On display here, wanted by India

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A new front has been opened in the battle to recover allegedly looted objects from British museums. Cahal Milmo reports

Some 150 years ago, a British engineer overseeing the construction of the East Indian Railway ordered his labourers searching for ballast to break open a brick-walled chamber found in a hillside. Inside stood a statue whose ageless beauty changed the understanding of Indian culture and whose ownership is now the subject of a potentially ugly modern battle.

The Sultanganj Buddha, named after the town in north-eastern India where it was found, was dug out of an abandoned Buddhist monastery in 1861 along with other priceless artefacts under the direction of E B Harris, a pith-helmeted functionary of the British Raj.

Within months, the 1,500-year-old bronze statue was shipped to Britain after it was secured for £200 by a Birmingham industrialist, Samuel Thornton, to take pride of place in the new museum of the city whose foundries had produced many of the rails, sleepers and carriages for the East Indian Railway.

Now the so-called "Birmingham Buddha" is one of the artefacts at the top of a list of "stolen treasures" which the Indian authorities have announced they want to repatriate as part of a new co-ordinated international campaign by countries arguing for the return of thousands of allegedly looted objects held in Western museums.

The head of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the state body in charge of India's heritage assets, told The Independent that the list of his country's treasures held abroad was "too long to handle" and there was a need for a "diplomatic and legal campaign" for their restitution from institutions including the British Museum, the Royal Collection and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Among the items on the list are the Amravati railings, a series of limestone carvings dating from around AD100, acquired from a Buddhist temple in Andhra Pradesh by Victorian explorers; the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which sits in the heart of a crown made for the Queen Mother as the last empress of India; and the Saraswati idol, a sculpture of the Hindu deity from the Bhoj temple.

Gautam Sengupta, the director-general of the ASI, said that after decades of unsuccessful unilateral lobbying, India was looking to join a campaign with the support of Unesco, the United Nations body set up to preserve global heritage, alongside other countries with longstanding complaints about the foreign ownership of their artistic riches, including Egypt and Greece.

"As efforts so far to reclaim stolen treasures have proved futile, Unesco support is required for launching an international campaign to achieve this end. Not only India, various other countries like Mexico, Peru, China, Bolivia, Cyprus and Guatemala also the voiced the same concern to get back their stolen and looted antiquities and to join the international campaign," Mr Sengupta said.

While underlining the need to be "realistic" about the chances of large numbers of items being returned, Mr Gautam said a list of "unique items" that should be returned to their home countries was being drawn up by each of the participating countries. "Once this list is ready, these countries will jointly initiate a series of steps, including a diplomatic and legal campaign to get back the lost treasures," he added.

The initiative, which follows a conference in Cairo in April chaired by Dr Zahi Hawass, a high-profile Egyptian archaeologist who has secured the return of 31,000 artefacts since 2002, represents a step-change in long-running efforts to right what many nations consider to be wrongs of the colonial era, when powers such as Britain and France acquired millions of artefacts from their imperial possessions.

The campaigners face a tough fight. The Birmingham Buddha, which was bequeathed to the city by Mr Turner on the condition that it be made available "for the free inspection of the inhabitants [and] many who lay no claim to be decided antiquarians", is the largest metal figure of its kind at 2.3m tall and is seen as one of the finest examples of the Gupta school of sculpture, which went on to influence European art.

Curators in Britain have in recent years signalled their readiness to consider the return of a small number of artefacts. But most museums are reluctant to even enter talks about returning major items, pointing out that in many cases they are banned by law or their founding articles from divesting their collections.

Rita McLean, head of the Birmingham Museum, said: "We have not received any official request for the return of the Sultanganj Buddha. Any requests for restitution will be treated on a case-by-case basis."

The British Museum, which claims its status as a global repository for art justifies its possession of items such as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles, said it was satisfied that the objects highlighted by the Indian authorities had been acquired legitimately.

Koh-i-Noor diamond

The diamond, whose name means "Mountain of Light", had been the prize of Indian rulers from the Mughals to the Persian until it was "presented" to Queen Victoria in 1849 by the son of the Maharaja of Lahore. Critics say the stone, part of the Crown Jewels, could not have been willingly surrendered and was plundered by the British governor general, Lord Dalhousie.

Amravati railings

These limestone plaques once covered the façade of a "stupa" – a temple built to house Bhuddist relics – in south-eastern India. The intricate carvings, which depict scenes from the life of Buddha and are about 2,000 years old, were eventually excavated in the early 19th century by two British military explorers and sold to the British Museum.

Buddha Sakyamuni

The Sultanganj Buddha, otherwise known as the Birmingham Buddha, is a 2.3m tall bronze statue of the caped deity that was discovered upside-down in a bricked-up cavity by British railway engineer E B Harris in north-east India in 1861. He "saved" it from being smelted and the statue was sold to a Midlands industrialist for £200, where it was destined for Birmingham's city museum.

Saraswati statue

The marble statue depicting the Hindu and Jain goddess of knowledge, music and learning was one of the prized possession of the temple at Bhojsala in central India, established by an enlightened "philosopher king" who dedicated his reign to developing centres of art. The figure was donated to the temple by a local family before eventually being lost. It was acquired by the British Museum in 1886.

Elgin Marbles

The marble reliefs were stripped from the Parthenon at the behest of the 7th Earl of Elgin in 1801. The act caused controversy at the time but the Earl was exonerated and the sculptures bought for the British Museum. Greece has fought a 30-year campaign for their restitution, so far unsuccessfully.

Benin bronzes

Many of the magnificent bronzes of the ancient West African kingdom of Benin in the British Museum were acquired following a British military expedition in 1897 to punish an ambush which killed nine soldiers.

Magdala treasures

The treasures of the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros were taken in 1867 during a punishment raid by the British Army. Items, including sacred tablets of scripture, are in the V&A, British Museum and the Royal Collection.

Rosetta Stone

The 2,200-year-old tablet unlocked the secret to Egyptian hieroglyphs by carrying a translation of the symbols in classical Greek. Discovered by the French, acquired by the British and claimed by Cairo, it is one of the most important items in the British Museum.

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