June 19, 2007 / 2:10 PM / 12 years ago

Human bone smuggling racket uncovered

KOLKATA, India (Reuters) - Indian police have discovered a stash of hundreds of human skulls and thigh bones and arrested a gang for allegedly smuggling them to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan for use in Buddhist monasteries.

Human skulls and bones are seen inside a police station in Burdwan town, 200 km (124 miles) north of Kolkata, in this file photo from April 23, 2007. Indian police have discovered a stash of hundreds of human skulls and thigh bones and arrested a gang for allegedly smuggling them to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan for use in Buddhist monasteries. REUTERS/Stringer

“During interrogation they confessed that the hollow human thigh bones were in great demand in monasteries and were used as blow-horns, and the skulls as vessels to drink from at religious ceremonies,” investigating officer Ravinder Nalwa said Tuesday.

It was the second cache of bones found in eastern India since April and police now believe the region could be the center of a much broader trade in human bones. They suspect some bones may even have ended up as far away as Thailand and Japan.

Officers found the latest collection in Jaigaon, a town in eastern India on the border with Bhutan, and arrested four people who said they were smuggling them across the border, Nalwa told Reuters by telephone from the northeastern town of Siliguri.

In April, police discovered what they called a “human bones factory” in the state, and arrested six people for illegally trading in skeletons. The bones were apparently being sold to medical students and for use in traditional medicine.

Both caches of bones appear to have originated in Varanasi, a Hindu holy city in northern India where millions of people are cremated every year on the banks of the Ganges.

“The skeletons seized in Jaigaon had all come from Varanasi’s cremation centers and all these years we thought they were just going secretly to medical students,” Nalwa said.

Eastern India was once a thriving center for the export of human skeletons, which were sent as far as western Europe, former traders in Kolkata said.

But the federal government banned the exports in the late 1980s after human rights groups raised questions about how the bones were being collected, forcing the trade underground.

Mukti Biswas, an arrested villager in another district of West Bengal state, told police that he had plucked bodies from the river, as well as collecting those left behind at Hindu cremation centers by poor people who lacked the wood to perform a proper cremation.

Biswas said he had supplied the bones to medical students.

Bhutanese authorities said they were awaiting more details from Indian police before investigating further but said they doubted if all the bones were destined for their country.

“We have never come across such large-scale cases before, maybe one or two,” Ninda Wangdi, a senior Bhutanese police officer, told Reuters by telephone.

Buddhist monks in India said human thigh bones and skulls were used by followers of a Tibetan school of Buddhism.

“But one or two bones would last a lifetime, so a racket this huge might have links to other countries,” said Bhikkhu Bodhipala, chief priest of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya.

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