The Idol Wing-CID has submitted documents to U.S. officials through the Central government to retrieve six exquisite Chola-era bronze idols that went missing from the Veeracholapuram temple in Kallakurichi district in the 1960s. They were spotted at the Cleveland museum and Christie's auction house in the U.S.
In 2018, Elephant G. Rajendran, an advocate, filed a complaint with a special unit of the police that the metal idols of Tripurantaka, Thiripurasundari and a few other idols were stolen from the Nareeswara Sivan Temple at Veeracholapuram in the then Villupuram District (now Kallakurichi district) by unknown persons 30 years ago. Based on his complaint, the Idol Wing took up the investigation.
The temple was constructed 900 years ago by Chola king Rajendra Chola. The French Institute of Puducherry (IFP) also provided the photographs of the idols taken in 1956 to the Idol Wing to pursue its investigation.
As the investigation progressed, the Idol Wing began looking for the idols with assistance from S. Vijay Kumar, a heritage enthusiast and co-founder of India Pride, in the catalogues of art collectors, museums and auction houses. The investigators stumbled upon the images of sculptures of Saint Sundarar and his wife Paravai Natchiyaar, two of the antiquities stolen from the temple, on the official website of Freer Sackler Museum of Art.
Investigation revealed that the Christies Auctions and Private Sale had auctioned the panchaloha idol of Nataraja in 2003 for $231,500 and a panchaloha idol of Veenadhara Dakshinamurthy for $1,203,750 in 2013.
The idols of Tripuranthaka and Thiripurasundari were found on the official website of Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio.
All the images were sent for comparison to the Director and Chemical Examiner, Forensic Sciences Department, through the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Kumbakonam. On examination of the photos, the experts confirmed that the images obtained from IFP, Pondicherry, when compared with the photos from the websites of the museums and the auction house were the same.
K. Jayanth Murali, Director-General of Police, Idol Wing-CID, said, “We have sent a letter of request through proper channel for repatriation of the six antique bronze metal idols/sculptures burgled from the Veeracholapuram temple which are currently available in the museums and other places of the U.S. under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) between India and the U.S. Having successfully traced the stolen idols, we have now initiated steps to bring them back to India by proving the ownership through documents...”
Mr. Vijay Kumar said, “We have been working on these for over five years now and are hopeful to see some closure soon. We feel the soft diplomacy approach has not helped for years with museums and auction houses. Nations like Italy and Cambodia have successfully initiated criminal proceedings in U.S. courts to claim their stolen artefacts based on their national patrimony laws and under common law. India, too, needs to follow suit to not look weak especially since these are objects of faith and can go back to the rightful owner. In fact, the Veeracholapuram temple, as the rightful owner, should sue the museums and auction houses for its deities.”