Stolen Chola-era Buddha idol now stuck in the U.S.

It was stolen from a temple in Arpakkam on the outskirts of Kancheepuram about 20 years ago

August 10, 2022 09:18 pm | Updated August 11, 2022 01:32 am IST - CHENNAI

The idol is with the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S., without any claim having been made by the Indian authorities.

The idol is with the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S., without any claim having been made by the Indian authorities.

A Chola-era Buddha idol that was reportedly stolen from Arpakkam near Kancheepuram is now stuck with the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S., without any claim having been made by the Indian authorities.

Arpakkam, a small village on the outskirts of Kancheepuram, is a virtual treasure trove of heritage. It has a Jain temple, a Shiva temple and an Adikesava Perumal temple - all over 1,000 years old. It has a Buddhist vestige as well. Three granite idols of Buddha were located in the confines of the Perumal temple. While one of them was inside the temple, a large Chola-era seated Buddha and a headless seated Buddha lined the outer walls.

About 20 years ago, the idol of the seated Buddha was stolen. But the theft went unreported and the police have not investigated it. However, the idol was spotted at an exhibition in Singapore in 2007.

Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke at the inauguration of 'Nalanda trial', the exhibition on Buddhism in India, China and South East Asia, organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), Singapore.

One of the highlights of the exhibition was the large granite Chola-era Buddha with a plate that read ‘Nagapattinam Buddha’. It was on loan from Art of Past, an art gallery owned by Subhash Kapoor, which had completed the sale of several Indian artefacts to the ACM.

The ACM, however, did not purchase the Buddha idol, and returned it to New York to be featured in the Art of Past 2010 catalog, with a high provenance of being exhibited in the Asian Civilisations Museum from November 2007 to March 23, 2008. It is understood that with this provenance, Kapoor had put the Buddha in the market for upwards of US$ 2 million. Art of the Past and Kapoor have since been indicted in many cases of illicit smuggling of antiquities. The so-called Nagapattinam Buddha was seized in New York as part of an operation by Homeland Security in 2012. However, the Indian authorities had not been able to restitute the Buddha for want of clear evidence of its theft, sources said.

S. Vijay Kumar, art enthusiast and co-founder of India Pride, said, “We can provide the evidence. Our research and outreach programmes on social media have unearthed the vital proof required. The image of the Buddha was published in a 2001 book titled ‘Arignar Parvaiyil Boutham’, authored by T. Rajagopalan. We hope the Idol Wing investigates the theft, rumoured to have been masterminded by two antique dealers, and takes steps to bring back the stolen Buddha to its home in Arpakkam. The two other Buddhas currently in the village need to be moved for their safety, and the Archaeological Department has to conduct a proper survey to see if Arpakkam holds more buried artefacts.”

However, a senior police officer of the Idol Wing CID said, "We have taken up the case with Homeland Security for the restitution of the idol. They made certain queries about the idol and sought other details. We will send the details and retrieve it. We will restore the idol to the temple after bringing it to the country."

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