Even as a Tamil Nadu police team was in Germany to take custody of billionaire smuggler Subhash Chandra Kapoor, burglars almost made away with nine idols recently from the Sapthakanni temple at Adikamalai village.
The Sapthakanni temple is not too far from the Brihadeeswarar temple in Sripuranthan village and Varadharaja Perumal temple in Suthamalli village, whose idols landed Kapoor in the present soup.
All these villages are in Ariyalur district’s Udharpalayam taluk, which has about 436 temples, coming under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. Of them, around 200 temples were built during the Chola period and have heritage value.
Yet, the temples are not maintained properly during the past several decades, which put the antique idols vulnerable to robbery. Since security was never a concern till very recently, many of the idols were lifted by burglars, some of them even small-time operators like those who struck at Adikamali on July 12 and fled the scene when a milkman spotted them.
The milkman, Alagesan, told The Sunday Standard: “When I was doing my pre-dawn rounds to deliver milk, I saw a vehicle parked on the roadside. I grew suspicious and went closer. The men got into the vehicle and sped away. Then I saw the idols lying on the roadside.”
“Idol thefts are a regular feature in Ariyalur district. The ancient temples are in a dilapidated state due to lack of maintenance. Since the local people have no idea about the importance of the temples or the idols, in terms of their antique value, they do not protect the temples. Burglars make use of the lax security to lift the idols,” R Ulaganathan, a resident of Sripuranthan and district secretary of CPI, said. But then, not all idols stolen from the district have entered the global market through smugglers like Kapoor.
In the 1980s, panchaloha idols were lifted from the Kamarasavalli and Govindhaputhur temples only for their metalic constituents—five metals, including gold and silver. Even a Ponniamman idol, made of pure gold, from Karaikurichi village was stolen only for the precious metal.
People of Sripurandhan village recount the 1986 heist relating to the three idols from the Perumal temple, saying the police cracked the case and arrested the robbers, who were locals, besides recovering the idols.
“The robbers had no plans of smuggling the idols to foreign countries but were only keen on melting them. But now the trend has changed as international smugglers have come into the picture,” said residents of Sripurandhan village.
Thus, the targets have also changed. Robbers break into ancient temples having idols that fetch huge amounts in the antique market. So, the temples built during the ancient Chola era are being broken into.
As an expert in idol making put it, “Since the idols in these areas are several hundred years old, mostly belonging to the Chola period, their price depends on the buyers. Some of them could fetch crores of rupees. You cannot fix an exact rate for antiques.”
Kapoor’s gang was allegedly dealing with eight idols lifted from Brihadeeswarar temple and 18 from the Varadharaja Perumal temple in 2008. Apart from these, six panchaloha idols were stolen from Chozeeshwarar temple at Vikiramangalam in 2010.
Pugazhmani of Vikiramangalam said, “We do not have the exact details of the stolen idols as the temple has been under the HR and CE Department.”
Ulaganathan suggested that alarms should be set up in the temples to avert thefts and pointed out that there are still many Chola period temples in the area that have been left uncared for. “Not only panchaloha idols but also ‘kalasams’ of temples have been stolen from three villages, including Kadambur,” he said.
S Arivazhagan of Sripuranthan said, “Six stone idols including a four-foot tall Perumal and a three-foot Amman were stolen in 2009 from our village.” Besides, six stone idols were stolen from a Shiva temple at Nathiyalur village last month and five stone idols were stolen from Perumal temple at Kallur village this month. But the theft of many stone idols is not reported to the police.
HR and CE Department
officials said that many valuable idols and properties from some small temples had been shifted to bigger ones for security reasons following the spate of thefts but added that they did not have proper records on their antiquity.
Make Museum Their Home, Demand Villagers
People from Sripuranthan and Suthamalli, the villages from where idols were stolen by robbers associated with the international smuggling racket of Subhash Chandra Kapoor, are happy over the arrest of the kingpin and hope the idols would be restored. However, they don’t want them housed in the respective temples. “House them in a museum in the district. Let the temples take them only during festivals,” they suggest.
Nataraja Nattar, a resident of Suthamalli village, where 18 idols were stolen, said: “I hope the police recover the lost idols soon. But they should be kept under safe custody and given to us during temple festivals alone.” In fact, the remaining idols of the temples at Suthamalli and Vikiramangalam have been housed in safer temples by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department.
However, there is a flip side. It’s not easy for temples to get back idols from museums for events, as Govindharajan of Sripuranthan found out. Three idols, stolen in 1986 from a Perumal temple at the Sripuranthan village, were subsequently recovered and kept in safe custody. The authorities are yet to share them with the temple, said Govindharajan.
On July 15, when Kapoor was produced in an Ariyalur court, police officials visited the temples that were robbed. Villagers of Sripuranthan also met them and flagged their demand for the Perumal temple idols.
“We don’t want them for good; we only want them for festivals. The officials assured that they would address the issue,” said Arivazhagan of Sripuranthan.
But how does one identify the retrieved idols? “When we asked the police officials to restore them, they wanted to know if we had any evidence that would help establish the idols’ identity. We do have some photographs taken during temple festivals. We intend to share them with the police,” said people of Sripuranthan.
CPI activist Ulaganathan said, “The government should set up a museum in Ariyalur district for storing valuable idols of temples in the area. They should be properly recorded and maintained.”