A one-metre-tall bronze statue of Thirumangai Alwar, an eighth-century Vaishnavite poet-saint, in Soundararaja Perumal temple in Tamil Nadu’s Kumbakonam, has been established to be a duplicate.
The 15th-century idol of the saint wielding a sword and shield was found at Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, in November 2019, which was identified by an independent scholar who alerted the Indian High Commission.
The museum had reportedly bought the idol at an auction conducted by Sotheby’s in 1967, for $2,340. The auction house was said to have gotten the idol from the collection of Dr JR Belmont (1886-1981), a noted collector of art and antiques based in Basel, Switzerland.
The Tamil Nadu police had begun an investigation into the case and found that the idol placed in the temple was a duplicate.
Now, this has been proved by the French Institute of Pondicherry, which has over 1.7 lakh archived photographs of temple idols.
Officials at the institute told The Federal that the photo of the idol kept in Kumbakonam temple does not match the archived photo of the same idol, taken in 1957. They had proved this by comparing details in the photographs of the two idols.
The Tamil Nadu police have submitted these details to the Indian High Commission in UK.
Following the High Commission’s “request for restitution of the idol”, the museum is reportedly taking steps for the same.
Idol theft cases got prominence under AG Ponn Manickavel, who was appointed Special Officer of the CID, Idol Wing unit, by the Madras High Court on 2018. Before that, he had served as the IG of unit for six years.
Created in the wake of Panchaloha (five metals namely gold, silver, copper, zinc and iron) idol theft spree in the 80s, many officers before Manickavel like V Ramakrishnan, SK Dogra, Rajasekaran Nair, Thilagavathi, Archana Ramasundaram had overseen the retrieval of around 300 idols in the last 25 years.
However, under Manickavel, both as an IG and Special Officer, the department recovered around 1,150 antiquities including bronze, wooden and stone idols, and paintings.
What was shocking was that in some cases temple authorities were found to have been an accomplice, like in the Panchaloha idol theft case.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report published in 2018 too had implied this. Due to ‘security lapses’, more than 37 art objects from onsite museums under Archeological Survey of India (ASI) and 131 antiquities from monuments and sites under the control of ASI were lost or stolen in the past five decades, it said.
Also, some media reports had said that the allocation made by the ASI to Tamil Nadu is much lesser than that allocated to neighbouring states. This, despite Tamil Nadu having the third-most monuments in the country.
In 2018, the state got a meagre ₹5 crore to protect 413 monuments under the ASI whereas the revenue generated by Mamallapuram heritage site itself was around ₹7 crore that year. On the other hand, Karnataka which has 506 monuments got ₹22 crore allocation.
According to archaeologists, the retrieved idols are mostly not returned to the temples properly. Even in the case of Sripuranthan temple, the Nataraja idol which the Australian government returned, was kept in a strong room in Kumbakonam and not given back to Sripuranthan temple from where it was stolen. However, the idol has been taken out during festivals. But archaeologists allege that the state government does not have a clear plan about retrieved idols.