In 1842, valiant British Army troops in Afghanistan returned a set of stolen temple gates from the city of Ghazni to India. But all their efforts were for nothing, and today these gates lie locked away in a storage room in the Agra Fort. While their action was well intentioned, they had in fact, made a great mistake.
The 19th century witnessed what is known as ‘The Great Game’ — a proxy war between the British and Russian empires for influence and control in Central Asia, i.e Afghanistan, present-day Iran and the Tibet region. When a succession dispute arose between the Afghan emirs Dost Mohammed of the Barakzai dynasty and Shah Shuja of the Durrani dynasty, Britain intervened, and this led to the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838. By 1839, Britain was successful in reinstalling Shah Shuja; by 1842, however, Dost Mohammed was back in power and the British had to retreat from Kabul.
Simultaneously, in India, which was under British rule, following a change of government in England, Lord Ellenborough took charge as governor-general of India. Under pressure to end the disastrous war, in which a number of Indian troops fought alongside the British, Lord Ellenborough ordered the troops in Kandahar and Jalalabad to secure the release of the remaining troops in Kabul and return to India, but not without destroying Kabul to the ground.
But before they returned, the soldiers were also to follow ‘The Proclamation of the Gates’ — an order from Lord Ellenborough, commanding them to remove the wooden gates from the tomb of Mahmud of Ghazni and return them to India, from where they were allegedly stolen in 1026 during a raid on the Somnath Temple in Patan, present-day Gujarat.
When the gates were brought back, they not only failed to evoke any response from the local populace, it also turned out that they weren’t the real thing. They weren’t made of sandalwood as Ellenborough had claimed, but rather of deodar, and they displayed a workmanship that was neither Indic nor Gujarati. Not only were these not the gates from the Somnath Temple, historian Romila Thapar also states that there is little to prove that any gates were stolen at all during the 1026 raid.
One year after the Proclamation had been made, in 1843, Vernon Smith, a member of the House of Commons in England, called this act of restoration ‘unwise, indecorous, and reprehensible’. Ellenborough was also chastised by Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian and Whig politician in the House of Commons, for giving importance to a ‘heretic’ religion and its people. The ramifications of this event were catastrophic for the governor-general.
Besides raising unanswered questions about the gates themselves, tragicomic incidents like this remind us how history is often surprising — in unexpected ways. While the zeal for repatriation might be at fever-pitch today, it is not new, nor always free of ulterior motives — in this case, trying to win the favour of Indian Hindus by appearing to avenge Ghazni’s insult. Time and again such stories ask us to examine cultural contexts with care so that we may acknowledge the multiple and colourful lives of art historical objects — even those with many question marks.
If Lord Ellenborough brought back the gates of the Somnath Temple to avenge the British defeat in Kabul, in India, too, the quest to repatriate looted cultural artefacts is rooted in questions of national pride. The gates of the Somnath Temple had no sway with nineteenth-century Indians; today, however, history is a hotly contested battle. Even as statues are toppled and anti-colonial sentiment lauded, an important question remains — who owns history? Repatriation may look like a moral victory for the global south, but it cannot ensure that communities are rightful stakeholders in the process.