Raiders of lost idols

In the last year or so, the Idol Wing CID effected a series of recoveries of high-value antique bronzes, temple stone idols and artefacts that had been stolen from across the State, and traced other valuable antiques to foreign galleries and museums. This has been welcomed by historians and local residents who have been reunited with their temple idols after years. However, the investigations have not only exposed a nexus between smugglers and some temple authorities, but also the police

Updated - November 12, 2022 06:59 pm IST

Published - November 12, 2022 04:55 pm IST

Antique idols seized from a house in Raja Annamalaipuram in Chennai. The Idol Wing has found stolen/unauthorised artefacts both in India and abroad

Antique idols seized from a house in Raja Annamalaipuram in Chennai. The Idol Wing has found stolen/unauthorised artefacts both in India and abroad | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Nearly six years ago, a rare, emerald lingam (maragadha lingam), was reported missing from the Thyagaraja Swamy temple, which falls under the Thirukkuvalai police station limits. The local residents had forgotten this lingam, and the few who still remembered the theft nurtured no hopes of recovering it. Until January 2022. Until the revamped Idol Wing CID found new talent and energy and launched itself into an effort for recovery.

Three teams of officers from the Idol Wing CID were formed, to scout for leads. The investigation officer received a clue from an informant who reported that someone was seen performing poojas on an idol on the outskirts of Thanjavur. The team started to look for a person fitting the description of the man who was spotted with the idol. They narrowed down their search to seven persons who fit the bill, and after the elimination process, they deduced that one man, Arun Baskar possessed the idol and was based in Arulananda Nagar, Thanjavur. When the Idol Wing officers landed at his house and confronted him about the maragatha lingam, he initially feigned ignorance but later capitulated and informed them that the lingam was stored at his bank locker. 

An emerald lingam that was confiscated from a family in Thanjavur.

An emerald lingam that was confiscated from a family in Thanjavur. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Director General of Police, Idol Wing CID, K. Jayanth Murali said: “That was a major catch at the beginning of this year. The team recovered the maragatha lingam from the locker. We were able to collect evidence to establish that it had been stolen from the temple. The person who possessed it had claimed that he inherited it from his ancestors.” A gemmologist estimated the lingam to be worth several hundred crores, and it was restored to the original custodian of the lingam, Dharmapuram Adheenam, which manages the temple.

That would turn out to be the proverbial beginning of an active year for the Idol Wing. The Wing went on to trace, in action-movie style races across several nations, and sometimes, with the aid of the internet, other antique pieces and idols that the true possessors had lost hope of recovering, and also initiated action to bring them back to their rightful temples.

Even a lost book traced

Yet another major breakthrough in the investigations by the Idol Wing was tracing a precious book -- the first Tamil translation of the Bible, which reportedly was stolen from famous Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur, in 2005. On October 10, 2005, then Deputy Administrator of the Serfoji Palace filed a complaint at the Tanjore West Police station alleging the theft of the antique Bible, which was translated and printed by missionary Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg in 1715 at Tharangambadi. The case was closed by the local police citing that it was not traceable. The case was then reopened by the Idol Wing and reinvestigated from the beginning. After several days of browsing through multiple websites of various museums abroad, the officers stumbled on the collection of George III in London, and steps have been taken to recover it.

In another case, for nearly half a century, three original antique metal idols -- of Vishnu, Sridevi and Bhudevi belonging to the Venugopala Swamy Temple, Alathur, Mannargudi Taluk, had been missing. However, the case was formally reported only in 2017 by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, government of Tamil Nadu. Investigation led the sleuths to the LACMA Museum, Los Angeles, United States. Further investigations revealed that that the idols of Yoganarasimha, and Ganesha belonging to the same temple had been displayed at the Nelson-Atkins Museums, Kansas, U.S..  

Six exquisite Chola-era bronze idols that went missing from the Veeracholapuram temple, in Kallakurichi district in the 1960s, were spotted at the Cleveland museum and Christie’s auction house in the U.S. Similarly, a bronze sculpture of Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi which was stolen nearly a century ago, from a nondescript village temple in Nagapattinam district, was traced to the Freer Gallery in Washington, thanks to Idol Wing personnel, who used the documentation available with the IFP (French Institute of Pondicherry) to base their search.

Director General of Police, Idol Wing CID K. Jayanth Murali (left) and Inspector General of Police, R. Dhinakaran inspecting idols seized from Swami Malai

Director General of Police, Idol Wing CID K. Jayanth Murali (left) and Inspector General of Police, R. Dhinakaran inspecting idols seized from Swami Malai | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

The officers of the Idol Wing themselves, measure each recovery, or tracing of a stolen idol as a victory, a hard-won victory. Mr. Jayanth Murali said, “We have this year traced more than 50 idols to foreign parts, which is a record 500% more than any year. This year we have brought back 10 idols, in total: only 22 idols have been recovered by the Idol Wing since 2012. We have, in fact brought back 11 idols but a Hanuman idol has not been handed over to us. If we get that back to Tamil Nadu, this year alone we would have brought back 50% of all the idols retrieved so far by the Wing, in just one year. And in the last three months, we have initiated steps under the (Mutual Legal Assistant Treaties) MLAT for bringing back 60 other idols from abroad.” 

