While the recovery of missing temple idols is a shrill demand, the retrieved artefacts often lie in abject neglect.
In October 2016, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) in the US refurbished its Asian wing, it “reimagined” the mandapam of a 16th century Nayak dynasty temple at Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The 64 pillars looked exquisite and amazingly authentic under the brilliant illumination. The granite stone, the intricate carvings, the life-like sculptures—everything was practically identical to the original pillars of the ancient temple.
How had this effect been achieved? The museum had used the advice of experts such as Darielle Mason, the Stella Kramrisch curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, and head of Department of South Asian Art at the museum. Recollecting the project in the book titled Storied Stone: Reframing the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s South Indian Temple Hall, Mason writes of the meticulous process used to recreate the mandapam for the first time outside the place of its origin.
According to the book, a Philadelphian named Adeline Pepper Gibson first saw the abandoned pillars at Sri Madana Gopala Swamy temple in Madurai in 1913, where they had been consigned to a waste heap. Struck by their beauty, Gibson bought the pillars and shipped them to Philadelphia. There is no information on how much she paid and to whom. An independent enquiry by a section of media claimed that the carved stone pillars had probably belonged to the Sri Koodal Alagar Temple nearby, which had been renovated in the early 1900s. The reports claimed that the original pillars had been removed and abandoned on the premises of the Madana Gopala Swamy temple.
In 1919, the pillars were handed over to the Philadelphia Museum. When the recreated temple hall was opened to the public, it triggered a huge debate among art and heritage lovers on whether such cultural treasures could be removed for showcasing in another country. Many people argued that they should be returned to their place of origin, while others said that in India they suffered neglect, pointing out that the original pillars had, in fact, been trashed before a collector spotted them.
In recent times, the calls for the restitution of missing temple artefacts have become shrill, particularly in Tamil Nadu, and acts of restoration get wide media coverage, with the police involved in such discoveries accorded near-hero status. What does not get reported nearly enough, however, is the fact that these idols and artefacts, retrieved from smugglers, collectors and museums, are then promptly abandoned by the authorities. They lie about, crying out for care and maintenance, prompting art lovers to ask what restitution really achieves.
Signs of fatigue
Take, for instance, the case of copper and bronze idols that are frequently brought back with much fanfare. Technical expertise is required for their preservation. When this reporter visited the ancient Sri Thyagaraja Swamy temple in Tiruvarur in December 2018, some of the idols kept in the Icon Centre there had green patina and corrosion, signs of metal fatigue. The Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police admitted that idols in Icon Centres across the State had similar signs of fatigue.
Murugaiyan Amirthalingam, renowned metallurgist and Associate Professor at the Department of Metallurgy and Material Engineering in Indian Institute of Technology Madras, told Frontline that patina formation and corrosion in metal idols occur due to the presence of excessive sulphides and chlorides in the storage environment. “The brittle filmy coat over idols, mainly copper idols, prevents immediate corrosion but requires constant cleaning and maintenance. Ancient idols have defied decay through the eras thanks to the ritual oiling and cleaning in temples,” he said.
Amirthalingam, who was asked by the court circa 2018 to map metal idols of the Chola and Pandya eras in Tami Nadu’s temples, said that most pieces were made of copper. “Although they are commonly called ‘bronzes,’ a majority are made of pure copper while the rest are around 90 per cent copper. On court instructions, we analysed hundreds of such idols. A small number contain elements such as tin, zinc, silver, nickel, aluminium, and rarely gold. Those with aluminium and nickel were replacement idols, which we identified in the course of inspection. Aluminium and nickel are not found in original idols from ancient eras. But zinc can be found,” he said.
Amirthalingam pointed out that in the absence of ritual worship, which preserves idols, temple strong rooms should be temperature-controlled to reduce chlorides and sulphates. Metallurgists have to be consulted for conservation. “Only then these pieces can be saved from the ravages of time.”
Problem of plenty
Tamil Nadu is home to some 48,000 temples, of which close to 28,000 are classified as “ancient” or more than 500 to 1,000 years old. A senior official from the State’s Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowment (HR and CE) Department, which maintains ancient temples, pointed out the anomaly of temples being poor in revenue but rich in heritage. “We have a problem of plenty,” he said.
Some 34,093 temples have an annual income of less than Rs.10,000 each, while 3,550 temples earn less than Rs.2 lakh a year. Ironically, most of them house priceless idols and artefacts. “The government has created fixed deposits of Rs.1 lakh each for 12,745 temples for their daily services. We try our best to retrieve temple lands and assets from unscrupulous elements to augment their revenue.”
An administrative sanction of Rs.156.38 crore was given to construct strong rooms in 1,767 temples under the first phase of the Idol Safety Project, which started in 2016.
