A 600-year-old Nataraja idol worth Rs 30 crore which was stolen 37 years ago from a temple at Kallidaikurichi in Tirunelveli district, Chennai, Tamil Nadu is being brought back to India. The two and a half feet 16th-century idol which was kept in the gallery in Adelaide, Australia for 17 years was traced a year ago.
As a result of the Idol Wing special officer and retired Inspector-General of Police A.G. Ponn Manickavel’s persistent effort to bring the Indian heritage back to the country, the Australian authorities formally handed over the idol to officers of the wing in New Delhi on September 11 (Wednesday). The idol is being brought by Manickavel and his team from New Delhi by train and will reach Chennai on Friday morning.
Manickavel revealed that after locating and convincing the Australian authorities and Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) by producing the records substantiating that the temple is the original owner of the idol with photographs taken before the theft of the idol, that the idol belonged to India, they agreed to return the idol. However, the Tamil Nadu State government refused funds to bring back the idol for the last 330 days.
“The Tamil Nadu government had been dodging for 330 days to bear the cost of bringing back the idol to the State by air. The registrar of Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), Jane Robinson, at the request of the special investigation team, spent their own money to bring back the idol and handed it over to us,” he added.
Meanwhile, the idol will be handed to the temple authorities after the necessary formalities are done and orders are obtained from the special court for idol wing cases at Kumbakonam.
According to sources, the 600-year-old idol, weighing around 100 kg, was stolen after the doors of the sanctum sanctorum were broken open on July 5, 1982. Along with it, a 2.5-foot tall panchaloka idol of Sivakami, 1.5-foot tall Manickavasagar idol and 1-foot tall Sribali idol were also stolen.
A complaint was filed by the then trustee of the temple, following which the Kallidaikurichi police had registered a First Information Report (FIR) on July 6, 1982. However, two years later the Kallidaikurichi police closed the case concluding that the idol was untraceable.
However, a few years ago, the case was handed over to the court-appointed Idol Wing special team, led by Manickavel. After investigation, the case was reopened and taken up for investigation by the wing’s Additional SP Rajaram.
Recently, Tamil Nadu police’s Idol Wing led by A.G. Ponn Manickavel busted a gang that had been illegally exporting stolen antiques, idols and artefacts worth crores for several years from Puducherry to France through the Colombo port and recovered the artefacts.
Last year, Tamil Nadi government were in talks with the National Gallery of Australia to get back 7 stolen ancient idols. 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.
Ponn Manickavel, after taking charge, reopened investigations and booked fresh cases.
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.
Three 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.
About 1200 ancient idols are believed to have been stolen from Tamil Nadu between 1992 and 2017 out of which 350 have been declared untraceable and only 18 had been retrieved until last year. Owing to the lax behaviour of the authorities the Tamil Nadu government had last year at the beginning of August informed the Madras High Court that it had decided to transfer all the idol theft cases to the CBI.