Abroad, and in India

Apart from tracing stolen antique idols on foreign soil, many idols were seized in India as well, especially inside the State. Metal/stone idols have been seized from Chennai, Kumbakonam, Mamallapuram, Auroville and Puducherry when possessors have failed to produce any record of ownership or an antiquity certificate.

R. Dhinakaran, Inspector General attached to the Idol Wing, said, “All operations are conducted by us after getting source information. We deploy decoys from our team to approach the seller. After a great deal of effort, we bring the seller into our net. Part of our ability to convince the seller that we are genuinely interested in the product is to show them proof of money. Thereafter, without informing the local police, we have to catch them in the act of displaying the idol.”

“There are two types of antiques that we are seizing. Firstly, from people are do not have any record for the due ownership, due to ignorance or not getting the documents when they buy it. Another category is antiques that are sold by persons who know it is illegal to sell without a proper licence,” Mr. Dhinakaran explained. 

Over 100 cases registered in past decade

The Idol Wing CID seized a Nataraja Idol in Sathangadu near Manali.

The Idol Wing CID seized a Nataraja Idol in Sathangadu near Manali. | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

The Idol wing, since 2012, has registered 103 cases of which 53 cases were registered during the last one year and have seized more than 1,539 idols. During the last one year, eight cases have resulted in convictions for the accused. 

S. Vijay Kumar, art enthusiast and co-founder of India Pride said, “Tamil Nadu has been a rare shining light in the fight against illicit antiquities compared to other States. You just have to look at the restitution of stolen idols. Among the achievements, you can also count securing major convictions for smugglers, especially in the Subhash Kapoor case.

International antique dealer Subash Chandra Kapoor and his six associates were convicted and sentenced to prison for terms ranging between 10 years and 14 years for burglary and the illegal export of 19 antique idols valued at above ₹94 crore, to the Art of the Past Gallery, New York. Kapoor also sold the stolen idols to various museums and private art collectors across the world. 

Kapoor was detained by the German police on October 30, 2011 at Cologne Airport, based on a Red Corner Notice issued by the Interpol. He was handed over to the Idol Wing-CID Police, Chennai in July, 2012 when Pon Manickavel was Direcot General of Police of the Idol Wing, and extradited to India to face charges in the case, on condition that he be tried in only one case.

Interestingly, Subash Kapoor has already served 10 years in prison and refused to pay the fine of ₹7,000 imposed by the trial court. He is presently lodged in Central Prison, Tiruchi  

The Pazhavoor story of complicity

Former Inspector General of Police A.G. Pon Manickavel.

Former Inspector General of Police A.G. Pon Manickavel. | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

The investigation into the theft of 13 idols of from Narumbunatha Swamy Temple, Pazhavoor, Tirunelveli district, was the case that brought Subash Kapoor behind bars, but its investigation revealed a steamy pot boiler involving not only smuggling, but also complicity by police, bribery and, murder.

The 17-year-old case was complicated and challenging for investigators, and later it emerged that sniffing the smuggling network, an Inspector and his sub-ordinates attached with Idol Wing, were on the payroll of Subash Kapoor.

Police sources recounted: “There was constant pressure from the police officers of the time demanding bribes. An art dealer he worked with, Deenadayalan exerted undue pressure on Kapoor and told him that he would spill the beans unless he returned the idols to him. He said he was not able to give pay the police protection money. Failing this, he would inform the police about Kapoor.”

Deenadayalan and Subash Kapoor had parleys in Bangkok, Thailand and reached an amicable settlement to return the idols. They brought back the idols via air from Bangkok, Hongkong and Kathmandu, to avoid customs authorities. They routed them to Kolkata where Deenadayalan received them and brought them to Chennai airport, and stored them in his art gallery.

Three officers of the Idol Wing, Jeevandham, Khader Basha and Mohammed Kasif, reportedly came to an understanding with Deenadayalan and seized four idols, which they claimed were returned to the temples by the end of 2016. During the trial, however, the witnesses including Giri, son of Deenadayalan and Mansingh, his manager, turned hostile and told the court that such a seizure was never made.

Sensing trouble, the trial was stopped in 2016 and the case was reinvestigated by then Inspector General of Police Pon Manickavel himself. His investigation brought proof to the charges that the Idol Wing officers were complicit.

Kader Batcha, a serving Deputy Superintendent of Police, who was Inspector of Police with the Idol Wing thenn, was arrested in 2019 for colluding with the accused. The former officer in his turn, levelled allegations against Mr. Manickavel charging him with having favoured Deenadayalan. Though Mr. Manickavel denied all charges, the Madras High Court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the theft from the Palavur case. Recently, the CBI re-registered a First Information Report (FIR) in the case.

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