IIAS Lunch Lecture

Gods Imprisoned. Religious Economy and Heritage Making in Modern Rajasthan

In February 2011, thieves invaded the Pipala Mata temple in Osian, a small village in the Jodhpur District of Rajasthan. They had come to steal the gods—more specifically, the massive 8th century stone sculptures of Kubera, Ganesha and Durga venerated as the tutelary deities of the Pipala community. Before they could be sold to black-market antiquities dealers, however, the thieves were apprehended and the stolen images recovered by police. As objects of immense value and symbolic density—aesthetic, economic, political, and ritual—images of Indian deities have long been subject to theft and looting. Yet, while the theft of the Osian images gestures to an established historical pattern, the events that followed have made this case considerably more complex. Rather than being returned to the temple, the images were deposited in a cell at the Osian jail, where they remain today, pending the resolution of an ongoing battle in the Rajasthan High Court in Jodhpur.

The imprisonment of the gods is a powerful reflection of the contested status and complex materiality of these images. I use this fraught case of heritage making as an entrée into broader considerations of the valuation of the past in modern India. Drawing upon evidence gathered during fieldwork and interviews in Osian and Jodhpur in 2015, I examine the interactions between local authorities and state and national heritage actors. In doing so, I pay particular attention to the impact this case has had on the local religious economy, and the ways in which Osian’s archeological legacy is being mined for its potential to draw tourists to an otherwise isolated region, thereby creating new economic opportunities and potential for social mobility for local residents.


Elizabeth Cecil, affilated fellow at IIAS (Feb - July 2017), is an historian of pre-colonial South and South East Asia with a focus on Religion and Material Culture. Previously, she was a researcher at LIAS in the context of her Post-Doctoral research position at the British Museum, where she was working with the ERC project ‘Asia Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language and the State’. 

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About IIAS Lunch Lectures

Every month, an IIAS researcher or visiting scholar will present his or her work-in-progress in an informal setting to colleagues and other interested attendees. IIAS organises these lunch lectures to give the research community the opportunity to freely discuss ongoing research and exchange thoughts and ideas.