All you need to know about the idol smuggling racket worth crores

  • Sandhya Ravishankar
  • Updated: Aug 08, 2016 18:03 IST
Deenadayalan was an art dealer and used to run a small art gallery in Teynampet, Chennai since 1995. (Photo by special arrangement)

It was a muggy morning on May 31, and Chennai inspector general of police AG Pon Manickavel was setting off to a Kanchipuram jail for a case thrust upon him by the Madras High Court. It was a bizarre case - a ‘dead’ man had filed a petition in court saying that he was, in fact, alive and that the Tamil Nadu police had willfully hidden the fact. Following this astounding petition, the court had handed the case to Manickavel for a thorough probe.

While questioning the accused, the IG’s phone buzzed. An important source was ringing frantically. Manickavel leads the Idol Wing CID of the Tamil Nadu Police’s Economic Offences Wing, and the tip-off he’d been waiting for had finally arrived - stolen antique idols were being packaged for export at a house in Chennai’s upscale neighbourhood of Alwarpet. If the police were quick on their feet, they would be able to nab an infamous idol smuggler who had been escaping their net for years.

Manickavel rang his subordinate, deputy superintendent of police PA Sundaram, and asked him to go take a peek at the house to confirm if the source was right. The senior cop had already decided to start back to Chennai, about 70 km away, having a good feeling about this tip-off. DSP Sundaram, a differently-abled officer who has the use of only one leg, eventually confirmed that idols were indeed being packed and crated for shipping, and got authorisation to swoop in along with four officers.

The DSP caught three startled workers in the house red-handed - 60-year-olds Rajamani and Kumar and 55-year-old Man Singh. The police looked with wonder at the enormous stock of around 200 ancient idols in bronze and stone, including 49 bronzes, 71 stone carvings, 96 rare paintings, and various miniature statues, massive stone Nandis, ivory and wood carvings, lamps, figurines, ornamental pillars and puja utensils.

The effort continued in the next few days and the team also raided an associated godown, where they found another haul of around 100 idols. However, there was one question that still vexed the police. “Where is Govindaraj Deenadayalan?” the police team asked the arrested workers. None seemed to know. The octogenarian mastermind of the smuggling racket had vanished once again.

Where did the idols go?

Paluvoor village in Tirunelveli district lies deep down south in Tamil Nadu. It was here that the notorious Deenadayalan’s downfall first began.

Resident T Esakkiyappan, 50, has been engaged in renovations and refurbishment of temples for the past two decades. Esakkiyappan distinctly remembers the day in 2005 the ‘poosari’ (pujari, or temple priest) of the nearby Arulmigu Narampoo Nadhaswamy temple came running to his house in a state of shock.

“The safe is wide open,” said the panicked priest according to Esakkiyappan. “The idols are gone!”

“I called up a few other prominent people in the village and took the priest straight to the police,” recounted Esakkiyappan. “We went with the police to see what had happened. The safe door was hanging open. And the Ananda Natarajar was gone.”

Esakkiyappan says that the temple was built during the reign of the Pandya kings (6th to 17th century) and consists of 14,000 square feet of two-tier stonework. Two layers of stonewalls protected the idols inside. In 1998, one wall layer crumbled and needed repairs. Esakkiyappan and other activists managed to persuade the state government to part with repair funds only in 2005, but before the work could be completed, the idols were robbed. The temple priest has changed since then, and no one seems to know where the 2005 priest is now.

“We knew only about the Ananda Natarajar [in the temple],” said Esakkiyappan, “because many years ago they would conduct ‘vazhipadu’ (prayers) for the idol three times a day. In the past decade or so, ‘vazhipadu’ was conducted only once a day and then the idol would be locked up. No one, not even the priest, knew how many idols were there in the safe. Only the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE) had records of which idols were in the temple.”

The HR&CE officials found that 13 idols had been stolen. Police investigations revealed that three men had hatched the plan to spirit the idols away - 84-year-old Deenadayalan was one of them. Of the other two, one was murdered and the other is facing trial, while Deenadayalan eluded the authorities by securing anticipatory bail for himself.

Out of 13 stolen idols, 8 have been recovered, including the Ananda Natarajar, while five still remain missing.

Initial estimates by police sources peg the value of the haul at over Rs 50 crore. However, as a team of archaeologists settles down to study the idols, it is now coming to light that each of the idols could well be worth that much apiece, if not more. (Photo by special arrangement)

The elusive suspect

The Tamil Nadu police are infamously tight-lipped and IG Pon Manickavel told this reporter that he was “too busy” and did not wish to make any comment. The facts of the investigation came to light through some officers who did not wish to be identified as it could cost them their jobs.

The officers of the Idol Wing CID had a serious problem on their hands. Deenadayalan had neatly slipped from their fingers in 2005, and it looked like he was about to do it again.

