Antiquities seized by Idol Wing lie abandoned in Chennai
They had been stolen from temples across Tamil Nadu, valued for the priceless heritage of art and sculpture they embodied in bronze, stone and wood.
But now, many of these priceless artefacts – seized over the years by the Idol Wing Police – lie abandoned, at the mercy of the elements, in the rear of the unit’s premises that is part of the CB-CID Economic Offences Wing at Guindy in Chennai.
The artefacts which include centuries-old stone sculptures and idols, carved stone pillars, intricately worked wooden pieces, temple cars, vahanas or ritual vehicles for idols, among others are stored in a haphazard manner in vehicle sheds and open spaces on the premises.
Among these are around 800 antique stone idols and artefacts seized in 2016, when the Idol Wing stumbled upon a treasure trove at the godown and gallery of the antique dealer G. Deenadayalan in Alwarpet.
Subsequently, 200 artefacts – most of them made of wood – were also seized from a bungalow-cum-gallery of one Lakshminarayanan, an associate of Deenadayalan in Kuchikaadu, near Karanai village on the East Coast Road, on the outskirts of Chennai.
The Idol Wing also recovered 244 antique idols and artefacts from businessman Ranvir Shah’s house in Saidapet and two farmhouses in Kancheepuram district. Further investigation led to the unearthing of 23 idols from the Poes Garden premises of businesswoman Kiran Rao.
These antiques were seized when A.G. Ponn Manickavel was Inspector General of Police of the Idol Wing. Following his superannuation, he is now the court-appointed Special Officer of the special unit.
As per Criminal Procedure Code, the antiques are seized by an Investigation officer and are returned to the rightful owner or temple only after the completion of legal proceedings including a trial, which could take several years.
In some instances, however, the Idol Wing has returned the items after they were able to produce claims from temple administrators or villagers in court.
Among these are the famous Kallidaikurichi Nataraja idol, which was retrieved from Australia and returned to the Sri Kulasekaramudaiyar Temple, and another set of idols of Nataraja and consorts, which were returned to the Narumbunathar temple in Thiruppadaimarudur in Tirunelveli. A couple pieces stolen from the Thanjavur Big Temple that were recovered from the Vikram Sarabhai Mueseum were restituted as was the stone idol Narasimha from the Vridhachalam temple.
However, a large part of the seized artefacts are to be found in the open, waiting for legal proceedings against the dealers or offenders to be completed.
Mr. Manickavel told The Hindu that the authorities of the Government Museum at Egmore had refused to allot space for storing the seized artefacts.
“We have to keep them in our car parks and in open space exposing them to sun and rain. What to do? On our request, the HR&CE (Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department) came forward to allot a place for keeping them safe. We were shown two places in Tiruvottiyur and Thiruvanmiyur one year ago. Nothing has materialised so far,” he said.
The Idol Wing officials are also apprehensive of the artefacts getting damaged in case of floods with just a compound wall standing between the priceless artefacts and the Adyar river.
However, Commissioner, HR&CE, K. Phanindra Reddy said: “We have identified a piece of land belonging to the Kapaliswarar Temple. [But] The Idol wing was to send a proposal to the government to take the land on lease,” indicating a procedural stalemate.
Art experts, archaeologists and enthusiasts have raised serious concerns over the possible damage to these priceless pieces of cultural heritage as a result of having been left in the open over a long period, especially in a coastal city.
“Efflorescence can result in deterioration of the surface through expansion and flaking. Bird droppings too are a threat. It may need treatment to remove salt by poultice using paper pulp,” said Professor Sharada Srinivasan, an expert in archeological science with the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore.
“Air pollution can also compound the problem with thick layers of dust and soot getting deposited over time in the outdoors, especially as the sculptures are near a car parking lot, emitting a lot of soot and particulate matter,” she added.
T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist of the ASI, said stone idols, pillars lose their features such as carving if they are exposed to sun and rain. “There will be acidity in the first few spells of rain and that acid will deposit over the stone. Stone is not made only of silica but also other minerals. These minerals will react to the acid and then stone idols will deteriorate fast,” he cautioned.
On wooded pieces, Dr. Sharada said wood deteriorates easily if left exposed. Alternate exposure to wet and dry conditions can lead to swelling. Shrinkage and dryness lead to cracking and disfiguration and peeling off of painted layers especially on objects such as vahanas. If wood becomes very waterlogged, it needs to be treated for drying out, with some methods such as bathing in ethanol and then in acetone and so on, she explained.
“The Archaelogical Survey of India has opened an exclusive museum to display restituted and seized artefacts at Purana Quila in New Delhi. The Tamil Nadu government can do something similar for objects that cannot be immediately traced to temples,” said S.Vijaykumar, art enthusiast.
“The artefacts especially the bronzes need to be immediately assessed for potential bronze disease and remedial measures must be taken up. Further as per the submission by HR & CE Department, they have a list of temples with 1,450 stone and bronze icons reported missing from 1992. These seized idols can be distributed to those temples based on a clear list for continuance of daily pooja till the cases are eventually settled,” he suggested.
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