The Idol Wing CID police have furnished documents through the Indian High Commission, London, to the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, U.K., requesting the restitution of a 16th-century bronze idol of Thirumangai Azhwar. 


It is an Indian 16th-century bronze statue of Saint Tirumangai Azhwar, which was acquired by the Ashmolean Museum from Sotheby’s in 1967. 

  • The idol reportedly went missing from a temple near Kumbakonam half a century ago.
  • The documents provided by police would aid authorities in establishing the work’s origin and the possible repatriation of the sculpture.
  • UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – 1970 stipulates that, at the request of the State Party of origin, to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention. 
    • The requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has a valid title to that property. 
    • More indirectly and subject to domestic legislation, Article 13 of the Convention also provides provisions on restitution and cooperation.

India’s heritage is well-protected by Article 49 of the Constitution: “It shall be the obligation of the State to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest, (declared by or under law made by Parliament) to be of national importance, from spoliation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export, as the case may be.”

Fundamental Duty: Article 51 A (f) states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture; and (g) to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures.

What are antiquities and art treasures?

The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, says an “antiquity” is an article or object that is at least 100 years old. 

  • It could be a coin, sculpture, painting or epigraph, or any object or article taken from a building or a cave, or anything that illustrates the science, art, crafts or customs or religion or literature of a bygone age, or anything of historical interest. 
  • If it is a manuscript or record of any scientific, historical, literary or aesthetic value, it should be at least 75 years old. 
  • An art treasure is a human work of art, other than antiquity, declared to be a treasure by the Centre for its artistic value after the artist’s death.
  • But possession of unregistered antiquity is a punishable offense under the law. 
  • Section 14(3) of the Act makes it mandatory for “every person who owns, controls or is in possession of any antiquity” to register it before a registering officer within 15 days of its coming into his control or possession and obtain a certificate of registration.

Can antiquities be sold or exported?

  • Antiquities can be sold, but only by a licensed person. 
  • However, Section 3 of the Act prohibits the export of antiquity by anyone other than the Centre or its agencies. 

What are the other offenses and penalties under this law?

  • The sale of antiquities requires a license.
  • Thus, selling antiquities after the six-month period following the revocation of a license is an offense.
  • Selling antiquities specified for sale only by the Central government and failure to declare all the antiquities in one’s possession at the time of the expiry of a license are also offenses. 

What does the buyer need to know?

  • The onus is on the buyer to verify if what he is acquiring is an antiquity, and, if so, that the seller is licensed to sell it and has a certificate of registration.

Where and how does one register antiquity?

  • Registration is before an authorized authority under the Archaeological Survey of India. 

What happens when antiquities are seized by the authorities?

  • Whenever a seizure takes place, an expert committee will verify the pieces for their antiquity and find out whether they had been stolen from temples. The committee will verify documentation related to registration and sale.

Legal provisions and authorities

  • At the central level, nationally protected monuments fall under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) under the Ministry of Culture and is responsible for archaeological research and conservation and preservation of around 3,650 monuments categorized as “national heritage”. 
  • It administers these under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 (AMASR Act). 
  • The Directorate of State Archaeology and Museums looks after state-protected monuments. 
  • In addition, many cities put in their own effort towards protecting urban heritage by declaring a City List of such heritage items that are of local significance and are administered by the local government. 
  • The Antiquities Export Control Act, 1947 and Rules regulate the export of antiquities. 
  • An amendment in AMASR Act provided for the constitution of the National Monument Authority charged with the grading and classifying of protected monuments and areas. 
  • The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972 was enacted for effective control over the movable cultural property consisting of antiquities and art treasures. \
  • A number of state heritage laws have also been enacted.
  • India’s commitment to heritage was further emphasized when it became a signatory to UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention for the protection of global and national heritage. 

Govt. initiatives: 

  • The Union Budget 2020-21 proposed the setting up of an Indian Institute of Heritage and Conservation under the Ministry of Culture. Five archaeological sites in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu to be developed with on-site museums
  • National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (NMMA): Over 14 lakh antiquities have been documented in the country by the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (NMMA) which was launched in 2007 to prepare a National Register on Antiquities by documenting antiquities from different sources in a uniform format.
  • The Ministry of Culture has the following four Missions.

1. National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities

2. National Mission on Manuscripts

3. National Mission on Libraries

4. Gandhi Heritage Sites Mission.

  • The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has launched the National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) scheme with a focus on the holistic development of heritage cities.
  • Draft Antiquities Bill: The Centre proposed doing away with the requirement of a license for selling antiques within the country in its draft Antiquities Bill dated 2017. 
    • As per the draft law, the government wants to set up an expert advisory committee, which will make the decisions the ASI has been taking so far.


