Crime against deities

Idol Thefts

Dr. S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

A Special Division Bench of the Madras High Court issued a warning while hearing a series of idol theft cases that as custodian of all temples and their properties, it would keep a close watch on theft of temple properties. One of the judges said, “Everybody should understand that nobody should have the guts to touch the properties of this land. This court will monitor every activity in the temple. We are very conscious about protecting the treasures of this land. They cannot be taken away just like that”.
These strong words became necessary as Idol-Wing CID was not able to locate two businessmen from whose premises a number of idols stolen from temples were recovered three months back.
About a week ago, a top official of HR&CE Department in Tamil Nadu was arrested in connection with several cases. Particularly shocking is the disappearance or replacement of a number of idols in a renowned temple in Mylapore in Chennai visited by thousands of devotees every day. The original peacock idol in the temple, symbolizing the form taken by Goddess Parvati to worship Shiva in this place ( from which the locality derives its name Mayil meaning peacock in Tamil), and thus the holiest article in the temple was swapped for a duplicate.
Indeed, belief in the legendary origin of temples recorded in manuscripts and stones or faith and sincerity in worship, not to speak of pride in our arts and architecture have become subservient to greed for money. Temples have become important targets of looters. Even regular visitors to the temple were not able to distinguish the real and fake idols immediately.
What is astonishing in this environment of loss of genuine devotion and attachment to our heritage represented in temples is the growth in the number of temples – roadside as well as within compound . May be, management of temples has become a commercial activity.
Temple theft seems to be a well organized crime requiring several levels of operations involving local, national, and international conduits and carriers. It has become a big challenge to law enforcing authorities. The incidents reflect deterioration in the sanctity attached to objects of worship including the idols of deities and their symbols to the extent material interests have grown.
The latest in the series of idol theft from places of worship is the seizure of an old panchaloha (five metal) Murugan idol weighing 3.5 kg, said to have been stolen from a temple near Arakonam close to Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It was found in a workshop in Chennai getting ready for sale by smugglers. Reports suggest that it could fetch around Rs. one crore.
Tamil Nadu is on top in temple theft, but other States are not free from this crime against deities. In October this year, idols of Ram, Lakshman, and Janaki were reported to have been stolen from a temple in Lakhnur area in Mau, UP making a mockery of the Mandir movement for Lord Ram. The idols are made of ashtadatu (seven metals). In Bihar, around the same time, idols of Ram and Janaki were reported to be missing in Vaishali. Indeed similar thefts are reported from all States. In a Krishna Temple in Thane, Mumbai, ornaments valued at Rs.35 lakh were missing.
Apart from idol thefts, temples are subjected to various other crimes. Temple lands are misappropriated, sold and resold and converted to non-religious use. In the name of renovation and repair, funds are diverted in some temples for additional constructions for non-religious and commercial activities. Unique qualities attributed to particular deities are flagrantly violated. Temple administration urgently needs a shake up to remove the ever expanding arms of corruption.
There are 19 “high security” icon centres in some famous temples in Tamil Nadu where hundreds of idols made for worship are lying. They are taken out only for festivals and kept in the centres after the festival for safe-keeping. But, strong rooms are not strong enough to protect temple treasures.
According to a UNESCO Report of 2011, 50,000 idols and artefacts had been stolen out of India till 1989. The number is said to be increasing even two to three times since then. It was estimated that India had at that time more than 70 lakh antiques of which only 13 lakh were documented. On an average, about 10,000 to 20,000 idols worth Rs.20,000 crore were stolen per decade since 1950. According to a study, not less than 1,200 idols were stolen from Tamil Nadu between 1992 and 2007.
The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 aims to protect antiquities which include among other items sculptures in stone, shrines, terracotta, metals, jewelry, ivory, paintings on paper, wood, cloth ,skin, and manuscripts over 100 years old. The Act restricts trade in these articles within the country which instead of ensuring their safety leads to illegal exports through illegal channels. Not all articles recognized as “antique” are registered with the Archaeological Survey of India as required under the Act.
The Hindu Religious Endowments Act was first adopted in Tamil Nadu in the late 1920s. The HRE Act of 1951 passed by the Parliament allows State Governments to take over thousands of Hindu temples and exercise complete control over them – a provision not known in other democracies. Renowned temples at Tirupati, Varanasi, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Rameshwaram , Guruvayur and many other places are controlled by concerned State governments.
Under Temple Empowerment Act of Andhra Pradesh, about 43,000 temples in the State came under the control of the government. Government of Maharashtra has more than 30,000 temples under its control. State governments are responsible to ensure the safety of temple properties. Instead, there are stories of fence eating the crops. Five cases of idol theft were reported from Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Odisha in 2015; and six cases in Andhra Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan in 2016 indicating how flourishing is the trade that depends heavily on thefts and how weak is our efforts in protecting our antiquities. Attempt to steal emerald idol from Mangalanathaswamy near Ramanathapuram, two panchaloha idols and four kalasams on the tower , and gold mangalsutra at the old shiva temple at Tiruvannamalai were reported recently.
Idol theft is an international crime as buyers are mostly big businessmen abroad, and the articles in many cases land up in some world famous museum. It takes years of negotiations to recover even a single piece.
Egypt is known for maintaining its cultural patrimony. Theft of antiquities is treated as a theft of honour and history of Egypt. Its law on protection of antiquities prohibits trade, sale, commerce or disposal of any antiquity or transfer outside the country. It is fighting to get back the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum – a 2,000 year old relic of Egyptian identity – and a coveted acquisition of Napoleon. In Italy, a specialized police wing prevents art-related crimes.
What is missing in India seems to be pride in our cultural heritage and a sense of duty and loyalty among common people to protect our antiquities. Hence, we have to depend on law and law enforcing machinery to guard our temples.—INFA