The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 3, 2001

Plundered possessions
Surinder Malhi

MUCH has been said and written about the history and return of the Kohinoor. Yet, this diamond is still the brightest jewel in the British Monarch’s crown.

The interesting thing, however, is that some other priceless Indian treasures ‘taken away’ at some point of history are yet to be returned. Amusingly enough, no serious concern is expressed about their fate.

Thus, for example, Wisbeach is a drowsy town on River Nene in Cambridgeshire, occasionally used as a set for period BBC productions. Its small local museum boasts of a manuscript copy of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Napolean Bonaparte’s breakfast service, apparently captured on the battlefield of Waterloo.

However, among its hidden treasures, not on display, is a collection of medieval Indian coins, a small Buddha head and two palm-leaf manuscripts. The manuscripts were bequeathed by Rev C. Lacey. How he came by them is not known. Where the coins and the Buddha came from is also altogether uncertain.


As a matter of fact, there are countless Wisbeaches all over Britain, underlining the connection, however, contentious between India, or rather the Indian subcontinent, and Britain.

Apart from the known collectors and students of antiquities, countless old ‘Indian hands’ — colonial civil servants, missionaries or officers and soldiers of the British Army — returned home to Britain with mementos of their time in India. A few Mughal coins, a couple of flintlock pistols picked up in battle, an occasional basalt Vishnu, tiny Gandharan figures, miniature paintings on ivory, Kashmiri shawls, Gujarati embroideries and Buddhist manuscripts.

Occidental greed started quite early on and it was not an Englishman but a French gentleman who opened the floodgates. John Baptiste Tavernier, a French jeweller visiting India in the 17th century wrote: "I am able to claim that I am the first European who has opened the route for Feringhees to Indian mines which are the only place in the world where the diamond is to be found".

Tavernier did rather well himself during his journeys to India. He made six trips between 1631 and 1668, buying and selling jewels. On his return to France in 1668, he became a celebrity and an object of almost universal curiosity.

Therefore, Louis XIV summoned Tavernier to his court. The meetings resulted in French monarch buying 44 large and 1122 small diamonds. Tavernier was also elevated to nobility by being made a Baron.

The most important diamond in the cache of 44 big stones that Louis XIV bought was a blue diamond with a price-tag of 220,000 livres. This was the famous Hope diamond. Today, it is the most popular of the hundreds of thousands of exhibits on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

Strangely enough, the Hope is considered to be cursed as it was stolen from a temple. The story goes that it formed the eye of an icon.Was it the third eye of the Lord Shiva which when gazed upon consumes the viewer with fire?

One is not quite sure, but what befell Tavernier and his King after the Hope became French property underlines the legend that bad luck persues the illegal owners of this stolen diamond. Tavernier died penniless and as an obscure exile Louis XIV, who had till then lived a charmed life, died miserably of gangrene after bearing unbearable pain for three weeks.

As far as England is concerned, there are about 160 museums in the country which, in one way or another, boast of Indian possessions. Some have collections of three or four objects, others of thousands. Many, according to historian Kalpana Tarakunde who is trying to unravel this treasure, have not been seen for a hundred years.

Each of these collections has a history. How it ends does not always depend on who is telling it.

How the sword of Tipu Sultan ended up in Edinburgh Castle’s museum, why the Liverpool Museum acquired such a large collection of Indian Army and armoury, who bequeathed the Ipswich modern photographs of Hindu gods and goddesses and a medium-size collections of Buddhist manuscripts to the one in saffron Walden are questions to which there are no unequivocal answers.

Other objects have more contentious histories which from time to time lend them to campaigns for their return. At the Victoria and Albert Museum crammed between unimaginable beautiful objects of jade and gold, precious stone and gold is the golden throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

This throne strikes one as being rather small.

Only a very compact man could fit into this royal seat comfortably. The story of how the throne came to be in Britain continues to generate righteous anger in some circles, but it is a part of history that cannot be altered. Ever so often, someone demands that Britain return the throne to India, reigniting the debate about which side of the partitioned sub-continent actually has claim to it.

Curiously, no one seems to want the swords of Aurangzeb and his brother Dara Shikoh, returned to Delhi.

History cannot be undone by reclaiming objects and nationhood is not threatened by their absence. Some objects in British museums are quite obviously the spoils of war. But, they are today, celebrations not of British military victories but of Indian artistic achievement and craftsmanship which have long since vanished.