Plundering of temples for rare icons is passe. It’s ripping of temple parts in collusion with their ‘custodians’ that is now causing concern. As shrines across Tamil Nadu are plundered for rare idols, demolition of temples in the name of restoration has facilitated theft of inscribed and medieval sculptures engraved within pillars and walls and chariots, vahanas (vehicles of the gods) and idols. These ancient parts are now being parcelled and shipped abroad to be auctioned for a huge price.
A chariot, possibly an antique from an old temple in Tamil Nadu, found its way to a store in Mumbai. Antique dealers provide authentication letters that give a wide reference range. Rajkumar Jain of Anemos, who purchased the chariot from an “anonymous” dealer, told this journalist, who initially posed as a potential buyer, “The chariot is estimated to be 90-125 years old as per experts, and certification for the same can be provided to you.”
A senior Directorate of Revenue Intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TOI, “This is a regular modus operandi of art dealers and valuers. They give a wide reference range to circumvent the law.” When asked if the rath could be exported, Jain replied, “We might need to get an NOC from the antiquities department (of Archaeological Survey of India).”
Internet market places like ebay and online antique shops in Hong Kong and Thailand are busy today, blatantly selling pieces of Indian heritage, said S Vijaykumar, a heritage enthusiast, who helps to track stolen idols. “Quite often we think the illicit trade in antiquities is restricted to big ticket Chola bronzes in high-end art auctions. But, there is a much larger illicit market in low-end artifacts comprising temple chariots, vahanas, temple lamps, utensils, Tanjore paintings and even antique temple jewellery,” said Vijaykumar, who is based in Singapore.
Last year, the Madras high court cracked down on brutal demolitions of ancient temples, managed by the state-run Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department, in the name of restoration. It constituted a panel of experts and appointed an amicus curiae, former advocate general P S Raman, to head it. The court also suggested that an UNESCO team advise the state government on restoration and strengthening of crumbling temples.
“But, even after the court action, temples are being pulled down indiscriminately. The demolition of the 500-year-old Nageswara Swamy temple at Unjalur near Erode and the 1000-year-old Chola-era Naganathasamy (Shiva) temple are examples,” said temple historian and epigraphist R Nagaswamy. It is shocking that the Naganathasamy temple in Manambadi village near Kumbakonam was pulled down six months after the state government declared it an ancient monument. The engraved slabs gradually disappear over the years, said Nagaswamy.
“During our documentation visits to sites, we shudder at the treatment meted out to these treasures — many more than 150 years old and classic testaments to the wood craft of our ancient craftsmen,” said Vijayakumar. Temple authorities purposely let them lie in the open in dilapidated sheds. Though exposed to the elements, the damage is superficial. Some managers then declare the vahana or chariot to be damaged beyond repair and obtain permission to auction them. The auctions are rigged so that a particular cartel bids and at dirt cheap prices, said Vijayakumar.
Former idol wing chief A G Pon Manickavel, recently transferred to Railway, said ancient temple pillars with images had been part of 85-year-old smuggler G Deenadhayalan’s collection. They were seized and now rot in the Chennai museum.
A Unesco team, led by its section chief and programme specialist for culture Moe Chiba and including court-approved architect Shikha Jain visited 33 ancient temples that faced risk of demolition. The team is expected to submit a report soon.