Idols stolen from Tamil Nadu temples traced to museums in US


Idols stolen from Tamil Nadu temples traced to museums in US

Jaya Menon – May 20, 2018, 10:24 IST

Bronze idols of Shiva and Parvati
Six exquisite Chola-era bronzes that went missing from the Veeracholapuram Shiva temple in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu probably more than five decades ago have found their way to museums abroad. While heritage enthusiasts helped trace idols of Shiva and Parvati to the Cleveland Museum of Art, those of Saint Sundarar with wife Paravai have been showcased in the Freer Gallery of Art, both in the US. A beautifully crafted Nataraja idol and a bronze figure of Shiva Vinadhara Dakshinamurti were auctioned by Christie’s, probably in the 2000s. The bronzes are believed to have left the Indian shores in the 1960s.

Tamil Nadu idol wing CID registered a case of idols missing from the Villupuram temple on May 10 based on a complaint by a Chennai-based advocate Elephant G Rajendran. Shortly thereafter, heritage enthusiasts dipped into the archives of the French Institute of Pondicherry (FIP) and hit a jackpot. The institute had documented in 1956 nine bronzes of the ancient temple, dating to the 11th century of King Rajendra Chola’s reign.

It was believed that seven of the nine bronzes were stolen in the 1960s. Only two remain in the temple now.
“Within a few hours of getting the images from the FIP, we managed to track down the bronzes to the Cleveland and Freer Sackler Museums,” said heritage enthusiast S Vijaykumar. He also found that Christie’s had auctioned the Nataraja for $3,00,000 in 2003 in New York and another Shiva idol as late as 2013 for $1.3million.

“There seems to have been an attempt to recover a few lesser bronzes and few petty thieves were booked. The mystery, however, is why the case was not extended to cover the more important larger bronzes. This indicates some sort of complicity,” said Vijaykumar. The priests or staff, who were managing the temple then, are not alive anymore, idol wing CID, Pon Manickavel told TOI. “The museums have indicated they will return the idols,” he told TOI. “The Indian government should formally write to them,” said Vijaykumar. The FIP has 1.67 lakh photographs of temple architecture, of which more than 50% pertain to TN. But, the TN government failed to take up systematic documentation of its temples, said French Institute of Pondicherry photographer K Ramesh Kumar.

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