  • Export of antique idols though legally prohibited, illegal exports are still going on through stealth means by sending them along with recently made handicraft idols.
  • The official response towards stolen antiquities is dismal: Items, which were seized way back in 2007, have still not made their way home. Stolen idols are also returned to India in the guise of diplomatic ‘gifts’. 
    • The Sripuranthan Nataraja, a bronze sculpture of Lord Shiva was handed over to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott after it was smuggled out of the country in 2006.
  • The CBI has a very weak mechanism to counter the issue.
  • Inconsequential and weak legislation (like the AAT Act, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (or AMASR Act). Ex- Trial is held for 7 yrs but the sentence imposed for the offenses u/s 380 & 457 IPC is 6 months. 
    • These laws and regulations, however, have no specific reference to disasters where heritage sites are involved.
  • The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has only registered about 3,00,000 artifacts out of a possible 30 billion.
    • A cumbersome registration process was created to develop a wide-ranging database of such items. 
    • The ASI’s focus and resources have been channeled towards the maintenance, restoration, and preservation of ancient monuments and archaeological sites. The additional mandate for supervising the antiquities market has put a strain on its limited resources.
  • The legal definition is so wide that anything over 100 years automatically became antiquity which has left enough room for interpretation, leading ASI officers to make uninformed decisions.
  • Under the AAT Act, stringent curbs were placed on the movement and trade of antiquities, even within India. Such provisions deterred most people from registering their antiquities. It allowed an underground black market to flourish.
  • The National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities remains incomplete.
  • State control vs free market: While the entire country got rid of the license raj in 1990, the antique market continued to suffer due to excessive state control.
  • Boost for illegal trade: The proposed draft law does away with the requirement to declare the source of acquisition. So, anyone who has acquired antiques through theft or deceit can now trade them freely.
  • Failed committees: In 2011, a formal committee under R.N. Mishra was set up to make the system transparent and user-friendly, especially the registration, with a view to ensuring free mobility of antiquities within the country. But nothing happened.
    • A committee was formed under Justice (retired) Mukul Mudgal, which submitted its report for possible amendments in 2012. But this, too, failed.
  • The draft law doesn’t put a number on the committee. The authority for the appointment of individuals to the committee has not been delegated to the ASI and rests entirely with the central government. 
  • The new draft, in its vague description of the registration process, also puts the onus of providing the details of antiquity on the person who wishes to register it on a web portal that the government plans to set up, in order to ease the process.
  • Excavation as a practice is often exploited by private contractors, should a single act or committee be endowed with the responsibility of protecting its cultural properties? Or do we sacrifice urbanization and development to protect sites that are known to have rich archaeological histories?

Best practices:

  • Italy and Cambodia – countries known for their rich heritage and culture put the onus of proof should be on the buyer and not source countries. 
  • They have also beefed up their art squads, which actively monitor art auctions and sales and are proving to be an effective deterrent.

Way forward:

  • A holistic National Heritage Protection Policy and System should be put in place.
  • People should be encouraged to register their antiquities voluntarily and trust the government not to harass them.
  • A joint clearance certificate should involve the State Archaeological Dept., for export of even handicraft idols.
  • Special courts to be constituted in all the district exclusively for the trial of idol theft offenses.
  • Integrating Heritage Preservation in Disaster Management: The imperative is to integrate the rehabilitation of the heritage structure in Disaster Management (DM) at the national and local levels.
  • Prodding the states and urban local bodies (ULBs) into carrying out vital documentation of heritage.
  • Let India have an open market. Once we allow the trade of those antiquities in India, this smuggling will stop.
  • An e-registration process would encourage more participation and help create transparency among stakeholders. 
  • Also, not everything 100 years old is antiquity. Some criteria need to be applied.
  • The ASI’s lack of expertise in this area has been found to be a major systemic flaw. A larger, dedicated body of experts is needed.
  • A national art squad under the Ministry of Defence should be formed and public awareness spread.
  • What should matter to the government is not ownership, but access – that more people get access to the richest aesthetic experience possible, which is the objective of nationalizing antiques.

About Thirumangai Alvar

  • He is the last of the 12 Alvar saints of south India, who are known for their affiliation to Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism. 
  • He holds the title Narkavi Perumal, the mark of an excellent poet and Parakala.
  • After his conversion to Vaishnavism, he confronted practitioners of rival Hindu sects of Shaivism as well as Buddhism and Jainism.

About Soundararajaperumal Temple 

  • It is a temple dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It is constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture.
  • The temple is glorified in the Divya Prabandha, the early medieval Tamil canon of the Azhwar saints from the 6th–9th centuries AD.
  • The temple is believed to have been built by the Medieval Cholas of the late 8th century AD, with later contributions at different times from Thanjavur Nayaks. 

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