One senior officer said that after arresting Deenadayalan’s three helpers in Alwarpet, the team sat down to brainstorm. The name of the smuggling kingpin had also cropped up during their investigation of the Subhash Chandra Kapoor case in 2008. Since getting anticipatory bail in 2012, Deenadayalan had stayed under the radar, aware that the Idol Wing team was waiting and watching him.

“We could not let him escape this time,” said the officer. “[And even] if we arrested him, his chances of securing bail were high. Also, the courts would give us only two or three days to question him. Instead, our boss suggested that we paste a ‘Notice of Appearance’ on the door of his house - a move to prevent him from getting anticipatory bail again.”

A notice was duly pasted informing Deenadayalan that the police had reason to suspect him of idol smuggling, but that he would not be arrested. He should, instead, appear along with his counsel and present himself for questioning.

The innovative gambit worked. On 3rd June, Deenadayalan arrived at the Idol Wing police’s office, along with his lawyer, ready to be questioned. Two weeks of relentless questioning later, the Idol Wing police arrested and remanded him on 21st June.

Who is Deenadayalan?

Deenadayalan was an art dealer and used to run a small art gallery in Teynampet, Chennai since 1995. According to the police source, he subsequently opened a gallery in Bengaluru (now defunct) as well as another one in Alwarpet, Chennai called Aparna Art Gallery.

The seasoned smuggler is said to be an associate of the even more notorious idol smuggling kingpin in New York, Subhash Chandra Kapoor. The Chennai smuggler’s modus operandi appears to have been similar to that of Kapoor’s: identify ancient derelict temples in remote villages, usually of the Chola era (10th to 12th centuries AD), engage burglars to break in and steal their idols and bring them to Chennai. Once in the capital, Deenadayalan’s art gallery provided the perfect cover. He would then get small artisans near the city to produce counterfeit idols, and then ship a mix of real and fake antiques under the guise of ‘handicraft objects’ to agents in Mumbai, who then shipped idols to various countries like Australia, Hong Kong, the USA as well as Europe.

“We have known of Deenadayalan’s link with Subhash Kapoor since 2008,” said the police source. “That is why we have kept an eye on him all this while. So far we have found that he stole from temples mainly in Nagapattinam and Thanjavur.”

However, experts at the India Pride Project believe that this case could have been cracked at least nine years ago. The project is an international association consisting of a core team of 20 art experts and 200 volunteers across the world. The team specialises in tracking missing idols and working with international law enforcement agencies to help bring stolen idols back to India.

Spearheaded by S Vijay Kumar, a shipper with a keen passion for temple art and sculpture, the India Pride Project points out several loopholes in the police investigations in the Deenadayalan and Subhash Kapoor cases. “The long and short of this is that all of these should have been caught in 2007,” argued Vijay Kumar.

Kumar explained how in 2007, a container left the Mumbai port headed to New York. “Our investigations show that a call went from the DRI (Directorate of Revenue Intelligence) to the US Customs to check what was inside the container, which was then opened in New York,” said Kumar. “But someone warned the receiver and he abandoned the goods. The container had a whole heap of antiquities. For some mysterious reason, this case was put on the backburner for 2 years without any progress. This was one of Subhash Kapoor’s consignments.”

The next year, a truck driver was stopped in Kerala on a routine traffic stop. The police found in his possession a small Ucchista Ganesha bronze idol. The panic-stricken driver admitted his involvement in looting of the Sripuranthan and Suthamally temples in Tamil Nadu, along with a gang of temple thieves. The driver had retained the small Ganesha idol from that loot. “He told the Kerala police that ever since he took the idol, he had been facing a lot of problems,” laughed Kumar. “He had had a lot of punctures and the steering wheel did not turn properly, according to him. He probably believed the theft had brought him bad luck. But it was this man who revealed the name of Subhash Kapoor’s key aide - SanjeeviAshokan.”

Kumar says the trail from the truck driver’s confession leading to Deenadayalan’s doorstep via Kapoor was a clear one. “There are documents showing Subhash Kapoor remitted money to Selva Exports (run by Sanjeevi Ashokan), asking Ashokan to make payments to Deenadalayan. For some strange reason, the [Idol Wing] police did not bring in Deenadayalan at that point itself,” he said.

The lack of records of ancient idols and paintings, along with poor enforcement of the law, are the key causes for such blatant smuggling of these statues abroad. “Everyone knows that in India there are no archives or records about these ancient idols, and that they can be smuggled abroad since the rules are so lax. This is happening due to a deadly combination of official apathy and lack of information about the statues,” he said.

Kumar feels that the Indian government is not doing enough to retrieve the stolen idols or go after the network of smugglers aggressively. “In the US alone we have stolen idols seized from Subash Kapoor’s stash worth Rs 800 crore,” he argued. “The government seems to be content with eyewash, and they are not going after the network. This is not good enough.”

