The goddess has gone home. After 108 years in a Saskatchewan museum, a small statue of the Hindu goddess Annapurna was reconsecrated in a joyous ceremony held this week at a temple in Varanasi, the spiritual centre of India.
The 18th-century stone statue, only the size of a child’s hand, had been held by the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina – until a visiting artist dug out the idol’s history and the gallery recognized that it was stolen from an Indian shrine at the beginning of the 20th century. It quickly began negotiations for the statue’s return.
“It is humbling to think how big of an impact there was with so little being done by us as an institution,” said gallery director John Hampton. “It just took us saying yes to returning an object we weren’t able to care for or honour.”
It was Winnipeg artist Divya Mehra who came upon the idol while she was preparing for a 2020 show at the MacKenzie, coincidentally entitled From India to Canada and Back to India (There is nothing I can possess which you cannot take away). Looking through the gallery’s collection, she pointed out that a small figure labelled as the Hindu god Vishnu had female characteristics, and contacted a curator of South Asian art in Britain who identified the statue as Annapurna, a goddess associated with food and nourishment. The cataloguing was corrected, but when the gallery reviewed the figure’s history, it became clear the little statue hidden away in storage was actually stolen property.
The MacKenzie Art Gallery was established by a 1936 bequest of global and Indigenous art to the University of Saskatchewan’s Regina College (now the University of Regina) by lawyer and art collector Norman MacKenzie, and finally opened in 1953. MacKenzie’s purpose was to create a universal art museum, bringing home examples of world cultures to benefit the people of Regina. In this case, it appears he had few scruples as to how the art was acquired, according to a gallery transcript of his own account of purchasing the idol.
Mackenzie was travelling in India in 1913 and visited Varanasi, where he openly admired three idols that were part of a ghat, the stone steps that provide access to the sacred Ganges River. He asked a guide whether he could have one but was refused. That night, a man came to his hotel room with all three, offering them for sale. MacKenzie said that the British, India’s colonial rulers in the day, would never allow him to take the idols, so he told the thief to return two of the three. In the morning, if he could verify those two were returned, he would buy the third.
“It seems undeniable that he knew it was being stolen. It was chiselled away; there are marks at the bottom,” Hampton said. “It’s coming from his own set of ethical principles that are very different from our own. … He wanted examples of art and culture from around the world to share with Regina, but it’s not involving knowledge holders.”
There are dozens of ghats along the Ganges, from which devout Hindus bathe in the river’s purifying waters or cremate the dead, so it was impossible to find the exact location from which the statue was taken. Instead, it has been returned to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of Varanasi’s most important sites, which is currently undergoing a large renovation of the 18th-century building and the surrounding corridor. The renovation, which is nearing completion, is a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is the member of Parliament for the Varanasi riding. It is intended to better manage crowds at the site, connecting the temple with the Ganges through three new decorated gates.
The idol arrived at Kashi Vishwanath after a four-day pilgrimage from New Delhi and a virtual repatriation ceremony that Indian and Canadian officials attended to witness the handover. Large crowds gathered Monday for the final ceremony at the temple, which was intended to restore the idol’s sacred capacity. Hindus believe that idols are incarnations of the gods they represent as long as they remain in place: The theft of Annapurna had reduced the statue to mere stone.
The idol’s arrival at the temple was greeted triumphantly with thousands coming to cheer, cry and pray – an outpouring Hampton attributes both to this reconsecration and to the voluntary nature of the restitution, which made it all the more powerful.
“I have been surprised and moved by the reception there,” Hampton said. “It brought tears to my eyes, seeing how treasured this object is when brought back to her home community.”
The MacKenzie is now exhibiting Mehra’s 2020 sculpture There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsana), which the artist produced to take the place of Annapurna and which features a bag of artificially aged sand weighing the same as the original sculpture.
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