''Stolen Hindu temple idols'' of Tamil Nadu - it means loss of our history and heritage


stolen idols of Rama,lakshmana anSita from TN.industantimes.com

Above image: Return of stolen idols: September 2020. The idols of Lord Ram, Lakshman and Sita, being sent back to Tamil Nadu, were stolen in 1978 from a temple built in the Vijayanagar period in the Nagapattinam district. Between 1947 and 2014 only 13 antique items were returned to India and .  Later  40 antique idols from England .............. 

The state of Tamil Nadu is home to more than 40000 Hindu temples spread across the land and many of them with fascinating architectural finesse, were constructed in medieval times. Built in Dravidian (name refers to the land) temple architectural style, many of them date back to the  Chola, Pandya  and Pallava dynasties. In many temples the primary gods moolavar in the sanctum - garbagriha is made of dark colored granite or basalt and rarely Saligrama  rocks. As for processional deities -uttchavars  those taken out of the sanctum in a religious procession, they are made of  five metals including gold, copper, etc.,  called iyyempon in Tamil. 

The idol thieves target the antique idols in isolated temple in small villages or towns and most of them  date back to more than 100 to 200 years because they are well made, strong, sturdy and have good antique value on the international market. The Govt. agency HR& CE is taking care of more than 36,595 temples, and their landed  properties. The preponderance of  people in the state may  not be happy with the way they run the temples. Many Hindu  temples in small towns and villages are poorly being maintained by them and are devoid of security, tempting the culprits to target them and getaway with valuable idols, etc., if they are not properly kept in strong rooms.

Though the incidence of idol and  artefacts theft in neighboring Karnataka state from the ASI sites and temples is far less than Tamil Nadu, according to media reports  in 2019, the increase in idol theft alarmed the ruling government - 30-plus idols went missing   from protected monuments  out of which 12  were not yet recovered. Yet another menace is the vandalism of UNESCO recognized  sites like Hampi.  Unlike Tamil Nadu or Kerala Karnataka  does not have an Idol Wing headed by senior police officer.

Stolen idols from Puducherry, S. India..wionews.com

Above image: Stolen idols of 'Nataraja', 'Veendhara Siva' and 'Vishnu' roughly 600 years old  (from the transition period of Chola and Vijayanagara dynasty). it is suspected they were stolen   from Hindu temples, before 1980. The owner  late Joseph Colombani and his family of Puducherry had no legal documents related to their possession were available at the premises............

In the midst of various complaints and difficulties being faced by HR & CE, in my opinion, they have to take more stringent efforts to cut down on the idol thefts.  According to the HR & CE from 1992 to 2017, 372 stone idols and 832 icons were stolen from various temples and out of them, theft complaints pertaining to  385 from just 33 temples  had been closed because the items were untraceable by the police.  Only  11,512 temples have strong room facilities for  idols and jewels  with CCTV cameras, burglar alarms, tell-tale clocks, iron grill gates and inner lock system. Presently they might have covered more temples under security system.  On the department web portal they have  photos and other data of  3.36 lakh idols belonging to 31,000 temples. 

In spite of  HR & CE 's dedicated efforts there has been an increase  in temple thefts in Tamil Nadu and it  is primarily due to the following reasons: 

01. Lack of security and guard in  many isolated temples in the villages and small towns.

02. Lack of sophisticated strong rooms in many of them to keep the idols safe. They must put under security umbrella nondescript towns and villages  where the temples have nice idols lying unnoticed.

03. Official negligence and carelessness is writ in many places particularly, in the villages and small towns. Some of them lie in ruins. Some renovation work is going on and, it is said, without seeking  help from the ASI.  Improper renovation with no guidance  will damage the heritage elements  of the temples . Improper execution of work is nothing but dereliction of duty.  

04. When there are complains of idol thefts made in earnest by the local community, the govt is not taking action on such cases; it's response has been lethargic in the last one and half decades. HR & CE's response has also been poor, it is said.

05. Neither the officials nor the bureaucrats or ministers look at the temple as a place of divinity revered by devout Hindus. officials do not respect their sentiments. if idols are stolen or damaged, they don't lose their heart.

06. There is a lack of appreciation of aesthetics  of such old idols and antiquity of the temples.  Many temples remain unrepaired, un-cleaned; deities are broken and lying outside. 

07. Devotion apart, the officials have a civic responsibility  to safeguard the public place of worship that is part of our culture and heritage. Besides, historical temples and  idols in the sanctified place  which form the centers of positive energy, represent the ethos of  past kingdoms. It is to be borne in mind that when our heritage is lost for ever, along with it goes down the history of our land where our forefather grew and safe guarded them for the posterity.

temples and monuments in TN with prized possession of idols and artifacts need  better insulation and deterrence so that the culprits wonts strike them. Besides the TN government should keep their on the nefarious and clandestine activities of the so called  antique dealers and art collectors of the delta districts, Chennai, Madurai and and other places. They must make the Idol Wing Dragnet a powerful  fearsome agency.