The Idol Wing police in Tamil Nadu seize a treasure trove of antique idols stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka at the home of a “trader” in arts and artefacts, and in the process bust an international smuggling syndicate. By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN
THE last thing that Govindaraj Deenadayalan would have wanted in his sunset years was to see the art business he had studiously built up collapsing. The octogenarian has seen many ups and downs in his six decades of trading in arts and artefacts, and even extricated himself nonchalantly from the most trying situations. But luck seemed to have deserted him in the last week of May when the police in Chennai, after a continuous watch on him, raided his house in an upscale locality, and eventually arrested him.
Sleuths of the Idol Wing CID of the Tamil Nadu Police’s Economic Offences Wing, led by Inspector General of Police (IG) Pon. Manickavel, raided Deenadayalan’s residence in Alwarpet in the heart of Chennai and a rented godown nearby on the basis of information that hoards of antique artefacts were stored there with no valid documents. In fact, the residence also housed a gallery, Aparna Art Gallery.
The raids and the investigations that followed unearthed an internationally well-knit smuggling unit that has been active for at least 50 years in Tamil Nadu, which has countless ancient temples that hold in them priceless antique pieces. Deenadayalan, 84, was, the Idol Wing police said on the basis of “credible” information, a vital link in the murky racket.
It was a tip-off to Pon. Manickavel from an informant about “some unusual activities” going on at Deenadayalan’s house and the godown in the wee hours that alerted the police to mount a surveillance on the two places. The specific information was that lorries bearing registration numbers of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra were frequenting the places either to deposit or transport huge wooden boxes.
Deenadayalan had actually put his trade on hold in an attempt to lie low after the arrest, in 2012, of international antiques dealer Subash Chandra Kapoor, said to be a client of his, on charges of smuggling. The arrest was made by the Pon. Manickavel-headed Idol Wing, and Kapoor is now being held in Puzhal prison near Chennai awaiting trial in a few idol theft cases.
Deenadayalan had also been cautious about his movements since then. He slipped out of Chennai to his native village in Kadapa district in Andhra Pradesh and then moved to Bengaluru where he once ran a gallery.
But the police continued to maintain a zealous vigil over his house in Chennai. Said Pon. Manickavel: “During the course of our investigation in Kapoor’s case, we chanced upon a vital link that drew us closer to Deenadayalan, who, we came to understand, was one of his suppliers in India. Further investigation revealed that he had a hand in the theft of the stone idol of Ardhanareeswarar from the ancient Siva temple in Vriddachalam in Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu. The statue eventually landed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, through Kapoor.”
The thieves replaced the idol with a replica that even officials of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department of the Tamil Nadu government were unaware of. After a diligent matching of photographs and exchange of documents with the Australian authorities, it was ascertained that the idol in the Australian museum was the one that had been stolen from the Vriddachalam temple. The Ardhanareeswarar and a bronze idol of Nataraja (stolen from the Sri Brihadeeswarar temple at Sripuranthan in Udayarpalayam taluk in Ariyalur district) were returned to India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in September 2014.
Investigations into Deenadayalan’s activities also showed that he was an accused in a case relating to a break-in at the ancient Sri Narum Poonathar Temple at Paluvoor village in Tirunelveli district in 2005; 13 bronze idols were stolen. He was able to secure bail, but an accomplice was murdered following a dispute over the sawing off of a portion of a two-and-a-half-foot (76 cm) tall bronze of Nataraja to extract the gold content from it. The trial in the case at the Srivilliputhur Magistrate court is in its last lap.
Pon. Manickavel said: “Since then the Chennai dealer [Deenadayalan] has been under our watch. Though he was aware that we were on his trail and though he camouflaged his activities by lying low for some time, pressure from buyers was too much for him to resist. As expected, it made him lower his guard thinking that we had slackened our surveillance. But we had been watching his every move closely. He could not transport his idols to buyers in Mumbai on time. He became desperate and then we struck.”
The police arrested three of his trusted workers, Rajamani (60), Kumar (60) and Mansingh (55), on May 31 and remanded them in custody. The raids and seizures began on the basis of the information the investigators got from them. The raids at his house and godown went on for three days from May 31 and threw up a virtual treasure trove that shocked and surprised the sleuths of the Idol Wing.
