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Cultural Artefact – Oxford University to return 500-year-old bronze murti of Sant Tirumankai Alvar to Bharat

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Oxford University has announced the repatriation of a 500-year-old bronze murti to Bharat, underscoring the ongoing global efforts to return cultural artefacts to their countries of origin. The statue, depicting Sant Tirumankai Alvar, is believed to have been stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu and was acquired by the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford in 1967 from Sotheby’s auction house.

The 60 cm tall murti is a significant piece of religious and cultural heritage dating back to the 16th century. It portrays Sant Tirumankai Alvar, one of the twelve Alvar sants, for his devotion and contributions to Tamil literature. The Alvars are celebrated figures within the Vaishnava tradition of Hindutva, and their works are integral to Tamil spiritual heritage.

The statue’s return to Bharat was initiated when an independent researcher uncovered its origins in November 2023. This discovery prompted the Ashmolean Museum to alert the Indian High Commission. Subsequently, the Bharatiya government formally requested the murti’s return.

On March 11, 2024, the University of Oxford’s Council supported the claim for the murti’s return. This decision awaits approval from the Charity Commission, which oversees such matters in the UK. The Ashmolean Museum, known for its extensive collection of art and archaeological artefacts, has stated that it acquired the murti in good faith. The museum’s proactive approach to addressing the issue and supporting the murti’s return reflects a growing awareness and sensitivity towards the ethics of cultural restitution.

The return of the Sant Tirumankai Alvar murti is not an isolated event but part of a larger movement involving the repatriation of cultural artefacts with questionable provenance.

In recent years, institutions and governments worldwide have increasingly acknowledged the importance of returning cultural treasures to their rightful owners, marking a significant shift in the global cultural landscape.

For instance, in August 2023, a limestone relief sculpture from Andhra Pradesh and a 17th century bronze sculpture of “Navaneetha Krishna” from Tamil Nadu were returned to the Indian High Commissioner in the UK. This followed a joint investigation by US and UK authorities, including Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit.

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