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By Nithin Sridhar
Hundreds of arts, antiquities, sacred icons, and sacred idols are stolen every year from across the world. Many of them make their way into various museums and galleries as legitimate pieces of art and antiques.
In India, every other week some idols from remote temples are stolen and shipped out of the country. These idols are not just icons of the past, having antique values, but they are the abode of the living deities. Hence, when these idols are stolen, there is not just a loss of artifacts having rich history and heritage value, but there is also a loss of “living” icons through which the common people connect with their Gods, having invoked the presence of Gods into those icons and idols.
Hence, this theft and trafficking of sacred art, is not just a theft of art or antique but is also a theft of sacredness, a theft of the abode of the Gods that people worship.
But, in the art market, says Dr. Donna Yates, “Sacred Indian art is seen more as “Art” than either “Sacred” or “Ancient”. This is an important distinction. If you remove it from its sacred context, you don’t have to think about the cultural loss experienced by the people who no longer have the holy object in their temple. It is just art, nothing else.
If you don’t think of it as “ancient” or as “antiquity” (even if it is a thousand years old), you don’t have to think about the destruction of archaeological sites or the laws broken to get the statue to you. I think a lot of classification on the art market is to remove the real context of the pieces, to make them art above everything else.”
Dr. Donna Yates is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, who is currently visiting Nepal till 19 July, to observe heritage site security measures following the country’s April earthquake.
In an exclusive interview with NewsGram, Dr. Yates said: “I am seeing some form of sacred art theft nearly every other day and this is excluding theft of, say, donation boxes. I am talking about theft of idols, jewelry on idols, or sacred decorative elements in temples. Yes, there are a lot of big and small temples in India, but that is still quite a lot of theft.”
When asked, what made her to take interest in sacred arts thefts in India, Dr. Yates told that when she was researching on the thefts of sacred arts in Latin American churches, she searched for other places having similar thefts.
“Places where you have many sacred sites, a lot of sacred art, and a specific type of security issue: that the sites must be accessible for common people to use them. You can’t just remove the sacred art or lock the door at all times because that would mean that people cannot worship their gods. That brought me to India and Nepal: it is exactly the same issue as Latin American churches.”
Regarding the modus operandi of the art thieves, Dr. Yates shared that, though each smuggling network is different, usually the middle men let it be known in the market that they are in look out for certain kinds of artefacts and the thieves steal those items for them. Then the small objects are often taken out of the country by sending them through post or taking them in person as tourist souvenirs.
But, when it comes to big items, she said: “you need a big and sophisticated operation. It is worth looking into Subhash Kapoor for this as his operation was truly shocking. He would export the art, routing the items through several ports so that they would pick up a paper trail. He listed them falsely on export and import documents (once as stone garden furniture I believe) and would eventually make up false histories, and false paperwork that he would present to museums.”
Citing the example of the Nataraja statue which was stolen from Tamil Nadu and then sold to National Gallery of Australia (but is now back in India), Dr. Yates adds that:
“The thieves who were contracted to steal the piece were paid about 6000USD. The National Gallery of Australia paid the dealer Subhash Kapoor 5.5 million USD! Thus the people at the bottom who took all the risk were paid the least, but the man at the top who could portray the object as ‘clean’ and a ‘safe buy’ was able to command a very high price.”
When asked to shed light about provenances that are so easily falsified by shady dealers and used to fool museums and galleries, Dr. Yates said: “Well I think the biggest issue when it comes to provenance is that we do not have an international system of import and export permits for art like we do for, say, wildlife. Because each country has different standards when it comes to art import and export, middlemen and traffickers can game the system.”
Listing out the measures that can be taken to prevent art thefts, Dr. Yates stressed on the need to involve the local community and to properly document the sacred icons. She said:
“A focus on community involvement in the documentation of art within sacred sites (not just someone from the government or the ASI coming in and doing it), which would accompany community level discussions about both protection of these sites and the realities of the art market is very necessary.
An object that has been properly documented is very difficult to sell on the art market. Even buyers who are willing to buy stolen objects don’t want to spend money on objects that are easily shown to be stolen. Presenting this to communities and then having them help with photographing, measuring etc. of art could go a long way.”
The interview ended with Dr. Yates sharing her experience regarding her interactions with Indians on Twitter: “I have found that the Indian community online is one of the most active and passionate community about this topic. I am not saying that people in other parts of the world don’t care about their sacred art, they very much do. But over the past year I have had such passionate and positive response from people in India about this research that I am very encouraged. For heritage protection, it is important that preservation reflect the needs and desires of the people and it seems that India is very passionate about protecting its heritage. I love it!”
Diwali is arguably one of the most auspicious and celebrated holidays in South Asia. It is celebrated over the span of five days, where the third is considered most important and known as Diwali. During Diwali people come together to light, lamps, and diyas, savour sweet delicacies and pray to the lord. The day has various origin stories with the main them being the victory of good over evil. While the North celebrates the return of Lord Rama and Devi Sita to Ayodhya, the South rejoices in the victory of Lord Krishna and his consort Satyabhama over evil Narakasura.
Narakasura- The great mythical demon King
Naraka or Narakasur was the son of Bhudevi (Goddess Earth) and fathered either by the Varaha incarnation of Vishnu or Hiranyaksha. He grew to be a powerful demon king and became the legendary progenitor of all three dynasties of Pragjyotisha-Kamarupa, and the founding ruler of the legendary Bhauma dynasty of Pragjyotisha.
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Narakasura was created, grew up to be strong and powerful but he was not satisfied with it, so he decided that he would worship Lord Brahma. He performed severe penance and was driven by the power of his penance; Lord Brahma appeared before him. Narakasura knew his mother loved him dearly so he asked Lord Brahma to grant him a boon that he would only die by the hands of his mother, Bhumidevi. Lord Brahma smile and ultimately granted him the boon.
