Annapurna Idol: Back to India from Canada after more than a century

The Ministry of Culture ceremonially handed over a goddess Annapurna idol to the Government of Uttar Pradesh at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. The recently returned icon from Canada was placed ritualistically in Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath temple on November 15, 2021.

Apart from Union Culture Minister G Kishan Reddy, the ceremony was attended by several other Central and Uttar Pradesh government ministers such as Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Anupriya Patel, Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, Ministers of State for Education Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister of State in the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and Ministry of Civil Aviation General VK Singh.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) retrieved the idol on October 15, 2021, making its way to its final destination, Varanasi. The idol was transported from Delhi to Aligarh on November 11, Kannauj on November 12, and Ayodhya on November 14. Lastly, on the 15th, it arrived in Varanasi and was placed at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple after the honourable traditions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi confirmed the restoration of the idol in an episode of Mann Ki Baat last year and said, “This idol was stolen from a temple of Varanasi and smuggled out of the country around 100 years ago somewhere around 1913.” He added, “Mata Annapurna has a very special bond with Kashi. And the return of the idol is very pleasant for all of us. Like the statue of Mata Annapurna, much of our heritage has been a victim of international gangs.”

Annapurna is the food goddess. The 18th-century statue, sculpted in the Benares form, was part of Canada’s MacKenzie Art Gallery collection at the University of Regina. So when Winnipeg artist Divya Mehra was invited to present a show at the gallery in 2019, she began exploring the collection, founded on a 1936 donation from lawyer Norman MacKenzie.

This sculpture purported to represent Lord Vishnu and holding a rice bowl. Looking through archives, she discovered that the same artwork was taken from a functioning temple in 1913 and recovered by MacKenzie.

The statue was identified by Siddhartha V Shah, Curator of Indian and South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in the United States. He established that it belonged to the deity Annapurna. She has a spoon in one hand and a bowl of kheer in another. These are things related to the goddess of food, who is also the goddess of Varanasi.

Divya Mehra’s study discovered that MacKenzie spotted the idol during a visit to India in 1913. A person had noticed McKenzie’s longing for it and had stolen it for him from a temple in Varanasi. Mehra approached John Hampton, temporary CEO of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, and asked to return the idol to India. The gallery was in favor. Years after finding the stolen idol, the Indian High Commission in Ottawa and the Department of Canadian Heritage contacted the owner and assisted with the homecoming.

The idol began its trip home in November with a virtual homecoming ceremony. It was supposed to arrive in Delhi at the beginning of December 2020, but Covid postponed its arrival by over a year. Following a comprehensive verification and paperwork, a decision on its final ownership was made. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been entrusted with determining the security procedures at the original location of the idol before returning it to trustees at the temple.