Madurai-based temple archaeologist C. Shanthalingam told Frontline that it is a huge task for any entity, individual or state, to undertake. “It’s easy for private collectors and museums to keep, preserve and exhibit a piece or two in an ideal and safe environment. But when you have hundreds of antique pieces, many of which are metal, it becomes a big problem.”
Many of these idols, he said, were “live,” that is, still in worship. “Agama rules [ancient rules that govern temple construction, performance of rituals, and festivals] do not permit them to be exhibited elsewhere other than in the temples. However, if we have replicas of the idol, they can be moved to museums for safety and for public display,” he pointed out.
- In recent times, the calls for the restitution of missing temple artefacts have become shrill, particularly in Tamil Nadu.
- Idols and artefacts, retrieved from smugglers, collectors and museums, are promptly abandoned by the authorities.
- Meanwhile, the judiciary has come down hard on the Tamil Nadu State government to evolve a system for the safety and conservation of antiques. Tamil Nadu has now chalked out a plan to digitally register antique pieces in all temples but the exercise is massive.
- The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, which says an “antiquity” is an article or object that is at least 100 years old, needs to be revised to accommodate evolving requirements.
The landscape of antiques is rendered more complicated by the fact that they fall into distinct typologies like the sacred, the semi-sacred and the non-sacred. Many objects which originate from historic structures, pillars or the royal stash in palaces have wound their way abroad to dealers, collectors, and museums. For example, the exhibition of 26 repatriated Indian antiquities that opened on February 22 in Khajuraho, during the meeting of the G-20 culture group, hardly had any sacred objects. They were mostly ancient stone or marble sculptures, carved granite or sandstone pillars, or the over 900-year-old frieze of the “Parrot Lady” of Khajuraho. It is much easier to house these 250-odd repatriated objects in existing museums or even create a new museum for them as there are no peripheral claims on them.
The picture, however, changes dramatically when it comes to objects considered sacred or semi-sacred. The debate around their restitution or their being locked up in strong rooms or their being committed to the custody of the state for safe-keeping and/or display becomes intense in the absence of any clear vision or policy that could help the process.
For Prof. Naman P. Ahuja, a scholar in ancient and mediaeval Indian art history, conservation and preservation, more than restitution, is the essential part of the process of keeping idols “safe and in robust health”. The art historian told Frontline that objects are damaged mostly during transportation and seizure, on account of improper handling and storage. “Simply constructing strong rooms, primarily to prevent theft, is inadequate,” he said.
In the context of Tamil Nadu and the stolen idols recently recovered, he said what the government urgently needs is trained staff and improved storage and display capacities. “Museums abroad have conservation laboratories and scientists. Does the Tamil Nadu government have these?” he asked.
“The cost of training, storage and display is much higher than the funds made available to the State,” said Ahuja. “It would be prudent, therefore, to promote private-public partnerships, as in developed countries.”
Ahuja pointed out that this would not only reduce the government’s burden, it would also direct state resources to the preservation of the best rather than all artefacts deemed “ancient”. He recommended that the government keep the best artefacts and idols for its museums and allow the rest, the B and C grade varieties, to be adopted by private collectors, thus facilitating public participation in preservation.
Ahuja said, “The practice of criminalising the sale of antiques to collectors should be stopped.” However, if idols are indeed stolen from worship sites, they should be confiscated and restituted. “Pillaging and destruction of sites must be stopped, but at the same time it does not mean that all metal idols found outside their place of origin are ‘stolen.’”
Ahuja said that the Agamas recommend the repair of corroded or damaged objects. If the object can no longer be repaired, the temple has the authority to replace it, and this is commonly done either by immersion or burial. He pointed out that there are other legitimate situations when temples let go of old idols. “Temples have multiple idols and replicas of originals, donated or made at various times. If you don’t discard the old, new ones cannot be accommodated.” Museums and private collectors, Ahuja said, can keep discarded and dead artefacts alive.
This again is an area where the law has not reached. In the context of a living Agamic practice, every sacred object is deemed to be invested with a lifespan. Beyond that, it is considered a dead object and is discarded. While most such objects are ritually interred, across rural South India one can come across many others lying about casually in and around temple premises. Besides criminalising the possession of these, the law still falls far short of any satisfactory solution.
Case of Tamil Nadu
Meanwhile, the judiciary has come down hard on the State government to evolve a system for the safety and conservation of antiques. In November 2022, a division bench of the Madras High Court with Justices R. Mahadevan and P.D. Audikesavalu rapped the HR and CE Department for not constructing strong rooms in temples. “These idols and antiques are worth several crores,” they said.
The then HR and CE Commissioner R. Jaya, in her plea, pointed to the many impediments. She said that small safety rooms with a “double lock” system were already in place in 11,512 temples. Further, 19 major Icon Centres had been established in important temples where antiques and idols from smaller temples could be stored.
