The Grave Robbers of India

History repeats itself as the West’s demand for human skeletons resurrects the macabre practice of grave robbers scouring cemeteries in India. Their quest fuels a lucrative black market.

| May/June 2013

A constable jerks open the back door of a decrepit Indian-made Tata Sumo SUV—what passes for an evidence locker at this rustic police outpost in the Indian state of West Bengal. A hundred human skulls tumble out onto a ragged cloth covering a patch of mud, making a hollow clatter as they fall to the ground. They’ve lost most of their teeth bouncing around in the back of the truck.  

Standing next to the truck, the ranking officer smiles. “Now you can see how big the bone business is here,” he says. I crouch down and pick up a skull. It’s lighter than I expected. I hold it up to my nose. It smells like fried chicken.

Before the authorities intercepted it, this cache was moving along a well-established pipeline for human skeletal remains. For 150 years, India’s bone trade has followed a route from remote Indian villages to the world’s most distinguished medical schools.

Skeletons aren’t easy to get. In the United States, for instance, most corpses receive a prompt burial or cremation. Bodies donated to science usually end up on the dissection table or their bones sawed to pieces. Sometimes they’re sucked into the more profitable industry of medical grafts. So most complete skeletons used for medical study come from overseas. Often they arrive without the informed consent of their former owners and in violation of the laws of their country of origin.

The constable grabs the cloth by its corners and gathers the evidence into a bundle. “You know, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “I hope I don’t again.”

The Grave Robbing Business

A day later, I’m driving to the tiny village of Purbasthali—about 80 miles outside of Kolkata, the state capital, which was renamed from Calcutta in 2001. The village is the site of the processing plant where the police discovered their load of skulls.