Back to the temple: How Idol Wing is tracking Tamil Nadu’s Stolen treasures

Updated on Sep 16, 2022 10:50 AM IST

Established in 1983, Tamil Nadu Police’s Idol Wing has one objective one task — tracking down ancient artifacts stolen from places of religious worship in the state.

 (TN Idol Wing) PREMIUM
(TN Idol Wing)
By, Chennai

On 21 May, 2021, three young men broke into the Arulmighu Adhinatha Perumal Ranganayaki Ammal temple, located on a hilltop in Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district. They threatened the temple’s two priests at knifepoint, locked them in a room, and fled with five recently installed bronze idols.

By the following week, two brokers were offering the idols to wealthy collectors for 12 crore — but they were understandably chary. One collector, in particular, was persistent, and in August, a deal was struck with the brokers, identified only as Paul Raj and Dinesh, who finally agreed to allow the potential buyer to see the idols. A rendezvous was fixed on the national highway in Madurai, 70km from Dindigul. The two arrived, with a man called Prabhakaran, the mastermind behind the robbery and one of the three directly involved in it, and with the five idols — but instead of the buyer, they were met by a special unit of the state police that arrested them.

It later emerged that the wealthy customer was actually a sub-inspector of the unit in disguise, belonging to one of Tamil Nadu’s most successful — and equally low-profile — divisions, the Idol Wing. The undercover operation was planned by DGP Jayanth Murali, the senior-most police official in the Idol Wing , and the arrest was made by a team led by ADSP Malaichamy . And sub-inspector R Rajesh played the role of the wealthy buyer to perfection — being ferried to the meetings with the brokers in a luxury car chauffeured by one of his colleagues. “We had to make him look wealthy and like a person who had a taste in the arts. Still, they refused to show him the idols at first,” Murali said.

Over the past few years, this is just one of the examples of successful recoveries by Tamil Nadu Police’s Idol Wing (established in 1983), where officers have just one objective one task — tracking down ancient artifacts stolen from places of religious worship in Tamil Nadu. These include Sridevi and Vishnu idols from the 13th century traced to the Kimbell Art Museum and Hills Auction Gallery in the US, respectively; a Nataraja idol stolen six years ago from a 2,000-year old temple in Thanjavur traced to the Asia Society Museum in New York.

Documents to send back six Chola-era bronze idols stolen in the 1960s from Kallakurichi are now with US officials after the Idol Wing identified them in Christie’s Auction House, Cleveland Museum and the Freer Sackler Museum of Art. Investigations found that two of these statues were auctioned off in 2003 and 2013 for $ 231,500 and $1.2 million, respectively.

The chase

In 1982, thieves broke into the Arulmigu Pannaka Parameswara Swamy) temple in Nagapattinam to steal a bronze Ganesha statue. A case on this was only filed in on August 16 this year, and the Idol Wing took it up on the day itself. Except, they soon ran into a familiar problem — there was no photo of the stolen statue. So, the Idol Wing turned to an old ally, the French Institute of Pondicherry, which has 140,000 photographs of temples and historical structures in south India. “They are truly the heroes of this operation,” says Murali.

Established in 1955 to study Indian civilization and culture, the institute began documenting photographs in 1956. The organisation’s collaboration with various agencies dates back over five decades. For instance, in 1976, a person found a Nataraja idol along with a few others buried in Pathur, a village near Thanjavur and sold them to a middleman who further sold them to a Canadian national. While in transit, the bronze idols were seized by Scotland Yard in London.

In 1982, the Indian government filed a case in the London high court, asking for their return. “MGR (then chief minister MG Ramachandran) sent Mr Nagaswamy, the then Director of Archaeology of Tamil Nadu in 1984 to the London court as an expert witness to argue the case using documents from our Institute,” says K Rameshkumar, the current head of the institute’s Photo Archives. The study of inscriptions, stylistic considerations, translations and Agamic literature provided enough evidence for the judgement to be in favour of India and the Pathur Nataraja was returned.

“In the initial days, under then director (legendary Frenchman Jean Filliozat), researchers began collecting manuscripts of the Shavia Agamas (scriptures of Hindu schools, some of which are believed to pre-date the vedas) so a photo collection and an archive was started to support the texts,” said Rameshkumar. “Since 1956, three photographers have contributed to our entire photo collection across India up to Kashmir. It’s our collective effort to bring back our heritage which is lying elsewhere.”

The first call in the Ganesha case then, was to Rameshkumar. Sure enough, the institute had a photograph of the Ganesha from 1959. But that wasn’t all. When investigating officer R Indira asked the institute for all photographs of the temple, she discovered that 11 other idols had also been stolen. “But the temple was clueless and it has been so many years since the theft that the devotees couldn’t recall much either,” says Indira. She and other officers used the photos from the institute and began studying online catalogues of museums, auction houses, and art dealers . They found two matches in the month of August, and an archaeologist confirmed the match of the Devi idol on the 31st and the Ganesha on the 17th of the same month.