The affidavit claimed that any new construction inside a temple had to be done as per Agama principles, and also recalled the direction a Division Bench had given on the constitution of a heritage committee of archaeological and conservation experts whose prior approval had to be obtained for any construction inside ancient temples.
Finally, the affidavit proposed that strong room construction be taken up in phases—first for temples with more than 50 idols, then for temples with 26 to 50 idols, then 10 to 25 idols, and finally those with less than 10. Work was on to set up CCTV cameras and burglar alarms, said the HR and CE, and asked for more time.
The court refused to budge. The State then entrusted the job to the Tamil Nadu Police Housing Corporation (TNPHC), which submitted a blueprint for a strong room at Sri Pasupatheeswarar Temple in Pandanallur in Thanjavur district. The plan was rejected, as it was not prepared in consultation with Agama experts.
The State has now chalked out a plan to digitally register antique pieces in all temples. “The exercise is massive. We need to cover nearly 40,000 temples. Nothing in a temple can be abandoned any longer,” said an official involved in the still-nascent project.
What about the recovered pieces carelessly strewn in government garages and police warehouses? These must be returned to the respective temples as per Agama rules, the officer said. “It will take time, as legal formalities must be cleared. Metal objects are kept in safe rooms under the court’s jurisdiction. Those that cannot be restored to their original homes will be museumised,” he said. “Only stone carvings are left in the open on our premises.”
The smuggling route
Recovery and restitution fall under Tamil Nadu’s Idol Wing police, which verifies documents such as licences and provenance certificates before effecting seizures from private firms and individuals. A senior police officer, who broke a major crime syndicate ring in 2014-2015, told Frontline that any antique procured or kept without legally validated documents, as per the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, is considered “stolen property”.
It is obvious that a collector or smuggler alone cannot be behind such antique thefts. Temple personnel, politicians, administration officials all have to be complicit for thefts to take place with such impunity.
“Museums abroad have conservation laboratories and scientists. Does the TN government have these?”Naman P. AhujaArt historian
Idol smuggler Subash Kapoor, at present in a Tamil Nadu jail, was able to loot priceless idols from a temple in a village near Kumbakonam. Even though the temple is surrounded by homes, nobody intervened as thieves blatantly brought in a minivan and drove away with the priceless loot. Later, one priest was arrested, who said he had not received wages for several months and had, in desperation, accepted Rs.5,000 for abetting the theft.
According to a report from Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based think tank, the illegal trade of antiquities is the world’s most profitable criminal enterprise.
The Idol Wing officer agreed that the local community has to be involved to prevent thefts from their temples. He claimed that cases had been registered against HR and CE officials and even a few police personnel for their suspected involvement. “Whoever is found involved will be booked as per law,” he said. According to him, many collectors have voluntarily come forward to declare their possessions or hand over pieces that have no papers.
The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, which says an “antiquity” is an article or object that is at least 100 years old, has jurisdiction over any movable cultural property of antiquity. Owning unregistered antiques is a punishable offence. Section 14(3) makes it mandatory for “every person who owns” an antique to register it.
But such laws enacted without sensitivity to context add to the problem. The 1972 Act is on a par with recent proposals such as the CAA-NRC Act or making birth certificates mandatory to vote, where lived cultural practices, traditions and notions of identity are subject to official pieces of paper, putting substantial sections of the population under threat of disenfranchisement.
Under this law, a family heirloom that one has inherited can suddenly become an “illegal possession”. The “100 years” antiquity idea is a colonial relic from a country that is hardly 1,000 years old. But a country like India with a far longer provenance needs antiquity laws with a more appropriate benchmark.
Section 3 of the Act prohibits the export of antiques by anyone other than the Central government or its agencies. Selling antiquities after the expiry of licence is also an offence. The Act also stipulates that the onus lies on the buyer to verify all legally mandated requirements, such as documents of registration, licence, and provenance certificate.
The Union government in 2017 brought in The Draft Antiquities and Art Treasures Regulation, Export and Import Bill, 2017, to do away with the requirement of a licence to sell antiques within the country. As per the draft law, the government, if it wishes a piece to be restituted, should pay compensation to an innocent purchaser or a person who has valid title to the property. If this draft Bill becomes law, genuine art dealers and collectors will get some relief.
Meanwhile, present Indian law treats antiques without proper provenance found outside their place of origin as stolen property, while Agama rules urge that idols be restituted to their places of origin. It is a conundrum that needs urgent resolution to enable a more mature approach to the issue—as well as to prevent the Idol Wing of police departments from becoming raiding agencies and a new harassment arm of the state.
For now, the Tamil Nadu government appears to think that it is enough to merely put the gods under lock and key.