An 18th-century statue of Hindu Goddess Annapurna will soon be returned to India, it was stolen more than a century ago and was transported to Canada. The statue has been part of the University of Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery and will be repatriated in an attempt to “right historical wrongs” and help overcome the “damaging legacy of colonialism”.

It was stolen from a shrine in Varanasi over a century ago and found its way to the varsity’s art gallery.

An artist, Divya Mehra, drew attention to the fact that the statue had been wrongfully taken over a century ago. When Mehra researched statue’s history, she found that Norman MacKenzie, the founder of the museum, had seen the statue while on a trip to India in 1913. A stranger had overheard MacKenzie’s desire to have the statue, and stole it for him from its original location – a shrine at stone steps on the riverbank of the Ganges at Varanasi, India.

The statue will soon begin its journey home following the virtual repatriation ceremony held on November 19. University’s Interim President and Vice-Chancellor Dr Thomas Chase virtually met with High Commissioner of India to Canada Ajay Bisaria to officially repatriate the statue.

The ceremony was also attended by representatives from the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Global Affairs Canada, and Canada Border Services Agency.

“We are delighted that this unique statue of Annapoorna is on her way home. I am grateful to the University of Regina for their proactive engagement for the return of this cultural icon to India,” Bisaria said in a statement. He later added that the move to voluntarily repatriate such cultural treasures shows the maturity and depth of India-Canada relations. 

The statue of the Goddess was identified by Dr Siddhartha V Shah, Curator of Indian and South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum. Shah associated it with the Goddess Annapoorna because the statue holds a bowl of kheer (rice pudding) in one hand and a spoon in the other. She is celebrated by her devotees as one who nourishes and strengthens the body through food, and the soul through enlightenment, the statement said.

“The repatriation of the Annapoorna is part of a global, long-overdue conversation in which museums seek to address harmful and continuing imperial legacies built into, sometimes, the very foundations of their collections. As stewards of cultural heritage, our responsibility to act respectfully and ethically is fundamental, as is the willingness to look critically at our own institutional histories,” said Alex King, Curator/Preparator, University of Regina President’s Art Collection.

The Vice-Chancellor said, “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.”