NEW DELHI: Maa Annapurna is finally home. As the country celebrates the homecoming of an ancient statue of the goddess of food and the queen of the ancient city of Kashi (now Varanasi/Benaras), at the behest of Indian Prime minister, Narendra Modi, not many are aware that the person who first figured out that this piece of antique was special to Indian history and culture was a Canadian artist of Indian origin, Divya Mehra.
In 2019, an idol of Lord Vishnu with a bowl in his hand caught the attention of Mehra at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina.
Observing that the idol had female characteristics, Mehra began her research and found a memorandum by art collector Norman Mackenzie about the circumstances in which he acquired the idol during his visit to Benaras in 1936.
The memorandum — The New Indian accessed it from the University of Regina — stated that MacKenzie showed interest in a set of statues, many of which were stolen and delivered to him. Subsequently, while going through MacKenzie’s permanent collection, Mehra found that the statue was wrongfully acquired over a century ago.
The 17.30 L ( 7 inches) x 9.90 ( 4 inches) W x 4.90 cm (1.92 inches) D statue was a part of the original 1936 bequest by Norman MacKenzie, the gallery’s namesake, in University of Regina.
The late art patron had claimed that he returned two large statues and took only a smaller one from a Delhi-based antique dealer, Irme Schaiger, in 1913 after obtaining a certificate of genuineness about the statue.
When the current administration at the University and the MacKenzie Art Gallery in October 2020 were alerted about the statue being an object of culture theft, both the institutions promised to take appropriate action.
“As a university, we have a responsibility to right historical wrongs and help overcome the damaging legacy of colonialism wherever possible,” said Thomas Chase, interim president and vice-chancellor of University of Regina.
“Repatriating this statue does not atone for the wrong that was done a century ago, but it is an appropriate and important act today. I am thankful to the MacKenzie Art Gallery, the Indian High Commission, and the Department of Canadian Heritage for their roles in making it possible,” he said.
Goddess of Food
As the sequence of events go, upon discovering these facts, Siddhartha V Shah, Curator of Indian and South Asian Art at Peabody Essex Museum, US, identified the statue as that of the Hindu goddess Annapurna from her female physical characteristics. The goddess holds a bowl of kheer (rice pudding) in one hand and a spoon in the other. These are items associated with Annapurna, who is the goddess of food and the queen of the city of Varanasi. She is celebrated by her devotees as one who nourishes and strengthens the body through food, and the soul through enlightenment.
“Baba Vishwanath temple and Maa Annapurna have a unique connection. Maa Annapurna is believed to provide food to Baba Kashi Vishwanath and every pilgrim visiting the place receives the same as ‘prasad’,” said CM Yogi Adityanath.
In one of the episodes of Mann Ki Baat in 2020, Modi had announced that the ancient Annapurna idol will be brought back to India from Canada.
“Every Indian will feel proud to know that an ancient idol of Maa Annapurna is being brought back to India from Canada. This idol was stolen from a temple of Varanasi and smuggled out of the country a century ago..,” he had said.
For his part, Union minister of Tourism & Culture, Reddy said, “We have received an idol of goddess Maa Annapurna Devi from Canada. We identified the idol through an Indo-Canada artist at the MacKenzie Art Gallery of the University of Regina, Canada. Our Prime Minister spoke to the Canadian Prime Minister on phone and the request for returning the idol was made as the idol is very important to us. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar and the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) also got in touch with the government of Canada to get the idol back from there.”
Annapurna Devi’s Journey from Canada to India
In October 2020, University of Regina informed the Indian High Commission about their intention to return the statue to India. The Annapurna idol, which arrived in Delhi recently, will be taken to Aligarh on November 11. From there it will be taken to Kanauj on November 12, and reach Ayodhya on November 14.
The idol will finally reach Varanasi on November 15 where it will be placed at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh after appropriate rituals. However, the ASI will ascertain security arrangements at the idol’s original location before it is handed over to temple authorities.
42 of 55 idols returned to India after Narendra Modi became PM
As many as 55 idols have been returned to India since 1976. Seventy five per cent of the idols that have been returned have been during the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Out of the 55 antiquities, 42 were returned after 2014 with the Annapurna Devi being the latest addition,” the ministry of culture said.
Incidentally, in 2019, a 900-year-old red stone statue Parrot Lady was handed over to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in Canada by the then Canadian PM Stephen Harper.