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Traced to Foreign Lands, Tamil Nadu Now Awaits Antique Idols’ Return to India

Antique idol smugglers have been keeping the Idol Wing department of Tamil Nadu Police on their toes.
Indian Masterminds Stories

Many cases of stolen antiques in Tamil Nadu has been gathering dust for a long time till a complaint was registered by K Vasu, the trustee of Nadanpureeswarar temple near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, in 2019.

The complaint brought back focus on five antiques, including a 7th-century statue of Goddess Parvati, which was smuggled out of the country in 1971 and has never been brought back. These were traced to an auction house in the USA by the Idol Wing department of Tamil Nadu Police, and, as of now, the process is underway to bring the antiques back.

However, there has been no let-up in antique smuggling. In the past 10 months, there have been 59 cases of idol smuggling. The Idol Wing has been able to trace these antiques to various countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, etc., and have also sent proposals to these countries for returning the antiques.

The department now aims to recover as many antiques as possible that have been smuggled out from mostly Central Tamil Nadu, a region that has some of the most intricate temple architecture of medieval India from the Chola period.

Indian Masterminds spoke to DGP, Idol Wing, Tamil Nadu, Mr. K Jayanth Murali, IPS, to get more details of the recent cases.

The Idol Wing team of Tamil Nadu (K Jayanth Murali, IPS, DGP, Idol Wing (Centre with specs) and Inspector Indira (Centre)

NO PHOTOGRAPHS OR DOCUMENTATION

Mr. Murali said that every case brings up its own challenges, as these idols age back to many decades. During that time, when these cases were registered, there weren’t even pictures or any documents which could help them in tracing them. “There are cases when the idols are missing from the temples, and, then again, there are cases when the people who commit these thefts leave replicas of the idols in the temples so as to get away with the crime.”

Idol of Mahadevi Sembiyan

At times, there are no photographs or documents of the idols, making it extremely difficult for the police to crack the cases. Like, in instance of the famous idol of Goddess Parvati that was smuggled in 1971. The police didn’t even know what it looked like when they took up the case, which, incidentally, was filed decades later. Mr. Murali said, “It was reported by the trustee of Nadanpureeswarar temple in 2019. However, they lacked enough documentation to support the case.”

TRACING DOWN 60 ANTIQUE IDOLS

Earlier this year, Inspector Indira took up the case and began the search all over again. After digging libraries and archives to find any trace, her investigation led to the French Institute of Puducherry. Ms. Indira told Indian Masterminds, “The institute provided us with black and white photographs of the idols which were taken in 1957. Through this, we got the pictures of the Goddess Parvati idol and others which were missing from the temple. We then started searching online exhibitions, bidding museums, and online pages of major collectors as well as European idol smugglers.”

Matching pictures of the antique

The team finally traced the Parvati idol to one of the digital catalogues of Bonhams, a leading auctioneer of fine art and collectibles, motor cars and jewellery in the US. The image from the gallery was sent to specialists at the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), who used photogrammetry (a technique that involves recording, measuring, and interpreting images to arrive at information about physical objects and their surroundings) to confirm that the image on the Bonhams website was of the same Parvati idol that was stolen.

This was only one idol, but the department managed to trace down 60 idols in total that were missing from various temples in Tamil Nadu, through the same procedure.

STARTED PROCESS FOR THE ANTIQUES’ RETURN

Once the idols could be traced to foreign countries, the challenge now arose how to get these back to India. Mr. Murali said, “Some countries are difficult to handle while some are easy, as there is a whole bureaucratic procedure to follow to bring these idols back home. Ninety percent of the proposals as Mutual Legal Agreement Treaty (MLAT) along with the required documentation have been drafted and sent to the respective countries for the repatriation of the idols.”

Indian painting of Maharaja Serfoji II of Tanjavur and his son Shivaji II

Over the last 10 months, the Idol Wing has prepared 60 MLATs — a success considering that in the last 10 years, only 22 idols were recovered. Of the 60 cases, 37 idols are to be claimed from the US, 16 from Singapore, six from Australia, and four from the UK.

Last year, 10 idols were recovered from foreign countries, of which eight have been returned to the temples and two are awaiting legal procedures, as the process of returning idols to temples is carried out by courts.

Some of the antiques which have been traced and will be soon brought back to India include the idols of Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, the mother of 10th-century ruler Raja Raja Cholan, a rare copy of the first Tamil translation of the Bible, an Indian painting from the mid-19th century of Maharaja Serfoji II of Tanjavur and his son Shivaji II, and many more.


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