In search of missing Gods

The Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police has been hitting the headlines these days, tracking down smugglers of antiquities and returning stolen idols to their rightful owners. Managing to get a big fish involved in smuggling convicted this week is another breakthrough for the department in cases under trial, VP Raghu reports
In search of missing Gods
Illustration: Saai

CHENNAI: The sleuths of the Idol Wing of Tamil Nadu police have been hunting for the missing gods of temples in the State almost for the last four decades. They have also successfully traced hundreds of metal, stone and wooden ancient artefacts stolen from places of worship. However, their work attracted public attention only a decade ago when the officers managed to bring back a US citizen — of course, of Indian origin — with the help of Interpol from Germany. This person was wanted for smuggling 19 antique idols worth over Rs 90 crore from various temples in the State and selling them in the international market for a whopping sum. On Tuesday, November 1, the Idol Wing managed to get a conviction for the US national — Subhash Chandra Kapoor — who was running the ‘Art of the Past’ antique gallery in Manhattan, New York along with five others.

“Criminals most often do not get punished due to poor investigation by the police. The Idol Wing, therefore, took steps to reduce the number of acquittals through measures to prevent witnesses from turning hostile, appropriate guidance to investigating officers and proper follow-up action. Due to such improvements in the investigation standards of the Idol Wing, brought about through the personal efforts of its senior officers, much headway could be made in the outcome of the cases under trial,” noted DGP K Jayanth Murali, who is heading the Idol Wing. Jayanth Murali is a much-relieved man now. The ongoing trial has been a major headache for the TN police as it started causing diplomatic headaches for India after Germany refused to entertain any further extradition request citing delay in the case of Kapoor.

Though there are four more Idol Wing cases in which Kapoor is allegedly involved, it looks like US Homeland Security may get him as soon as he is out of TN jail. The Homeland Security sleuths are waiting to grill him as several antique idol-related cases against him are pending in the US. According to Jayanth Murali, in 2021, the Idol Wing managed to get a 50 per cent conviction while in 2022, so far, the conviction rate is hovering over 90 per cent. The next mission for the Idol Wing is to bring back over 60 antique artefacts they had traced on foreign soil. All these antique items were once in TN and were stolen and smuggled out overseas by people like Kapoor who had formed a large network of brokers, thieves and other middlemen to get the invaluable artefacts ‘lifted’ from temples of remote villages in the south India.

“Communication via diplomatic channels is already on. There are nearly 40 idols in the US. They are with various museums or with private collectors in that country. Another four idols are in the UK. In Singapore, there are 16 idols, which are to be retrieved. In Australia also there are four artefacts. A special team of officers from the Idol Wing will be going to these countries to speed up the process to bring back the idols to TN,” a senior Idol Wing officer noted. It will take at least six months to one year to bring back the idols.

So far 23 idols have come back to Tamil Nadu from abroad in the last few years. Of the 23, as many as 11 were brought back to India this year.

The Idol Wing is certainly not a sought-after unit in TN police.

Many of the police personnel work there expecting easy office work. Keeping the reluctant ever-shrinking workforce motivated is not a simple task. Though the official strength is around 350, the Idol Wing currently has only less than 150 personnel working. “The only thing that keeps them going is the good media coverage for their work,” noted the senior Idol Wing officer.

Not that the sleuths are only tracking idols stashed with rich private collectors in the US or museums and galleries elsewhere. Recently, the Idol Wing investigators stumbled upon antique idols kept in Dakshin Chitra, a private cross-cultural living museum of art, architecture, lifestyle, crafts and performing arts of south India located on East Coast Road and hidden with an inmate of Auroville, an experimental township in Villupuram district, where men and women from all countries live in peace and harmony above all creeds and castes and nationalities.

At Dakshina Chitra, the idol was on display at the museum. The administration was unaware that the particular idol was donated by a person who was into the smuggling of idols.

In the last many years, the Idol Wing investigators had been tracking and retrieving several artefacts from different entities, including well-known business persons in TN. Sometimes, without even knowing the origin of such antique items. The Idol Wing has over 900 such items stored in different locations in TN. Two are in Chennai (Egmore and Tiruvotiyur) while another one is in Kumbakonam.

In Egmore, there are around 265 stone idols, while in Tiruvotiyur there are 73 wooden artefacts and 36 metal antique pieces. The rest are in the Kumbakonam icon centre. Most of the items are kept in these storage places as the Idol Wing has no idea from where these antique pieces are stolen from. “Unless a complaint is filed on missing idols and artefacts, we cannot identify or give back the items to their original owners. Even the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments department has no data on these items. Leave the old data. We are not even sure if the HR&CE department has any data or images of deities or other antique artefacts of the temples under its control,” wondered one police officer. The officer added that we expect the HR&CE department to help us by letting us know where these idols were stolen or to whom they belong.

The only place which had been a great help to the Idol Wing was Institut Français de Pondichéry (IFP / French Institute of Pondicherry), which has a collection of old photographs of a large number of idols of TN temples. Police officers from the Idol Wing have been seeking the institute’s help every other day to get the image for comparison with that of images in foreign museums which are suspected to have possession of the idols stolen from TN temples.

