The State government has held discussions with Australian authorities for the return of seven idols stolen from temples across Tamil Nadu, and displayed in the National Gallery of Art (NGA) at Canberra.
Australian Consul General Susan Grace and NGA deputy director Kristen Paisley were part of a delegation that met Minister for Tamil Official Language and Tamil Culture ‘Ma Foi’ K. Pandiarajan and officials including Inspector General of Police, Idol Wing A.G. Ponn Manickavel on Tuesday.
“The talks were part of our efforts to retrieve the idols from Canberra. We presented relevant records, epigraphical and archaeological evidence, stone inscriptions and references in Tamil literary works to substantiate our claims,” Mr. Pandiarajan told The Hindu.
He pointed out that India and Australia have an agreement that covers return of antiques and artefacts. The Australians, on their part, agreed that the idols were meant for worship and not for display, the minister said, adding, “We are working on modalities on how to bring back the antique idols displayed in the Australian musuem.”
Among the seven idols being claimed by the State government is a 1,300-year-old standing Sambandar bronze, stolen from the Chaya Vaneswarar temple in Sirkazhi. The idol was sold by William H.Wolff, an art dealer in New York, to the NGA in 1989 for $ 115,000 (Rs. 75 lakh). This idol was intended for processional use during temple festivals.
Another rare bronze, a 1000-year-old dancing Sambandar, stolen from the Naganathaswamy temple at Manambadi village in Tiruvidaimaruthur taluk of Nagapattinam district, was sold to NGA for Rs. 4.59 crore.
A 1000-year-old stone idol of Arumugan from Manambadi, a 1100-year-old Nandi idol, Bhadrakali idol from Kailasanathar temple at Kollumangudi, in Mayiladudurai taluk, and two stone Dwarapalakar idols from Udayar Sivan temple in Atthanallur, Tirunelveli were smuggled out of the country by antique dealers at various points in time. They reached the musuems in Australia as the antique sellers manipulated records, police said.
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.
Until Mr. Ponn Manickavel took over. He reopened investigations and booked fresh cases. Some of the offenders responsible for the theft and illegal export of these idols were identified. The Idol Wing arrested antiques dealer Subash Chandra Kapoor, Nachu alias Lakshmi Narasimman of Silpa Vatika Gallery, Sanjeev Ashokan of Arsiliya Gallery, Annadurai and Umadurai of Karanthattankudi in Thanjavur, and Vallabh Prakash and Aditya Prakash of Mumbai Indo-Nepal Art Centre. Mumbai-based Suriyaprakash and Marichami of Rajapalayam are absconding.
The French Institute of Pondicherry shared photographs of the idols with the Idol Wing.
Mr. Ponn Manickavel said, “We have conducted a thorough investigation and produced necessary evidence that these idols went from the State. We have established clearly that these idols were kept in the temples of Tamil Nadu and that the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department-run temples were the original owners.”
“Due to our consistent efforts, we have already brought back the Dancing Natarajar of Sripuranthan Temple, Narasimme also known as Prithyankara and Arthanareeshwarar of Vriddhachalam temple from Australia. In continuation of those efforts, we are demanding that these idols be returned to us,” he added. The Dancing Natarajar and Arthanareeshwarar idols were given back in 2014, while the Narasimme idol came in 2016.
- Vijayakumar, an art enthusiast, said, “It is time for Australia to return these idols to India and for them to go back to their respective temples. A proper investigation will reveal more Indian art linked to the dubious art dealer network.”