Protector left unprotected

It has taken the recent theft of an 800-year-old Ganapati idol from the historical Sangameshwara temple in Sindhaghatta in K.R. Pet taluk to yet again highlight how vulnerable ancient temples are across the State; and the almost absent security around them.

The intricately carved black-stone idol is traced to the time of the Hoysalas, who ruled the region from the 11th Century to the 14th Century and whose hallmark was their exquisite temple architecture.

On February 11, suspected smugglers broke open the doors of the ancient temple and made away with the idol. They also damaged the Suryanarayana idol in the process. The police are yet to solve the theft.

This theft is just another instance in a long history of looting of the State’s ancient temples. To those who make a lucrative business in stolen antiques, the ancient temples in Karnataka are a soft target. According to the Crime Records Bureau under the State police, in the last 15 years, smuggling rings have robbed no less than 200 historical temples and monuments of their precious antiques. They have also vandalised many sites while raiding them for hidden treasures.

The epicentres of these thefts are Mandya, Mysuru, Hassan, Ballari, Kalaburagi, Vijayapura, Bagalkot, and Bidar districts, where various dynasties built glorious monuments over the last dozen-odd centuries.

990 monuments

Karnataka is estimated to have at least 3,000 archaeologically significant monuments, which are mostly temples or shrines. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) under the Central government maintains 218 of them while the State Department of Archaeology and Museums protects 772. The Muzrai Department supervises the remaining temples.

The two archaeology agencies have declared them protected monuments, but neither has ensured adequate security measures at the sites.

Senior police officials in Hassan, Mandya and Mysuru say less than five per cent of the historical monuments have security guards. “The departments concerned have just installed boards at the monuments [to proclaim that they are protected] but they have neglected the risk aspects,” a senior police officer in Hassan, who has worked on several cases of temple thefts in recent years, told The Hindu.

Well-oiled racket

Stealing, selling and keeping antique idols are punishable offences under the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972.

According to officials, stealing valuable and old idols and smuggling them out is part of a well-oiled international racket. The smugglers apparently look up historical records such as the ‘Epigraphia Carnatica’ – a set of books on the epigraphy of the Old Mysore region – to zero in on their targets. They survey the sites several times to plan their entry and getaway. They later strike a deal with prospective buyers, execute their plan and later smuggle the antiques out of the country. Some of them have concealed the loot in furniture and such other goods.

Their other sources of antiques are people who find them while constructing their houses or ploughing farmlands.

No separate wing

How do other States handle the menace?

Way back in 1983, the Tamil Nadu government, for instance, formed the Idol Wing CID (Criminal Investigation Department) under a DIG to crack such cases. Its officials frequent museums in Germany, the U.K. and the U.S., among others, for clues in the course of their investigations.

In July 2012, the Tamil Nadu police had New York’s high-profile art dealer Subhash Kapoor extradited to Chennai for interrogation in connection with trading in stolen high-value temple antiques from the Chola era.

Karnataka’s beautiful monuments seem to be crying out for one such unit.

90 p.c. monuments are susceptible to thefts

Karnataka’s cultural history is rich with the hoary contributions of early and medieval empires that flourished in the region, some as far back as the 5th Century, namely the Chola, Hoysala, Kadamba, Gandhara, Vijayanagara, Pallava, Chalukya, and Ganga dynasties

The temples built in those times and their idols, most of them architectural marvels, have been frequently targeted by art thieves for the premium they fetch in international art marts.

Yet, according to the State police, more than 90 per cent of these vulnerable targets have no security around them.

While the Archaeology departments under the Central and State governments have stepped up security at a few well-known temples, the Muzrai Department has appointed security guards only at temples attracting devotees in large numbers. That leaves the rest that have no regular worship open to smugglers’ raids.

No action

Some time ago, the police department had suggested that the ASI and the Department of Archaeology and Museums should appoint security guards and install burglar alarm and other surveillance devices to prevent thefts. The suggestions have not been implemented.