There were priceless antique sculptures in metal and in stone, besides innumerable other items presumably from temples in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.
Deenadayalan performed a vanishing act and went underground. The Idol Wing pasted a “Notice of Appearance” at his house under Section 41A (1) of the Criminal Procedure Code and asked him to appear before the police with the relevant documents since they had “credible information” that he had “committed a cognisable offence”.
Deenadayalan was able to get anticipatory bail, but he presented himself before the Idol Wing Police in the first week of June, along with his counsel and his daughter, for the inquiry. The raids on his house and godown yielded about 200 artefacts, including 49 bronzes, 71 stone carvings and 96 rare paintings.
Many other ancient artefacts, such as miniature statues, massive stone Nandis, ivory and wood carvings, lamps, figurines, ornamental pillars, and pooja utensils, were also seized.
R. Nagasamy, former Director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department and a renowned iconographer, said many of the idols were 1,000 to 1,200 years old.
“They belong to the Chola and Hoysala dynasties, the former known for its intricate bronze works and the latter for blackstone and sandstone works. It is sad that these glories of the past have been plundered by the greedy from their pristine, sacred environment,” he said.
The IG, who is personally investigating the case, said they never expected such a huge haul of antiques from a private dealer.
“We were surprised at its [the seizure’s] magnitude. They have ripped off whole temples in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam areas, it seems,” he said. After seeing the paintings and idols, many temple officials and private mutts have started coming to the police to identify whether any of the seized pieces are those stolen from their places. Deenadayalan reportedly sold an original painting of Raja Ravi Varma for Rs.1 crore. “An idol stolen from a temple near Chinna Salem and a painting stolen from an ancient mutt have been identified. Cases are being filed,” said P.A. Sundaram, DSP, the Idol Wing Investigation Officer.
The bureaucracy’s wink-and-nod attitude to temple thefts emboldened the thieves and smugglers. The smugglers mixed the antique pieces with new metal idols to get export clearance from the Handicrafts Department of the Union Textiles Ministry as “objects of handicrafts”.
These clearance documents were presented to Customs officials at ports, mostly in Mumbai, for shipping the consignments abroad.
The same method was used to smuggle eight bronzes that were stolen from the Brihadeeswarar Temple at Sripuranthan village. The police report of this case (Vikramangalam Police Station, Crime Number 133/08 under Section 380 (2) of the Indian Penal Code) pointed out that the smugglers got the clearance certificates from the Handicrafts Department in Chennai. The law enforcers accord least priority to these “cultural thefts” and many feign ignorance about the provisions of The Antiquity and Art Treasures Act, 1972, that prohibits trading in antiquities at least 100 years old and also any item of antique value without the Archaeology Survey of India’s (ASI) clearance.
“Such serious crimes are treated as non-cognisable offences such as burglary, in which you get less punishment. Dealing with the theft of artefacts of antique value demands high technical expertise involving heavy documentation and verification procedures. The provenance of the pieces is to be proved before a court of law. It is a cumbersome exercise,” said Pon. Manickavel.
“In fact, anyone can walk into an unguarded and dilapidated ancient temple in a nondescript village, steal the antique sculptures, both stone and bronze, and other artefacts, find a middleman, label them as handicrafts with the connivance of officials and ship them out of the country through a well-connected pan-global syndicate of smugglers basically from Mumbai,” said Vijay Kumar, an independent blogger who is engaged with the India Pride Project (IPP) involving an international group of activists fighting against “culture trafficking” from India.
The Idol Wing faces many constraints while investigating a case of such serious dimensions. Inadequate manpower and infrastructure are bugbears.
“To investigate the high-profile cases of Kapoor and Deenadayalan, we need to have expert handling. In the U.S., sleuths of the Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Investigation, which investigate these cases, are trained in archaeology and antique assessment,” pointed out a senior police officer.
Any investigation into antique theft has been a daunting task for the investigators. “The law in India demands a case to be charge-sheeted in 60 days. How could one successfully conduct trials against the smugglers and illegal sellers when the investigation transcends the country’s borders? To determine whether the provenance documents of the stolen artefacts are fake, we need experts’ opinions. It is time-consuming,” Pon. Manickavel said.