There is no clear sense yet of how much these precious antiques are worth and how much Deenadayalan profited from them, except this realisation that the figures could well be in the hundreds of crores. (Photo by special arrangement)

The informed thief

Close to 300 stone and bronze idols, wooden artifacts and paintings have been recovered so far from Deenadayalan - 200 from his own home and another 100 from his godown. Initial estimates by police sources peg the value of the haul at over Rs 50 crore. However, as a team of archaeologists settles down to study the idols, it is now coming to light that each of the idols could well be worth that much apiece, if not more. There is no clear sense yet of how much these precious antiques are worth and how much Deenadayalan profited from them, except this realisation that the figures could well be in the hundreds of crores.

“This is such a fabulous catch of stolen objects,” exclaimed R Nagaswamy, retired director of Archaeology for the government of Tamil Nadu, who is now part of the committee of archaeologists, art historians and chemical conservationists studying the stolen idols. “Out of these, some are early, even about 1st and 2nd century AD Buddhist sculptures. Some bronzes go back to Chola times to the 11th to 12th century AD. We have an 11th century Buddhist bronze from Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu,” he explained.

Nagaswamy says that meticulous research has obviously gone into picking which idols to steal, and the haul shows a good knowledge of the historic significance and value of the objects. “Nagapattinam was a famous Buddhist centre, particularly in the Chola period,” he said. “At that time, a big Buddha vihara (monastery) and Chaithya (shrine) were present there. One was built by Sri Vijaya, the king of what is now Malaysia and western Cambodia; he sent an ambassador to King Raja Raja Chola (between AD 985 and 1012) seeking permission to build a Buddha Chaithya statue in the name of his father Thodamani Varman. There were ambassadors arriving in Nagapattinam even in the next century.”

Nagaswamy says that around a hundred years ago, a special excavation was conducted at Nagapattinam by the British government in India which yielded 300 Buddha bronzes, all of them from the Chola period. One such bronze was an especially beautiful one - a Standing Buddha of the 11th century. “Quite a number of them were inscribed on the pedestal giving the name of the donor or the image,” he said. “Most are now in the Madras Museum, some were taken to a British museum, some went to other museums across the world. We do not know where he [Deenadayalan] got this particular Standing Buddha bronze from.”

“He has managed to source Amaravati marbles of the 1st and 2nd century AD,” said Nagaswamy. “An Amaravati Buddha and Amaravati Stupa slab - more than 2000 years old - are in the collection. There is also what is called a Chhatri - this is an umbrella made of limestone usually set above such stupas. There are a few good lead sculptures of the Mysore region which are 9th to 10th century. In the godown, we have found rare Kalinga sculptures from Orissa which are around 11th century, meaning around a 1000 years old,” he said.

Virtually every one of the idols and paintings recovered is an antique, according to Nagaswamy (an artifact is termed antique if it is more than 100 years old). “Owning an antiquity is not a crime, but if one is selling them, one requires a licence from the government,” continued Nagaswamy. “This man [Deenadayalan] is a seller. He is obliged to give details about what antiquities he has got, what is their value, to whom he is selling, etc. He also cannot sell it to foreigners. The buyer has to give details to the government. Deenadayalan does not seem to be able to produce any relevant documents.”

Nagaswamy and his team are also examining sculptures, bronzes and paintings that appear to have originated in other states. A number of stone sculptures belonging to the Hoysala period - a dynasty that ruled the western part of Mysore in the 11th and 12th centuries - form part of the cache. “These mature Hoysala art pieces are very valuable and it is very difficult to estimate the price of the artefacts,” he said. “On average, they may run into several million dollars in the international market.”

Other sculptures, bronzes and paintings have originated from Andhra Pradesh as well. “Most of these from the Andhra border region are 18th and 19th century paintings of the Maratha period,” he said. “There are also some Mysore tradition paintings that have been repainted. All of these are being examined now.”

Down to the wire

This same idol wing team had also cracked the infamous Subhash Kapoor case, issuing letter rogatories and providing reams of evidence to international authorities. In 2012, Kapoor was finally arrested at a German airport, following a Red Corner Notice issued against him by Interpol. He has been lodged in Puzhal jail in Chennai ever since, awaiting trial, his bail pleas continually being denied by various courts.

“Pon Manickavel is legally very sound,” explained the anonymous police officer. “He uses the law innovatively - one of his favourite Sections is 149 of the CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code). He has used that Section effectively to crack this idol smuggling case too.” Section 149 of the CrPC gives every police officer the power to “interpose for the purpose of preventing, and shall, to the best of his ability, prevent, the commission of any cognisable offence.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought back 11 stolen idols from the USA in June this year. Australia, too, has returned some of the stolen idols found in the Subhash Kapoor case. However, hundreds more are yet to come back to Indian shores.

Meanwhile, the whittled down nine-member team of the Idol Wing CID is working frantically to ensure that the paperwork is in order. “We are at an even more crucial juncture now,” said the police source. “We cannot afford to mess up on anything now that we have caught our fish.”

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

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