The government of Tamil Nadu has initiated talks with the National Gallery of Australia to recover several crores worth seven ancient temple idols stolen from the state and displayed in the Canberra-based museum.
Minister for Tamil Official Language and Tamil Culture ‘Ma Foi’ K. Pandiarajan met Australian Consul General Susan Grace and NGA deputy director Kristen Paisley. He said that the Australian government had agreed to return all idols belonging to the state and signed an agreement on this count.
“We have shared information on the antiquity of the idols, its origin, temple location and even literary proofs with the Australian authorities to stake a claim on the seven idols which were stolen from Tamil Nadu several years ago and being displayed at their museum at Canberra in Australia,” said Minister Pandiarajan.
He said he was hopeful of recovering the stolen idols from Australia at the earliest and pointed to the existence of an extradition treaty between India and Australia to recover the artefacts.
He pointed out that India and Australia have an agreement that covers the return of antiques and artefacts. The Australians, on their part, agreed that the idols were meant for worship and not to display, the minister said, adding, “We are working on modalities on how to bring back the antique idols displayed in the Australian Museum.”
The state government has claimed a 1,300-year-old standing Sambandar bronze idol, another rare bronze, a 1000-year-old dancing Sambandar, stolen from the Naganathaswamy temple at Manambadi village in the Tiruvidaimaruthur taluk of Nagapattinam district which was sold for Rs 4.59 crores.
The state has claimed many idols, a 1000-year-old of Arumugan from Manambadi, an 1100-year-old Nandi idol, Bhadrakali idol of the Kailasanathar temple at Kollumangudi, in Mayiladudurai taluk, and two stone Dwarapalakar idols from Udayar Sivan temple in Atthanallur, Tirunelveli. These idols were smuggled out of the country by various antique dealers at various points in time.
In the absence of consistent efforts and documentation with the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department since 1959, nothing much was done to retrieve the stolen idols.
Ponn Manickavel, after taking charge, reopened investigations and booked fresh cases. Some of the offenders responsible for the theft and illegal export of these idols were identified. This recovery of idols was a part of a very long process to identify and find the lost treasures.
The Tamil Nadu idol wing police have booked seven persons, including notorious artefact smuggler Subhas Kapoor, Vallavaprakash and Aditya Prakash of Indo Nepal Art Centre in Mumbai and Nachu alias Lakshmi Narasimman of Silpa Vatika Gallery for the offence of theft, smuggling and illegal export of idols including these seven idols. Idol wing chief Pon Manickavel solved the 22-year-old idol theft case whose file was in 1996 as untraceable a year after registering the case.
Recently, two 1000-year-old bronze idols of Rajaraja Chola and his wife, Lokamadevi, were returned to Tamil Nadu after they were stolen from Brihadeeshwarar temple at Thanjavur over 50 years ago. The idols were retrieved from the Calico museum Sarabhai Foundation galleries in Ahmedabad. at Ahmedabad and will be installed at the Temple
Two years ago, Australia had returned three artefacts, including an idol of goddess Pratyangira, stolen from a Shiva temple in Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu. In 2014, then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had returned two statues of Nataraja and Ardhanariswarar stolen from temples in the state.