The thriving trade in illicitly procured temple idols was exposed yet again after officers of the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police raided the premises of the Chennai-based businessman Deenadayalan on May 31. The sheer scale of the seizure — 71 stone idols, 41 metal idols, 90 paintings and an ivory item — signals how big and brazen the idol-looting business is in India.
The value of the loss from this activity cannot be computed in merely commercial terms; every item illegally exported robs the country of a bit of its heritage. The Deenadayalan raids, for example, yielded idols of Ganapathy, Dakshinamoorthy, Garudalwar, Boodevi and Sridevi, and numerous pillars and vessels too, mostly dating back to the unparalleled refinement of Dravidian sculpture and architecture during the Chola age.
The meticulously organised nature of this shadowy business hints at the deep and vast network of idol thieves who have plied their trade across not only Tamil Nadu but numerous other Indian States and even broader territories of South and South East Asia.
History of trade of cultural artefacts
The most notable among these is the smuggling ring of Subhash Kapoor, the alleged kingpin who is now in a Tamil Nadu prison after being arrested in the U.S. in 2011 for illegally shipping artefacts to his “Art of the Past” gallery in New York and to other museums. The loot of Indian antiquities by Kapoor and Co. stretches as far back as the early years of Indian Independence, when Subhash’s father Parshotam Ram Kapoor began plundering cultural institutions in the subcontinent and selling objects for profit. The law of the land has changed since then.
In the 1970s India became a signatory to the UNESCO convention on preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Under this rubric, no such culturally significant objects could be removed from India under any circumstances. Although more evidence connecting Deenadayalan to Kapoor is yet to emerge, it is clear that a loot of heritage on a breathtaking scale has continued despite the evolving legal framework to protect it. Although enforcement action and public awareness of idol-smuggling have expanded, it has only been in the last few years that idols recovered on foreign soil have trickled back. Notably, 200 artefacts estimated at $100 million were returned to India in Washington this month during the U.S. visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
There is an urgent need to halt the outflow of idols. That requires building up the manpower and surveillance capabilities of the police to disrupt the gangs, and facilitating inter-agency and international cooperation.