The Natesa Murti (Nataraja in Tamil), a rare sandstone statue of Lord Shiva, is all set to make a comeback to India after COVID-19 situation eases in the country. A long-pending case of idol theft finally saw an important development as Natesa, which belongs to the ninth-century Prathihara style of Rajasthan, is to return to the country after 22 years.
The statue was stolen from the Ghateswara Temple in Baroli, Rajasthan in 1998, and after a difficult journey, it is now with the Indian High Commission (IHC) in London. The suspected thieves had replaced it with a fake and smuggled the original out of the country.
J. Kasmin, a collector from London, took possession of it in 2003 and then handed it over to the IHC in the same year. The sandstone statue stands at almost four feet in a rare and brilliant depiction of Shiva. A depiction of Nandi is shown behind the right leg of the Natesa Murti.
A similar Nataraja image was found by the roadside near Rawatbhata Nuclear Power Plant in November 1998 and was identified as the missing Nataraja statue by local officials. However, in 2003, Rajasthan police established that this idol was fake.
Based on an expose by Peter Watson in a book in June 2002, the Rajasthan police launched an investigation titled ‘Operation Black hole” against Vaman Ghiya, who was the proprietor of a large handicrafts showroom in Jaipur.
The police conducted raids on six of Ghiya’s properties in Jaipur as well as storage facilities in Mathura and Delhi, during which 506 artefacts were seized. Of these, 485 were confirmed as antiquities by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
The India Pride Project (IPP) has been making efforts to reopen the cases pending from Operation Black Hole. Finally, IPP founder Vijay Kumar followed up the case during meetings with ASI in 2014 and with the High Commission in London.
Three years later, these efforts began to bear fruit as the sculpture was inspected by ASI in 2017 in London and it was confirmed that the Natesa was indeed the looted original sculpture.
“And now, finally, thanks to prompt efforts by the Indian High Commission in reopening all the old documentation and persistent follow-up, the Natesa idol is being virtually handed over to India and will be finally coming home after 22 long years abroad,” said Vijay Kumar.
Kumar said that the statue would be handed over to officials in India once the pandemic is controlled and international flights would be normal.