Narendra Modi’s US visit this year was a tame affair. At the UN, he made a so-so speech. Most seats were empty; the applause was muted. Worse, that smart young foreign service lady stole the Pak-bashing show, which India conducts every autumn in New York. Cheek!
In the US proper, it was still worse. Old Joe—a big bore—was no match for dandy Donald or buddy Barack as a host. He did not organise a Madison Square Garden show, a Howdy Modi, or even an address to the Congress. Poor bhakts in India had to post old videos of Modi’s address to the Congress, and claim that Modi had set fire to the Potomac this year, too.
The problem with the bhakts is that they do not have the patience or punditry to read the fine print. If they had, they would have known that Modi came back with the richest treasure haul that any Indian PM has ever brought back—157 artefacts that had been smuggled out from this sacred land of terracotta Bodhisatvas and bronze Natarajas.
The fine print on their labels would give any antiquarian as much high as if he had drunk straight from the Holy Grail—a 4,000-year-old copper anthropomorphic object, a second century terracotta vase, a 10th century bas-relief panel of Revanta in sandstone, a 12th century Nataraja, several mediaeval Buddha, Vishnu, Siva Parvati, and Jain Tirthankara sculptures, an 18th century sword-and-sheath on which Guru Hargovind’s name is inscribed in Persian, and more. All genuine stuff; no-nonsense, non-Monson.
Non-Monson? Yes, Monson Mavunkal, if you do not know, is an ‘antiquarian’ who surfaced recently in Kerala, claiming to have in his possession Moses’s staff, Krishna’s broken butter pot, two of the 30 pieces of silver that Judas got for betraying Jesus, and more. Believe me, many in India’s most literate state believed him! The state police mounted a vigil around his treasure cave. Old comics buffs, like this columnist, were waiting for him to show up with King Arthur’s lost sword, Alexander’s diamond cup, and Cleopatra’s mummified asp from the Phantom’s skull cave, when the police, struck by enlightenment, spoiled our fun.
Modi’s treasures are real, worth $30 million to 40 million, according to S. Vijay Kumar, an India-born Singapore-based treasure-hunter who helped trace 145 of the 157 objects.
India has been on a treasure hunt for a while now, and Vijay Kumar has often been its Jim Hawkins, that brave lad who got the Treasure Island map from a dead pirate’s sea chest. It was in 2014, about the time when Modi came to power, that Kumar launched his India Pride project, a global network of antique-enthusiasts who have since been spending their spare blogging time tracing India’s stolen treasures.
Together they have hit a few pots of gold. If only 18 stolen artefacts could be recovered since 1976 (when India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act came into force) till 2014, more than 80 have been brought back since then, and now 154 from the US. Another 120 are being readied for return from Britain; Australia has promised to ship back stolen stuff worth $2.2 million.
Tailpiece: Return of artefacts can also backfire. To save face after the defeat in the first Afghan war, governor-general Lord Ellenborough ordered that the city gates of Ghazni, which were believed to have been the sandalwood gates of Somnath temple stolen by Mahmud Ghazni, be brought back. When the gates arrived in India, they were found to be of cheaper wood and recent origin. The abandoned gates can still be seen, dumped in a lumber room in Agra Fort.