Idol Wing investigators first found a 48.3cm-tall copper Devi idol in a museum, Indian and Southeast Asian Works of Art, New York. The museum had acquired the piece between 1970 and 1973. Further investigations revealed that Sotheby’s auction house had sold it for US $50,000 ( 3,998,575) back then.

Next, they found another bronze Ganesha at the Norton Simon Museum in California. The idol — about 11 feet in height and a foot wide — had come into the possession of the museum in 1972, and was worth more than 3 crore. To corroborate their findings, the Idol Wing took the aid of independent art detective S Vijay Kumar who wrote a 2018 book titled The Idol Thief: The True Story of India’s Looting Temples. Sure enough, they found a connection to the main protagonist of the book: Subhash Kapoor.

Kapoor, a former Manhattan art dealer and one of the world’s most notorious antiquities’ thieves, has been jailed in Tiruchirappalli since 2011. Officials said that initial investigations “point to Kapoor’s involvement”. Kapoor was arrested in 2011 from an immigration queue in Germany by the Interpol. Now in his 70s, he is awaiting trial, and also faces charges in New York.

Bringing lost treasures

To be sure, the road to getting these idols back is long.

To do so, the Idol Wing, which has around 300 officers across Tamil Nadu, has to show detailed documentation to prove that the idol discovered is the same as that stolen from say, a temple. For this, they need a certificate from an expert such as an archaeologist to certify that the two photographs match. Then the state agency forwards the documents to the Union home ministry, which, in turn, forwards them to the ministry of external affairs. Communication through diplomatic channels is then established with the corresponding foreign country. Under the complex Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) and the Unesco Treaty of 1972, once the veracity of the documents has been established, the stolen idols are handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India, which passes it on to the Idol Wing.

The repatriation of stolen antiquities to India has increased over the past few years. In May this year, Australia returned 29 antiquities to India ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s virtual meeting with his counterpart Scott Morrison. It included a 12th century bronze Sambandar idol from Tamil Nadu and a 9-10th century Shiva Bhairava sandstone sculpture from Rajasthan. Following his three-day visit to the US in September 2021, Modi returned with 157 artefacts and antiquities handed over by them which included a 12th century bronze Nataraja, a three-headed Brahma. With the Antiquity and Art Treasures Act of 1972, ASI is the official custodian of stolen antiquities that are brought back. During his Mann Ki Baat session earlier in February, Modi said that more than 200 stolen idols were brought back to India after 2014 when he first came to power as opposed to only 13 until 2013. “Nations to where the stolen idols were taken, now realise India’s attachment to the stolen heritage,” Modi said adding that the idols are part of the country’s soul and faith.”

After receiving the antiquities from ASI , the Idol Wing hands them over to local courts so the judiciary can direct the idols back to their original homes. In some cases, there is a paucity of verifiable information and they are sent to the state government-run icon centres where strong rooms house idols and valuables. “We have recently sent 500 idols to the icon centre,” Murali said. This year alone, the Idol Wing has brought back 10 idols . “We have traced and documented another 52 idols,” said Murali. Proposals for their return have been sent to the home ministry.

Increased efforts

Given their well-publicised recent successes, officials say there is increased awareness, resulting in more tip-offs coming their way (though not all are genuine). Acting on one such recent tip-off, the Idol Wing raided a residence in Chennai’s upscale Anna Nagar and found a dancing Nataraja and a Mariamman idol. Both were registered with ASI and the owner informed the police that they were around 300 years old, and passed on to her from her father who got it from his grandfather. Police are investigating the matter.

Murali added that the unit is now hiring an expert archaeologist or curator on deputation . “This is much needed for us as we do not know how to maintain the idols. Some of the idols come back damaged”, Murali said.

The Idol Wing is also collaborating with IIT-Madras to use technology (automated image matching, for instance) to trace the idols anywhere in the world. “They will develop algorithms with the unique characteristics and workmanship of the different periods like Pandya, Chola, and Sangam so the software can identify the idols. Each idol is different,” said Murali. The Idol Wing is also considering a virtual museum of the idols recovered so far. “Idol thefts happen because people want to possess such rare and exquisite artefacts. Non-fungible tokens can be provided for those interested and the state government can also earn a revenue of 30-40 lakh for each NFT,” Murali said.

For the Idol Wing, there is much work still to be done, and not all of it revolves just around temples. In October 2005, a Bible translated into Tamil, said to be the world’s first-ever printed Bible in that language, went missing from Thanjavur’s Saraswati Mahal Museum . In July 2022, the idol wing traced the antique to the King’s Collections in London. “It was the first book on their web page,” said inspector R Indira.

“The first clue I got was that some Germans had come to the museum in 2005,” said Indira, who began investigating the case only in 2020. Indira went on a research journey, reading up on Europeans, Christianity and Tamil Nadu. She learnt that a German missionary Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg had set up a printing press in Tharangambadi (Mayiladuthurai district) and had printed the Bible in Tamil to spread its teachings in the 17th century. The procedure to bring back the rare Tamil Bible is underway.

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    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

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