A 1,046-year-old stone idol of Narasimmee, stolen from the Vriddhagiriswarar temple in Vriddhachalam nearly 15 years ago, has returned to Tamil Nadu. The idol was bought by the Canberra-based National Gallery of Australia (NGA) — and recorded as Pratyangira in the museum’s records — from alleged idol smuggler and antique dealer Subhash Kapoor. It was returned to Union Minister of State for Culture and Tourism, Mahesh Sharma, when he visited Australia in September last year. Along with the Narasimmee idol, the Australian authorities returned a third century rock carving as well as a ‘seated Buddha’ to Mr. Sharma.
The ancient Chola temple of Vriddhagiriswarar was commissioned by Sembiyan Mahadevi, among the most powerful queens of the Chola empire and an ardent worshipper of Lord Siva. Police are now searching for a bronze idol of Sembiyan Mahadevi stolen from a temple in Nagapattinam district 56 years ago, as well as four more idols looted from the Vriddhachalam temple.
The Narasimmee idol was stolen along with five other stone idols of deities from the same temple. The theft was not reported to the police and was detected some 11 years later, in 2013.
Describing the idol theft, CB CID (Idol Wing) Inspector General of Police A.G. Ponn Manickavel said, “We were looking for idols stolen from the Sripuranthan temple and sent a letter rogatory to the Australian authorities to furnish information. They sent details of a few other idols from India that were procured through antique dealers and were on display at the gallery.”
Vijay Kumar, a heritage enthusiast who has helped trace stolen idols abroad, told the police that a stone Ardhanariswarar icon was likely also from the Vriddhagiriswarar temple.
The Ardhanariswarar idol was returned by the Australian gallery along with a bronze Nataraja, which came from Sripuranthan in Ariyalur, in 2014.