Of course, people like S Vijay Kumar, and ‘Elephant’ G Rajendran had initiated the investigators to widen their perspective of the cases by giving them valuable inputs on various cases and idols. “Such people are certainly a great help for the Idol Wing. We value their inputs and knowledge on the subject,” noted Jayant Murali.

Elephant G Rajendran, who had lodged a complaint about the missing first Tamil Bible in 2017 has gone on to dispatch an appreciation letter to the Idol Wing officials when he came to know that the sleuths had traced the antique book recently. The three-century-old Bible was stolen from Saraswathi Mahal in Thanjavur in 2005. The Bible was traced to the King’s Collections, London.

Idol Wing’s NFT proposal may prove boon to govt, art lovers

TN police Idol Wing has set up a virtual museum, www.tnidols.com and has also submitted a Non-Fungible Tokens proposal to the Tamil Nadu government. The government has physical ownership of the idols, and it can sell the digitised versions of the idols of the museum, barring the idols of the temples as NFT (a unique digital identifier that cannot be copied, substituted or subdivided, that is recorded in a blockchain, and that is used to certify authenticity and ownership).

The government is yet to decide on the proposal. “If okayed NFT will go a long way in generating additional revenue for the Government of Tamil Nadu while affording the art collectors the satisfaction of owning the digitised version of cultural artefacts,” noted a senior Idol Wing official.

The virtual museum is a collection of digital images, sound and other historical, scientific, and cultural interest data that viewers can access through electronic media.

With the help of IIT Madras, the Idol Wing, using VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) unique cameras, has taken 3D pictures of all the idols and uploaded them on this website. With the object of helping the connoisseurs of art and culture and the general public view and appreciate the ancient cultural treasures available with the Idol Wing officials have created a virtual museum to eventually curate and transform the virtual environment into a metaverse of tomorrow. “The plan is to turn the virtual museum into a metaverse where visitors can interact in 3D cyberspace,” noted Jayant Murali.

The virtual museum was set up by collaborating with M Manivannan, Professor, IoE-CoE on Virtual Reality and Haptics, IIT Madras, Shankara Narayanan, PhD Scholar at the Department of Computer Science,

IIT, Madras, and Premnath of Invent Softlabs, Chennai.

‘HR&CE should share data with cops’

Art enthusiast and author S Vijay Kumar, who had first managed to compare the image of a lost idol with that of a photo in the French Institute of Pondicherry and matched successfully, felt that Tamil Nadu HR&CE department should be more forthcoming with data to help the investigators.

Vijay Kumar, who had been closely interacting with Idol Wing sleuths by sharing inputs on various artefacts since 2006, feels that the HR&CE department is hesitant to share data because of various reasons, including fear of getting exposed. The French Institute of Pondicherry has images of only 5 per cent of Tamil Nadu temple deities. “We interact not only with the Idol Wing but also with ASI and with international agencies, including Interpol. My experience with the Idol Wing was good. But it can be better and it is improving,” Vijay Kumar said.

Art enthusiast and author S Vijay Kumar
Art enthusiast and author S Vijay Kumar

Wiki-idol web page, online encyclopedia on the anvil

The long-term plan of the Idol Wing is to crowdsource images of all the antique idols available throughout Tamil Nadu from volunteers to upload them temple-wise, sub-division wise and district-wise. That will enable the devotees and lovers of ancient art and culture to access 3D images from the comfort of their homes.

“Further, using the collaborative effort of the community, we intend to welcome the experts and students of history and culture from all over the world to contribute information and content regarding the exhibits in the virtual museum and turn the website into a Wiki web page called Wiki-idol with a semi-closed editing system,” said a senior official of the Idol Wing.

“Over time we intend to turn the virtual museum into an online encyclopedia on temples and cultural treasures of Tamil Nadu. Therefore, the purpose and scope of the website would be to store information on nearly all idols and cultural artefacts available in Tamil Nadu,” the official added.

PONN MANICKAVEL VS KADER BATCHA

Not always fights among officers in the police department turn into a show of washing the dirty linen in public like what happened in the case of AG Ponn Manickavel, former IG of the idol wing and J Kader Batcha, former DSP of the same wing. The Madras High Court was forced to order a CBI enquiry after being shocked to see two former officers of the Idol Wing trading serious allegations at each other. The court ordered the CBI investigation when a petition filed by Kader Batcha, who was not allowed to retire due to charges of having an ‘understanding’ with idol thieves, came up for hearing. Batcha accused Ponn Manickavel of having helped Subhash Kapoor and his local agent Deenadayalan.

HOW TO KEEP YOUR ANTIQUE IDOLS?

If you have antique artefacts at home, make sure it is documented properly. No one is allowed to keep antique idols or artefacts without proper documents. Such items should be kept in the registered address given to ASI and any shifting of such things should be informed and the new address should be registered again. At any point in time, such items will not be allowed to take abroad. Even if you are shifting to a new country, you cannot take it along with you as it is considered a national cultural treasure.

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