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In News: The Idol Wing CID police has 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. 

Issue: The mentioned idol  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.
  • 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, appropriate steps should be taken to recover and return any such cultural property imported. 
    • The requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property. 
    • More indirectly and subject to domestic legislation, Article 13 of the Convention also provides provisions on restitution and cooperation.


Constitutional and legal provisions

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.  The Act was enacted for effective control over the movable cultural property consisting of antiquities and art treasures. 

  • 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 an antiquity, declared to be a treasure by the Centre for its artistic value after the artist’s death.
  • Possession of unregistered antiquity is a punishable offence under 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 export of an antiquity by anyone other than the Centre or its agencies. 

What are the other offences and penalties under this law?

  • The sale of antiquities requires a licence.
  • Thus, selling antiquities after the six-month period following the revocation of a licence is an offence.
  • 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 licence are also offences. 

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 an antiquity?

  • Registration is before an authorised 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 to find out whether they had been stolen from temples. The committee will verify documentation related to registration and sale.

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 sect 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 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. 

Other 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 categorised as “national heritage”. 
  • It administers these under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 (AMASR Act). 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 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. 
  • A number of state heritage laws have also been enacted.
  • India’s commitment to heritage was further emphasised when it became a signatory to UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention for the protection of global and national heritage. 

Govt. initiatives: 

  • 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 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
  • The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has launched the National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) scheme with a focus on holistic development of heritage cities.
  • Draft Antiquities Bill: The Centre proposed doing away with the requirement of a licence 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 take the decisions the ASI has been taking so far.