SYDNEY (Reuters) - India has formally requested two Australian art galleries to return two ancient statues of the Hindu god Shiva after it emerged the artefacts might have been looted from temples before being bought by the galleries several years ago.
In an email to Reuters, the Attorney-General's Department said the Government of India asked the Australian government for the return of both statues, saying they were "exported from India in contravention of cultural property laws".
The National Gallery of Australia on Wednesday removed from public viewing a 900-year-old bronze figure of Shiva for which it had paid around $5 million in February 2008.
"The Gallery is cooperating and working closely with relevant authorities on possible outcomes," it said on its website. "The process for returning foreign cultural objects is handled on a government-to-government basis."
The second statue, an Ardhanariswara idol made of granulite, which represents Shiva in half-female form, was bought by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for an undisclosed sum in 2004.
Both statues date back to India's Chola period and originated from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the gallery websites show. The Chola period lasted roughly from the 9th century until the 13th century.
The National Gallery said police in India were alerted to the disappearance of a large bronze Shiva from a temple in the village of Sripuranthan in Tamil Nadu in August 2008.
The dancing Shiva was one of 22 items the gallery bought between 2002 and 2011 from a commercial gallery based in New York, run by art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
He is awaiting trial in India, where he is accused of running an antiquities looting enterprise worth more than $100 million, local media say.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales will continue to "cooperate fully with the Australian Government and relevant authorities towards a resolution," it said in an email to Reuters.
Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Clarence Fernandez