The recent theft of precious idols has chipped away at a fragile ecosystem of faith and economics in Moodabidri, a small town near Mangalore.

If you travel 35 kilometres northeast from Mangalore, into the Western Ghats, you will come upon Moodabidri. There is nothing in this seemingly innocuous town to indicate that it was recently the scene of one of the largest and most audacious idol thefts. Fifteen precious and sacred Jain idols were stolen in a serious breach of temple security. Later, the thieves were apparently caught in distant Orissa, after having predictably melted down and thus destroyed many of the idols. In the street before me near the basadi (shrine or temple)from where the idols were stolen, a lone policemen sits near his motorbike, flicking his lathi, assessing me, determinedly uncommunicative.

The rolling mountain-scape of the Western Ghats all around seems aglitter after the rain, each leaf shining separately. I am sitting, cheerless, on the knee-length mossy stone wall outside one of the smaller more captivating Jain basadis. The town is clustered around several such inviting, wayside shrines. Most of the smaller shrines among the 18 in the town are shut, and it is frustrating to be able to see so little. Is everything closed because of the theft of idols?

An elderly man appears in front of me, seemingly out of thin air. He introduces himself as a priest in one of the smaller basadis. I ask him about the locked gates. Was it for security? He thought a while before he said, “I am not paid enough to feed myself. I have a family. Do you know how much some of our idols are worth, all gold and diamond and rubies and emeralds? Do you know how many wealthy businessmen come here every day, even now in the off-season? They give a lot of money, so there must be a lot of money somewhere. But I don’t get to see any of it. So I do the pooja for a few minutes a day, then close shop. I tell my children they need other skills to survive. Astrology, divining water. Faith requires money.”

I begin to understand. Few of the problems here can be comprehended by reducing it to poor security, or the theft of idols. The delicate eco-system of the Jain basadis, winding into and out of picturesque old wooden houses and trees and town, had a deserted feeling to it. I could sense a more profound evisceration.

On the way to the town were a lot of smaller Hindu temples, more modern structures, constructed with cement and artless if colourful papier-mâché, and packed with people, open all day. There were many posters and quotes of Vivekananda, and an equal number of advertisements for coaching institutes and gold shops. On the main road that ran through town, I heard someone tell a confused foreign tourist that what was really famous here was a sweet made of coconut, sugar and ghee.

I walk up to the main basadi; the most famous one here, the one with a thousand pillars, dating from 1430, and in the words of a traditional panegyric, shining like the vermillion mark on the forehead of a woman. There are cows grazing outside; there are the offerings to the snake-gods; the priest inside wears his sacred thread, and offers kumkum. Tourism, or at least medical utilitarianism, might sustain faith at least in this famous basadi. Here too, someone materialises, saying he is a guide and that this place is famous for an oil that when applied for several months cures leucoderma and other ailments that result from the curse of snake-gods. This secular blessing seems to have brought more pilgrims; many non-Jains, who were not allowed into the innermost parts of the temple, could be seen praying fervently.

It is a curious mirroring. One person’s faith might be another’s folklore, devoid of transcendental efficacy. Around the temple is carved a familiar iconography: Ganesha, Garuda, Krishna, Rama and Lakshmana with the vanaras trudging to build their bridge. In many Jain traditions, these Hindu gods are part of a revered, yet secular, lore. However, in orthodox Jain faith, there is no final transcendence of the human. The innermost idol — of stunning gold — is of a resolutely haunting human form. The gods are outside, carved in stone; respected but part of a larger febrile worldly mélange of percussionists, and dancers, in the same order of representation as the domestic labour of women. Maybe this outer layer of the basadi, the home of the secular, was meant to include all that was to come even from the future, including the incongruous chandelier of our more modern times.

What might the human figure, at that edge of transcendence, be without these secular layerings of the outside temple walls? I drive 20 kilometres away to another small town, Karkala, to a separate complex of equally famous basadis. There, standing 13m tall, on a bald starkly black granite hill, is the contemporaneous 15th century single stone image of Bahubali, the great Jain renunciate. Here no secular layering of outer walls distracts from an image that feels as if it has been placed on a hill perfectly constructed by nature for just such an installation. The face seems weather scarred but then the scathing of the weather is just another ascetic privation, as are the vines curving themselves up his forearm. This is the classic image of upright naked renunciation, very similar in appearance to the more famous monolith at Shravanabelagola.

Certain images renounce temples, and escape into the world. What then will feed the priest? As I left him, he remarked that the latest theft was only one in a long series of nails in the coffin of this delicate spiritual ecology. For, he said, ascending his bicycle, this old way of life is dying and nobody understands; not the government, nor the Trusts, nor the tourists, nor the faithful.