Narakasura burst out laughing as Lord Brahma vanished. He thought no mother would kill their child so Lord Brahma had made him immortal. Drunk and maddened by his own power Narakasura brought all the kingdoms under his control and targeted Swargalok (Heaven). Even Indra (King of Gods) and demi-gods had to retreat in front of Narakasura. He kidnapped and took 16,000 women from the palaces as prisoners. Troubled by Naraksura's deeds the gods rushed to Lord Vishnu for a solution.
Lord Krishna and Devi Satyabhama were born to kill Narakasura
Lord Vishnu was born as Lord Krishna and Narakasura's mother Bhumidevi took the avatar of Krishna's wife Satyabhama. As Satyabhama, Bhumidevi was unaware of the knowledge of Naraksura being her son. Aditi the mother of all gods approached Satyabhama crying for help with bloodied ears as Narakasura had torn off the glowing earrings from the ears of Aditi.
Satyabhama was furious on gaining the knowledge of Narakasura's atrocities she asked Krishna to fight the demon king while she fights alongside him. Krishna agreed and they attacked the great fortress of Narakasura, riding his mount Garuda with his wife Satyabhama.
The furious battle unleashed. Krishna defeated Narakasura's general Mura and came to be known as Murari (the killer of Mura). Narakasura used several divine weapons against Krishna, but Krishna slew all those weapons effortlessly. The demon hurled a shakti towards Krishna, which mildly hurt Krishna and he fell unconscious. Upon this sight Satyabhama was enraged, she furiously pulled out a weapon of her own and hurled it at Narakasura's chest. Anxious Satyabhama turned to her fallen Lord, Krishna got up with a smile and he was completely fine. He was only playing his part. It was Satyabhama who was an incarnation of Bhoomidevi, whose hands were destined to slay Narakasura.
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Lord Krishna and Goddess Satyabhama had put an end to the Narakasura's kingdom of evil. As Narakasura lay on his deathbed he realised that Satyabhama was no one but an avatar of his own mother. He requested a boon from his mother, for no one to mourn his death. Instead, he wished for people to celebrate it with light and colours. They freed the 16,000 women who later married Lord Krishna to restore them of their honour in society, retrieved Mother goddess's earrings. This day is celebrated as 'Naraka Chaturdashi' popularly known as Choti Diwali - the day before Diwali as the triumph of good over evil.
Keywords: Diwali festival, goddess Laxmi, demon king, Lord Krishna, Satyabhama, the festival of light, Naraksura, Narak Chaturdashi
For all the great inventions that we have at hand, it is amazing how we keep going back to the safety pin every single time to fix everything. Be it tears in our clothes, to fix our broken things, to clean our teeth and nails when toothpicks are unavailable, to accessorize our clothes, and of course, as an integral part of the Indian saree. Safety pins are a must-have in our homes. But how did they come about at all?
The safety pin was invented at a time when brooches existed. They were used by the Greeks and Romans quite extensively. A man named Walter Hunt picked up a piece of brass and coiled it into the safety pin we know today. He did it just to pay off his debt. He even sold the patent rights of this seemingly insignificant invention just so that his debtors would leave him alone.
Anyone wearing safety pins that were visible began to be associated with the rock movement in the 70s. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Later, he even invented the sewing needles and a couple of other important inventions but never kept any of the patent rights.
When the punk rock tradition took over in the seventies, safety pins became a fashion rage. They were used as piercings and to patch clothes together. Anyone wearing safety pins that were visible began to be associated with the rock movement. In some cultures, the safety pins have become symbols of good luck.
Keywords: Safety-pins, Punk Rock, Brass, Accessories, Walter Hunt
In South India, Deepavali marks the end of the monsoon and heralds the start of winter. The festival is usually observed in the weeks following heavy rain, and just before the first cold spell in the peninsula. The light and laughter that comes with the almost week-long celebration are certainly warm to the bones, but there is still a tradition that the South Indians follow to ease their transition from humidity to the cold.
Just before the main festival, the family bathes in sesame oil. This tradition is called 'yellu yennai snaana' in Kannada, or 'ennai kuliyal' in Tamil, which translates to 'sesame oil bath'. The eldest member of the family applies three drops of heated oil on each member's head. They must massage this oil into their hair and body. The oil is allowed to soak in for a while, anywhere between twenty minutes to an hour. After this, they must wash with warm water before sunrise.
Women applying oil to the heads of men Photo credit: Indians in Kuwait
In some parts of the peninsula, soap is not used to wash off the oil because it nullifies its effects. Some cultures who do not like the oil to remain in any way on their skin wash it off with shikakai and herbs, which is a paste that is traditionally used as a substitute for soap. Sometimes, the oil is heated with flowers and spices as well and is less sticky than in its pure form.
The purpose of this ritual is to cleanse the body, detoxify it, and produce heat in it. Sesame is a very heaty substance and tends to heat up the body. This heat, or 'usshna' in Kannada, prepares the body to face the sudden cold that comes to the peninsula immediately after Diwali. South India has no smooth transition weather-wise from monsoon to winter. There are a few days of stable, rainless weather, and suddenly the cold winds descend.
In many ways, the celebration of Diwali is centered around preparing for winter, considering the amount of heat and light the rituals consist of – lighting lamps, bursting crackers, and consuming warm treats. Those who practice these rituals earnestly find the shift in seasons and weather quite pleasant.
Keyboards: Sesame Oil Bath, Diwali Ritual, Traditional Sesame Oil Bath