Police officials in Mandya and Mysuru said these departments should install at least burglar alarms and good quality CCTVs with an integrated UPS system at ancient temples.

“We certainly are worried over the thefts at protected historical monuments. We will discuss with the police how to step up security measures,” said a senior ASI officer who did not wish to be named.

The Department of Archaeology and Museums has appointed security guards at some temples and files complaints with the police when there are thefts, according to Gavisiddaiah, Deputy Director of the department.

Those under ASI safe

Hassan: About a year ago, thieves stole two idols from the Hoysala-era Channakeshava Temple at Marle in Chickmagalur taluk. And seven years ago, idols vanished from the sanctum sanctorum of the Govindeshwara temple, another piece or Hoysala architecture, at Koravangala in Hassan. The police registered both the thefts but neither has been solved.

M. Kavyashree, curator of Government Museum of the State Archaeology Department, told The Hindu that lack of security was the primary reason for such thefts. “We have not been able to recover the idols stolen in Marle and Koravangala. Both temples are protected monuments listed by the State Archaeology Department,” she said.

Hassan district, about four hours’ drive or roughly 180 km from Bengaluru, is a popular tourist destination and attracts thousands of tourists from across the globe every year. The State Archaeology Department lists 26 protected monuments in the district and the Archaeological Survey of India, 21 monuments.

The Jain pilgrimage centre of Shravanabelagola, famous for the monolithic Gomateshwara; the Channakeshava temple of Belur; and the Hoysaleshwara temple of Halebidu are all in Hassan.

“The ASI has sufficient funds for the security of its monuments. Each site has a security guard and the area around the monuments is also maintained well. Many temples are taken care of by local people. In a few cases, priests appointed by the Muzrai Department look after the temple,” Ms. Kavyashree said.

Although there have been “no instances of idol theft in recent times,” the curator has requested the department to post security guards at the monuments.

The monuments under the ASI have been safe so far.

January 5, 2008

Miscreants steal ornaments and valuables from the Yoga Narasimhaswamy temple at Melkote, Mandya district.

July 13, 2009

Ancient idol of Ganesha of Vijayanagara period stolen from the Gari Bhavi Anjaneya temple in Kamalapur town near Hampi in Ballari district.

December 7, 2010

Bhatkal police recover 2,000-year-old antique Jain panchaloha idols of Chandranatha and Parshwanatha from suspects. The priceless idols were stolen from the Padmavathi Basadi at Haduvalli village in Bhatkal taluk.

July 2013

Mangalore police recover three ancient Jain idols from Sailashree Vihar in Odisha. The idols belonged to 10th and 11th century-old Jain shrines in Moodbidri.

September 1, 2013

Miscreants loot 12 idols from the historical Marle Shri Chennakeshava Swamy temple, built during Hoysala period, in Chikkamagaluru.

March 7, 2014

Smugglers steal the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari from the historical Sri Vamadeshwara Swamy temple in Govindanahalli in K.R. Pet taluk in Mandya district.

October 4, 2014

Idols stolen from the 12th-Century Hoysala temple at Brahmeswara in Kikkeri in Mandya district.

March 10, 2015

Bengaluru police recover antique panchaloha idols worth Rs 1.5 crore from four persons near Sumanahalli Bridge in Bengaluru. Arrested said they got them at Mandya from alleged smugglers.

March 12, 2015

11 panchaloha idols stolen from the 500-year-old Papagni temple in Chickballapur.

February 11, 2016

An ancient idol of Lord Ganapati stolen from Sri Sangameshwara temple belonging to the Hoysala period at Sindhaghatta in K.R. Pet in Mandya.

February 17, 2016

Panchaloha idol of Rama stolen from an ancient temple at Mudhol village in Sedam in Kalaburagi district.

February 2016

Miscreants steal the Bala Bheema idol from the Bala Bheemeshwara temple at Motekpalli in Sedam, Kalaburagi.

(With additional reporting by Sathish G.T.)

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