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India, Pakistan and the illegal antiquities trade

Submitted by Karthik on 14 September, 2012 - 13:41

An article in LiveMint follows the trail of idols stolen by small-time smugglers from abandoned temples in rural Tamilnadu all the way to their eventual sale for huge sums of money in the United States and elsewhere.

In their raid, agents discovered about $10 million (around Rs.55 crore today) worth of Asian antiquities to add to that illustrious list, including a five-foot-tall head of a Buddha weighing approximately 1,600 pounds (720kg). A further raid on 26 July turned up artworks worth another $20 million, in two more units held in Kapoor’s name, according to a statement released by HSI. Among the second stash were three Chola era bronze sculptures, one depicting Uma Parvati, valued at nearly $2.5 million, one of a Sivagami goddess, and a third of Murugan. All three bore strong resemblances to items registered as stolen from temples in south India, according to HSI. “It appears that all three pieces can be seen on the Tamil Nadu Police website and on the Interpol Stolen Works of Art Database,” the report said. It’s not yet clear whether the lost idols from Sripuranthan were among the loot.

Things are not much different in Pakistan where antiques from the kingdom of Gandhara, one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas, are routinely trafficked out of the country.

Pakistan is home to two ancient civilisations, the Indus, which dates back to between 2500 and 1700 BC, and the Gandhara, from 530 BC to 1021 AD. It is the Gandhara artefacts that are most highly prized.

Statues of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in Nepal in the 6th century BC and whose teachings grew into a major religion, can fetch thousands of dollars across the world.

"Whenever I'm on a digging mission, I pay 10,000 rupees ($100) to the relevant police station as a bribe in advance and 1,000 rupees ($10) a day while the work continues," said Khan.

He sells the artefacts to dealers in the main northwestern city of Peshawar.

"Then they sell them to dealers in Islamabad and other cities who then export them to Thailand," he said.

"To smuggle it from Peshawar to Islamabad, they use ladies, who aren't usually checked by police at the security posts."

Aside: There are a curious number of excisions in the Daily Times (Pakistan) version of the same AFP article cited above.