Such bottlenecks in the course of an investigation invariably provide the accused a favourable environment to escape the law. This is especially so when documentary evidence is not available to prove that the artefacts belonged to a particular temple or place. The case of the antique trader Vaman Narayan Ghiya of Jaipur is a case in point, which proved that laws were inadequate to deal with illegal treasure sellers. He is said to have been a prolific antique smuggler in the 1980s, and a report claimed that he had stolen about 20,000 artefacts. He was arrested in 2003, only to be released by the Rajasthan High Court since the prosecutors could not prove his complicity in the crime in the absence of material evidence, since the stolen pieces could not be recovered from abroad. The ASI chose not to appeal against it. Many operators have escaped the law in this manner.
“For instance, priceless antique pieces have been stolen from various temples across Tamil Nadu. But, sadly, none of these stolen properties from our temples has any documentary proof of ownership and proof of provenance, though the HR and CE Department claims that it has started collecting and documenting the same now,” said Pon. Manickavel.
The smugglers and their agents were able to hoodwink the law by providing false provenance certificates for the stolen antiquities. Art lovers point out that the restitution of statues to their original sites is difficult because evidence is needed to show that the stolen pieces are from a particular temple.
But this time, the Idol Wing police have decided to plug these technical loopholes. In the Paluvoor case, in which Deenadayalan was also named, the IG filed a fresh affidavit under Section 173 (8) of the CrPC, asking the Srivilliputhur court to suspend the trial proceedings since the case was to be reopened for further investigation. “Similarly, I have had to take over the role of complainant in a case where the authorities in a temple from which the idols had been stolen denied any knowledge about them. This is the first time in the country that an officer in the rank of IGP has taken up the responsibility of being a complainant since the stolen idols belong to the country,” he said.
In the case of Kapoor, who owns a gallery called Art of the Past in Manhattan in New York, the police faced anxious moments before they arrested him (“The great Indian idol robbery”, Frontline, January 24, 2004). Realising the deficiencies in the prosecution system, the Idol Wing approached his case with methodical precision. Experts’ opinions were sought to identify the stolen artefacts by matching visuals of the same with photographic materials from the French Institute in Puducherry, the only agency that has a meticulous database of hundreds of antique properties of temples and other places of historical importance in Tamil Nadu and India.
All the pieces of documentary and photographic evidence were submitted to the authorities in the U.S., Australia and Germany to seek Kapoor’s extradition to India and his subsequent detention in Tamil Nadu, for which the Home Ministry had to be convinced to make the Interpol issue a Red Corner alert. “In fact, a detailed investigation that ran for months has effectively broken the strong criminal syndicate of Kapoor, his chief idol lifter Sanjeevan Ashokan, who was once detained under the Goondas’ Act in the Sripuranthan temple burglary, and Deenadayalan. They had carried out many successful business transactions. We are also pursuing other vital leads which Deenadayalan provided during the interrogation. This will enable us to unearth the entire secret network that has been functioning for years now,” the IG said.
The arrest of Kapoor at Frankfurt airport in Germany in 2012 turned the focus on the theft and smuggling of ancient treasures from India, and especially Tamil Nadu, and the illicit trade in them. In fact, according to a report in The New York Times, Kapoor’s loot alone could be worth Rs.66.71 billion in the international market. Another report points out that he could have stolen and smuggled about 2,600 artefacts out of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Cambodia. Pon. Manickavel said Kapoor’s Sofia Self Storage Facility in the U.S. was thought to be hoarding about 500 idols from India, especially Tamil Nadu, of which a mere 31 had been returned to the country so far. He said the U.S. authorities were yet to return two important stolen pieces from the Suthamalli temple near Ariyalur though “unimpeachable documentary evidence” was provided to them. “These two idols carry inscriptions of ‘Sudhavalli’ on their pedestals pointing to the Tamil Nadu connection,” he said. More than 50 galleries abroad still display stolen idols from India, he claimed. A study by the Drug and Crime wing of the United Nations Education and Scientific Organisation says that illicit trafficking in stolen idols across the world is estimated to be worth $3.4-6.3 billion annually. India is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property.
Pon. Manickavel said he was confident of breaking the backbone of this well-organised international black market in antique idols from temples in Tamil Nadu. He was also confident that museums and auction houses in India and abroad, especially those in the U.S. and Australia, now understood that they should no longer indulge in shady trade in stolen antiquities from India.