? Related to this are also the questions of how secure these heritage repositories are; whether the public at large can contribute to them or even use them to assist understaffed and underfunded state actors in foiling antiquity thefts.

The NMMA fortunately does have a mandate to cultivate public engagement and awareness for the protection of India’s cultural heritage. Its progress towards that realisation seems slower than planned, and much remains to be completed. In the meanwhile, citizen-led initiatives and timely judicial interventions are making up for what already ought to be higher on the list of national priorities.

Rohan Kothari is a Bengaluru-based advocate

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 8:19:49 PM |

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