Tamil Nadu

How idol thieves deceived devotees

Tamil Nadu police who were investigating the theft of idols from Sripuranthan temple in Ariyalur stumbled upon the theft of six stone idols from the Virudhagiriswarar temple in Vriddhachalam that had happened in 2002 but had gone unreported.

When they sent letters rogatory to Australian authorities while pursuing the bronze Nataraja belonging to Sripuranthan, they received communication giving details of several other idols in museums there. Among them was a stone Ardhanariswarar that S. Vijay Kumar, a heritage enthusiast who has helped to identify many stolen Indian artefacts in foreign countries, identified as probably stolen from Vriddhagiriswarar temple in Vriddhachalam. The Hindu had reported (July 31, 2013) that the idol thieves had created a replica of the statue that was being worshipped by devotees without knowing that it was fake.

“Six idols had been stolen and replaced with replicas. Neither temple officials nor any custodian of the temple had reported the theft to the police,” said CBCID (Idol Wing) Inspector General of Police A.G. Ponn Manickavel. At his instance, the then Joint Commissioner, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, Villupuram, reported the theft of the Ardhanariswarar worth around ₹1.36 crore. The officials suppressed the theft of remaining idols, the police said.

With regard to the theft of other idols, Manickavel himself gave a report that was registered as an FIR in 2015, 13 years after the theft occurred. The case recorded six accused including US based-antique dealer Subhash Chandra Kapoor, 66, Vallabh Prakash, 86, Aditya Prakash, 48, of Indo-Nepal Centre, Mumbai, and Lakshmi Narasimhan of South Indian Arts, Mahabalipuram.

Mr. Manickavel said Subhash Kapoor and his associates did a recce of the temple in the early 2000s. They engaged sthapathis to make replicas of the idols and placed them on the pedestal where the original idols stood. The idol thieves used cranes to remove the original idols that were heavy.

Lucrative crime

After being stolen, the Narasimmee that returned to Tamil Nadu on Friday was transported to Mumbai through Chennai, along with the other idols. From Mumbai, the idols were taken to Hongkong, London and New York where Kapoor allegedly fabricated the provenances for the idols. For the Narasimmee, the Canberra-based National Gallery of Australia (NGA) paid $2.75 lakh, equivalent to ₹.1.49 crore, in 2005.

Additional Director General of Police Prateep V. Philip said the illegal stolen antique business is quite lucrative, next only to narcotics. The dealers spend a few lakhs of rupees to steal the idol but sell it for a huge amount in countries like the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand where people value heritage.

The Vriddhagiriswarar Narasimmee is a rarity since it comes from a Shiva temple while typical Narasimmar idols are found in Vaishnavite temples. The idol weighs nearly 210 kg and has travelled through four continents. It will be produced before the judicial magistrate court in Vriddhachalam and will be kept at the Icon Centre, Kumbakonam. Police are yet to locate the four other Vriddhachalam idols — Pillaiyar, Itchasakthi, Gnanasakthi and Kriyasakthi.

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Printable version | Aug 15, 2020 8:01:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/how-idol-thieves-deceived-devotees/article18587027.ece

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