Western tastes drain India of its rare gems

February 3, 2006

The West must do much more to halt the centuries-long plunder of South Asia's priceless cultural heritage, argues Shreesh Chaudhary

In the early hours of March 29, 2003, the Mithila Research Institute in Darbhanga, India, was broken into. Removed from its archives were the Lilavati , the groundbreaking work by the 12th-century Indian mathematician Bhaskara, and eight precious bark and palm-leaf manuscripts.

In the same town six months later, Sanskrit University was burgled and its archives were relieved of the Srimad Bhagvatam , an Indian literary classic written by the 14th-century poet Vidyapati on palm leaves. Also stolen were the Grahana Maala , a 16th-century manuscript by Hemangada Thakur that predicted thousands of years' worth of solar and lunar eclipses, and nine other unique manuscripts.

In both thefts, foreigners had visited the archives just before the break-ins and had insisted on seeing the manuscripts that later disappeared; both robberies occurred on a Friday evening; and library staff who reported the robberies were arrested, beaten almost to death and released on bail only months later. More than two years after the crimes, there are still no clues as to the identity of the thieves or the present location of the stolen works. Both libraries still hold thousands of ancient manuscripts, and their security has not improved.

Such thefts are not always overlooked in India. In high-profile cases in big cities, investigations have been undertaken. But in poor places such as Darbhanga, little is likely to happen.

Small towns in India, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia have produced much valuable learning and writing in the arts and sciences over the past 3,000 years. They hold rare books and manuscripts written on palm leaves, barks, handmade paper and fabrics - examples of the human mind at its finest. These works are being offered to tourists, who sell them on to agents, who eventually market them to affluent bidders in Europe and North America.

The trade in India's cultural heritage is thriving, which only encourages such activities. Websites sell rare Asian manuscripts. One, for example, advertises the Ramayana, a large 18th-century, 420-page handwritten manuscript in Devanagari script that contains seven illuminated miniature paintings. The book, bound in full red morocco and gilded on the cover and spine, is offered for sale for $6,000 (£3,400) from a US address.

Many documents end up in Europe and North America, where a host of agents procure rare books and manuscripts for their clients. Some items find their way into the collections of eminent libraries. According to its librarian's report for 2004, the Oriental Collection of the US Library of Congress had 41,825 exhibits in 1946 and 58,965 in 1947. By 2004, this number had risen to 145,165, partly through the purchasing of documents, no doubt made in good faith.

This is nothing new. India has for centuries seen its cultural heritage whittled away. When the Turkish general Bakhtiar Khilji set fire to manuscripts at the Buddhist monastery at Nalanada in the 11th century, the remains smouldered for a year. Nadir Shah, an 18th-century invader, transported the imperial library of Delhi to Persia. Later, the library was sold at a knockdown price and used mainly as waste paper.

Travellers and traders have been removing manuscripts from India for some time. In 645AD, Hiuen-Tsiang, a Chinese traveller, used 20 horses to carry off parts of the Buddhist classic The Great Vehicle and 657 other works.

Between the 17th and 20th century, departing British colonial officials shipped off boxfuls of manuscripts as private papers, most of which have ended up in the British Library and other institutions.

Since the Battle of Plassey in 1757, when British rule in India is conventionally described as having begun, Indian works of art and antiques have been washing up in Britain. The East India Company created a storehouse for them in London in 1798 and declared that it would buy Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic manuscripts or manuscripts "in any other ancient dialects of the Hindoos" for "safe preservation". Shortly after this, Tipoo Sultan's library, which contained nearly 2,000 volumes of Arabic and Urdu manuscripts, fell into the hands of the British Army. It was decided that this "collection must be preserved in the Company's Library" in London. Similarly shipped out for "safe preservation" were the Royal Library of Delhi, the library of the Burmese kings of Mandalay, the library of the Adil Shah dynasty at Bijapur and the Mahratta library at Poona.

By the early 19th century, the East India Company had amassed many works.

Its collection included volumes that returning company officials were encouraged to give to or sell to the library. In 1784, Warren Hastings, a former governor-general, received "a collection of the original Arabic translation of Greek books on Mathematics, Science and Astronomy" from the Nawab of Awadh. He eventually sold 190 volumes to the East India Company's library. Antoine-Louis Henri Polier, another Western adviser to the Nawab of Awadh, built up a fascinating collection that was later distributed among the Biblioth que Nationale in Paris, the British Museum in London, the library of King's College, Cambridge, Eton College, the Islamic Museum in Berlin and the Biblioth que Cantonale of Lausanne.

The East India Company also invited the public to sell "whatever books in any of the Asian languages or other articles coming within the objects of the Hon'ble Courts collection". This led to the disappearance of several valuable manuscripts from Calcutta, says Henry Beveridge, a civil servant and translator of Akbarnama ( History of Akbar ) - a biographical account of Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor. Christian missionaries from Europe gave many manuscripts to libraries in East and Central Europe. And Indians generally helped the trade along by gathering and selling to Europeans, both in India and Europe.

This trade shows no sign of stopping. The University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute in New Delhi helps visiting German and other scholars access relevant archive materials in India, but it also buys manuscripts. The Dharbanga thefts show how easy it is to get away with stealing ancient documents. India has national libraries and archives, but not the resources to secure them. Police and other investigating agencies lack expertise in tackling theft from archives. Few stolen articles are ever recovered and thieves operate with impunity.

Things are different in affluent developed countries. In November, two Americans were threatened with up to three years in prison over the theft and attempted sale of an original copy of the 1814 treaty signed by Napoleon that renounced any claim to France. John William Rooney, a 74-year-old retired college professor, has been charged by a Paris court with receiving stolen goods. The auction house Sotheby's told US authorities that Marshall Lawrence Pierce, also charged, had tried to sell the treaty. The document is now back in France. The trial will take place later this year. Both men have previously been found guilty of possessing, transporting and conspiring to sell stolen goods by a US court.

Perhaps if the West gave as much attention to preserving India's heritage as it does its own, by investigating cases and informing Indian authorities when manuscripts and rare books are being sold, the centuries-long plunder of India's patrimony would be halted.

Shreesh Chaudhary is a professor in the department of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

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