The Chola kings, one of the longest ruling dynasties in the history of South India, who flourished along the Cauvery and its fertile delta region, established at least 190 Siva temples all along the river. These temples were embellished with metal and stone idols and carvings of great artistic beauty.
With the passage of time, the temples came under the control of the villages where they were located. Lack of a central monitoring control and proper documentation resulted in many of the idols being stolen and sold for huge profit. Smugglers of antiques, who once targeted the metal idols, have turned to stone idols available in the temples, as they are highly valued in international markets. However, with growing awareness about these ancient treasures and with the formation of the idol wing in the Police department, recovery of some of the missing idols and artefacts has started.
Apart from their sheer artistic beauty these Chola-era idols and artefacts are a treasure trove of history and heritage. The Siva temple in Thirueengoimalai, also known as Maragathasaleswararkoil, is one such example, with a great history behind it. According to legend, Sage Agasthiya, came to worship Lord Maragathasaleswarar. Finding the main door closed, he used his mystical power to change his human form into that of an insect. After bathing in an adjoining canal, he entered the temple and worshipped the deity and also performed a puja before flying to the canal. It is from this temple that the Pradosa Amman made of metal and a Sivalinga sculpted in stone were stolen a few years ago. The Idol Wing police, who arrested the accused learnt that the culprits had stolen the Sivalinga banam mistaking it for a maragatham (emerald), as the temple is called Maragatheasaleswarar. Subsequently, they abandoned the Sivalingam and the police managed to recover it. This has been a trend of late with many stolen idols being recovered from places where they have been abandoned by those who stole it from the temples.
From left: Recovered Rajaraja statue, a Parvathi statue and a rare copper coin commemorating Raja Raja Chola’s conquest of Ceylon
Technology in temples
The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR&CE) department, recently ordered temple authorities across the state especially, of Tiruchy, Karur, Perambalur, Ariyalur and Pudukkottai to install burglar alarms, after reports of missing idols increased. However, most of the temples are yet to install the alarm systems.
Meanwhile, there has been an increase in the number of recoveries of abandoned idols in the region. One such idol unearthed is an antique, three- and- a-half ft Buddha statue, without the head, at Tirukkoilpattu near Ammapettai. It was found during the renovation work of Vajrapureeswarar temple built during the reign of Raja Raja Chola. The statue of the Buddha in a Padmasana pose, dates back to the ninth century, said renowned historian, Kudavayil M Balasubramanian.
Subsequent studies revealed an interesting panel of sculptures inside the southern wall of the sanctum of the temple, like the one with a river showing a tortoise and a fish. Against this backdrop is a carving showing a woman worshiping the Sivalingam. “This is a rare scene depicting river Cauvery as Goddess Cauvery worshiping a Sivalingam,” said Kudavayil Balasubramanian. He added that in ancient times Goddess Cauvery was worshiped in the village as Pidari amman, to safeguard the large lake which was dug on the orders of Rajendra Chola I. Similarly, the historian unearthed a copper statue belonging to the Rajendra Chola era at Kudavasal. In Kottavam Nagar near Kudavasal, he found rare copper coins depicting Raja Raja Chola’s conquest of Ceylon. “These have antique value and are in high demand in the international markets”, he added.
Down the drain
Meanwhile, a few stone idols and inscriptions dating to the ninth century were unearthed at Killukottai in Pudukkottai district by the workers clearing the stormwater (SWD) drains in the village recently. According to Karu Rajendran, Archaeological Research Centre, those stone inscriptions belonged to Parantaka Cholan, the great grandfather of Raja Raja Chola, while the stone idols, which were identified as lord Muruga in sitting position, Manthi, Gowmari and Chandikeshwarar idols, belonged to the age between 8th century and 10th century. A study of the stone inscription found that, Parantaka Chola had maintained a temple in the region. They also found a Jain saint measuring 1.5 feet in a meditating pose. “Clearly, that there was a Jain monastery in the location. “This indicates that both Saivism and Jainism were practised together all along the region”, said Karu Rajendran.
No effort to protect and preserve these ancient treasures is very disappointing, said experts.
Historian and epigraphist Kudavayil M Balasubramanian (L); Archaeologists and villagers of Nandampatti, with a slightly damaged nandi and a temple pillar at the excavation site
The antiquities and art treasures act, 1972
This Act is enacted to regulate the export trade in antiquities and art treasures, to prevent smuggling of and fraudulent dealings in antiquities.
Section 2 (1) – ‘Antiquities’ - which have been in existence for not less than 100 years viz., Sculptures in stone, terracotta, metals, ivory painting in paper, wood, cloth, skin, manuscripts
Section 3 – It is unlawful for any person, other than the central government or any authority authorised by central government to export antiquity or art treasure
Section 5 – Antiquities to be sold only under a licence
Section 14 – Any person who owns controls or is in possession of any antiquity shall register the same before the registering officer and should obtain a certificate
Section 25 – If any person exports or attempts to export any antiquity or art treasure is liable for punishment for a term not less than 3 months which may extend to 3 years and with fine.