Recovery of stolen 1000 year old antique temple idols of Tamil Nadu - Will the government stop the thefts?

The idol of Bogasakti

1000 year old  antique idol, Swamimali.

In the second week of August this year,  according to  media reports, five antique idols roughly 1000 year old were  among the eight recovered from a hideout in Swamimalai town near Kumbakonam in  in Thanjavur district and the raid was conducted by the TN Idol Wing CID team. The small town is quite well-known for making beautiful  metal idols of deities, etc for temples all over India and world   just like  Nachiyar Kovil town that is famous for making brass lamps in particular, Nachiyar Vilakku (lamp). Swamimalai Bronze icons’, earned the Geographical indication (GI) tag by the Government of India in the year 2008-09. To maintain the aesthetics and precision, the trained sthapathy -sculptor ises the  ancient traditional method called Madhuchishtavidhana or lost-wax method (cire perdue) described in the Shilpasastra is passed down to generation after generation.

This quite  disturbing  news item did not surprise me. What bothers me is its frequency - the incidence  of thefts committed in Tamil Nadu is on the increase and there has been no deterrence in the form of strict laws and punishments to stop the nasty people who shamelessly sell our culture  and history.  A couple of decades ago  idol thefts  did  occur once in a while but now it appears that no months pass by without temple idols getting stolen or recovered here and there. It all shows  a couple of things, the security at the temples is inadequate and  it has to be beefed up, the other being stringent laws to prevent the thefts.

The recovered idols are:   Goddess Bogasakti Amman, weighing 200 kg, 2 idols of Buddha, in seated and standing postures, Andal and Lord Vishnu - all said to be over 1,000 years old.  In addition  the idols Goddess Sivakami and Ramana Maharshi and  of Nataraja (100 years old).   

These rare idols on the international market would fetch a bundle - several crores of rupees. On account of their monetary value, the culprits laid their hands on them, stole them carefully and now got caught in the police net. A relative of mine upon reading this piece of sensational news in the media said in Tamil, ''Deivam Nindre Kollum'' (''Mills of god grind slowly, but surely''). 

The TN idol wing sleuths carefully tailed the  criminals and headed Swamimalai after their unsuccessful search at the Kodambakkam residence of G Masilamani, a well-known idol mafia in Chennai; the American mafia crime  families like Carl Gambino or Lucchese may take a lesson or two from him and other like Ranbir Shah.  Masilamani was named in the idol wing theft case in Sivakanchi, The investigating team landed on his hideout in Swamimalai on August 9 with a search warrant. The antiquity of the idols Goddess Bhogasakti is based  on ASI- January 12, 2017 and those of Vishnu and Buddha idols vide ASI dated  October 3, 2011. The smugglers cleverly hid the valuable idols in the closet.  Antiquity certificates were found during the search with which the criminals sell them abroad. That how did they get the clearance certificate department from the govt. agency is a moot question. 

In many idol theft cases pertaining to raids, lack of  documentary evidence to prove the ownership or origin of the idols has been a road block for the sleuths and they have put in extra hard work to find out the temple from which it was stolen. To be on the safe side the team  seized the stolen idols in the presence of witnesses. The smuggled idols  would normally pass through several hands before the final destination, hence tracing their origin is a difficult and time-consuming one. An FIR was registered in Kumbakonam   based on a complaint by an inspector  of Idol Wing CID


Chennai, TN, theft of stone idol.

The idol wing CID of Tamil Nadu police  way back toward the end of  September 2018  recovered  as many as 89 antique items including idols, artefacts  and temple pillars from the  house of a business man in Chennai, apparently all  stolen from temples. In this connection the police  Dheenadayalan, an alleged idol smuggler for his criminal activities. The team was led by famous police officer AG Pon Manickavel, whose specialty was caching the criminals involved in idol theft. 

recovery of 89 idols, Sept.

Above image: September 28, 2016 Chennai, Tamil Nadu. It is believed to have been perhaps the biggest haul of antique idols, stolen from the historical temples of Tamil Nadu. It was led by ever efficient IG Pon Manickavel of the TN Idol Wing.  A tip-off from idol smuggler Dheendayalan led to the big grey shark- Ranvir Shah. The team recovered from his residence in Chennai 89 items worth over  Rs 100 crore. Supposedly Ranbir was a garment exporter and founder of Prakriti foundation. Apparently using them as the front, behind in the dark shadow,  he was running a network of smuggling operation of antique temple idols for which Tamil Nadu is quite famous.