The 'idol' man's expert guide to temple art

Singapore-based Vijay Kumar, who has helped authorities track down many idols stolen from India and sold abroad, will give a series of talks at Apparao galleries this weekend.Attributes held by idol in its hand, proportions, composition, time period and dynasty are things to look out for

Published: 11th June 2016 04:57 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th June 2016 04:57 AM   |  A+A-


CHENNAI: Over 200 idols that were looted from India are set for ‘ghar wapsi’ from the US, thanks to a recent initiative by our Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The PM’s previous major initiative in Australia yielded the return of the famed 11th Century Nataraja idol from Sripuranthan village in Ariyalur district. Behind the scene, helping authorities hunt down smugglers was Vijay Kumar, an expert in the field, who will be giving a series of lectures at Apparao Galleries this weekend.

“There are technical terms used while referring to idols and sculptures, which many people may not understand. These lectures will be like a dummies guide,” he explains when City Express got in touch him in Singapore, where he is lives.

IDOLb.jpgFor Chennaiite Vijay, who holds a top post at a major shipping company, it was passion that drove him towards the field. “People nowadays are not able to appreciate works of art that were carved thousands of years ago,” he says. Giving the example of the temples in Mahabalipuram on his blog, Vijay adds, “It’s a treasure trove of art, but tourists don’t stop to appreciate the beauty of it. They’re too busy clicking away on their hi-tech cameras.”

This workshop, he hopes, will educate people on what to look out for in sculptures. “This is like the Konar notes of how to appreciate it,” he says. There are the one-dimensional art works — pictures, two-dimensional art — sculptures on pillars, and of course, the standalone idols that are three-dimensional works. “For instance, what the idol holds in its hand is called an attribute and it has a certain meaning,” he says.

Quoting from Ganapathi Stapathi’s Indian Sculpture and Iconography on his blog, he points out that the Brahma idol in Somnathpur (in pic, left) holds a ladle as an attribute, used for pouring ghee into the fire during rituals. “One can also note the basic proportionality and ornamentation of the idol,” he says. “Then comes the factor of how old it is, which dynasty it belonged to and so on.”

Vijay runs Poetry in Stone, a non-profit bilingual (Tamil and English) blog that has over 300 posts on temple art, sculptures and more.

His inspiration, he says, is Kalki the master storyteller and his epic series Ponniyin Selvan. “Kalki has this magic of transporting you with him inside the tale and then the connection happens,” he says.

How Vijay found Nataraja

IDOLd.JPGCompared the Nataraja in Australia (above, right) to pictures taken by Pondy researchers (above, left) in 1994 at Sripuranthan

The gallery had argued that the position of Nataraja’s leg was different

But he explained that since the leg is in mid-air, the angle of the photo is taken will determine leg position

On the contention that the colour of the idols is different, he said that an artificial ‘patina’ had been added

Smuggling Kingpin

IDOLa.jpgSubhash Kapoor masterminded and plundered several idols from Tamil Nadu and was behind a massive smuggling network. He managed to sell the loot to museums across the West. Recently, 110 idols, including 38 panchaloha idols, were seized in Chennai from Deenadayalan, an octagenarian. He is thought to have obtained several of these from Kapoor

What is Patina?

IDOLc.jpgIt is a natural greenish coating on Bronze due to oxidation. It is usually not found in temple idols, only the ones found underground. An artificial patina had been  added to the Nataraja to give the effect that it had been buried for long

Modus operandi

Smugglers target dilapidated temples that are not opened every day

The Nataraja idol from Sripuranthan was found missing only two years after the theft

Smugglers either mix the original with a batch of replicas or pass off the original as a replica

They apply artificial patina to make the idol look like it was excavated from underground after decades

Stay up to date on all the latest Chennai news with The New Indian Express App. Download now


Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp