900 year old Sripuranthan Lord Nataraja's idol - sensational recovery from Australia !!

In the state of Tamil Nadu in the last more than two decades the theft of countless  Hindu temple idols, especially those made of Iymppon (five metals) has gone up unchecked and the recovery of  stolen idols is a tough job because many of them are smuggled out of India by  powerful smuggling syndicates that have contacts world over. As the public resentment and relentless loss of time-honored heritage artifacts have become so serious  an issue, the Indian High court and Supreme court came down heavily on the state governments who control the Hindu temples for their laxity and negligence. The state governments, in particular, Tamil Nadu have not only increased the security arrangements at temples but also initiated the process to recover the stolen idols at any cost. The task forces set up by the government have succeeded in tracing back many of the idols of Gods that are adorning some of the museum etc.,  across the world.
The return of a 900-year-old statue of dancing Shiva stolen from the ancient Brihadeeswarar temple of Sripuranthan, TN is an interesting one. The sensational recovery created as much excitement as one would get watching a James Bond thriller. 

The Dancing Shiva is a unique idol native to Chola Nadu. The cosmic dancer does a dual job by way of  joyful dancing and beating tamaru (small drum) in his hand, symbolic of destruction of the universe on one side and creation of new lands and lives on the other. The dance is a perpetual one to sustain the universe  and to keep all the natural processes going uninterrupted.  In this role Lord Shiva does maintain  a perfect balance  between aggredation and degradation - creative and destructive natural forces acting on the universe.The dance of Shiva in Tillai (Chidambaram, TN) forms the motif for all the depictions of God Shiva. As you may know, it is the  symbol of Indian culture and heritage.

What is so special about Sripuranthan Nataraja Idol? Like many Hindu idols of deities, this particular one is a valuable one because of its metal content and age. Idols of this kind belonging to Chola period fetch huge sums on the international markets. Some 
money minded people who are neither patriotic nor attach cultural and ethical significance  to objects of venration and worship  
are the main culprits who entice the Indian thieves to lift the 
age old idols of  Hindu gods from temples. One Subhash Kapoor, 
the owner of an  antique art gallery in New York was the brain 
behind the  stealing  of eight idols from the Brihadeeswarar
 temple at Sripuranthan in 2008, 18 idols from the Varadharaja Perumal temple, and in 2010, 6 panchaloha idols from Chozeeshwarar temple at Vikiramangalam.


How come Kapoor and his gangs zoomed in on the Hindu temples of Ariyalur district (Udayarpalayam Taluk), TN? In this district among  463 ancient temples, 200 belong to the Chola period dated 9th to 10th century AD. The chola period idols are made of an alloy of 5 metals (panchaloha) or some times pure gold and  silver.  As these temples come under the government management, you can not expect better efficiency or serious attention from the officials as they are already burdened with  the administration of thousands of temples across Tamil Nadu. Countless temples in small towns and villages  have neither  proper safevault for the  idols nor regular  maintenance of the temple and the idols.   So, such poorly active temples have  became easy targets for the local thieves  who steal the idols for the metal content and  secretly smuggle them out to overseas countries. They make a bundle in this illegal operation. 
Subhash Kapoor, who owned  an Indian art dealership called 'Art of the Past' in Manhattan, USA, had wide international contacts, supplying antique Indian artifacts. 

In 2006, on his visit to Tamil nadu, Kapoor established 
a contact with a local leader of  thieves and this gang stole Nataraja and Uma Mashewari, Vinayagar, Devi, Deepalaksmi, Chandrashekarar, Sampanthar and Krishnar  idols from the dilapidated Brihadeeswarar temple at Sripuranthan.

As the Puja protocol is stopped long ago,  with no visitors, the temple was in bad shape ridden with poisonous bugs, critters, etc. The thieves starting in 2006 broke open the temple on three occasions and stole the idols. To avoid suspicion, they glued the temple locks as if they were not tampered with. They made the original idols look like just replica and got clearance  from the Indian custom officials to be sent to Kapoor in New York. Kapoor on his part, hoodwinked the US  Customs officials and got a certificate  from the Art Loss Register (ALR) stating that the Nataraja idol was not on the stolen artefact's register.

Following accusations of illegal dealing, Kapoor's gallery was raided by Homeland Security, USA  and stolen artwork worth 100 million dollars was seized. Subhash Kapoor was arrested in Germany and extradited to India to face trial. As of 2016,  he was in  the Puzhal Central Prison, near Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. It is said his prison term will be maximum - 14 long years. 

Mills of God. Wikipedia


 The theft of the  priceless idols was discovered by the villagers only in 2008. The Archaeological Survey of India, Government of India arrived in the village  and removed the idols  from the temple for safekeeping.  To speed up the investigation and to recover the lost age-old idols, a FIR (First Information Report - 133/2008) was filed at the Vikramangalam Police Station in this regard. The Economic Offences Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police released pictures of the missing idols on its website to warn the purchasers, museum, etc and the public. 

Sripuranthan Nataraja idol. Tamilnadu Tourism

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) acquired the Nataraja idol from Kapoor and  refused to return the idol. The Indian authorities armed with documents, photos, etc  at last proved that NGA had an original idol and not a replica. To confirm this they compared the original picture of Nataraja  being maintained at the French Institute of Pondicherry, India  and the one on display there.  The Government of India formally approached the Australian government requested the artwork to be returned, under the UNESCO convention on stolen antiquities. Based on the parts of the idols -  27 flames around the circle, Left leg pointing between the 3rd and 4th flame, 
waist cloth of shiva merged with the 23rd and 24th flame, 3rd flame slightly damaged, 12th and13th flame damaged,17th flame damaged and flowing hair damaged.

In March 2016, the Natarajan idol was re-united with its consort Uma Parmeshwari, at the ASI Icon Centre, Kumbakonam, after nearly 8 years.  In the wake of Kapor's arrest, many idols were returned to India by the museums across the world.  In June 2016, the United States returned nearly 200 antiques to the Indian Government, in the presence of the visiting Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi at Washington DC.  Indeed, a good gesture on their part.  Quite interesting to note  among the stolen items is the return of  the antiques  from the Chola period (850 AD to 1250  AD), Thebronze idol of Tamil Shaivite poet Manikkavacakar Tamil Shaivite poet Manikkavacakar stolen from the Sivan Temple in Madras and the 1000 year old Sripuranthan Vinayagar which was displayed at the Toledo Museum of Art.