Missing idols cause concern in Telangana, AP

Missing idols cause concern in Telangana, AP

During the 1980s, there was a sudden increase in thefts of Panchaloha idols and the spectre is once again returning with three cases of arrest in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh recently.

Hyderabad: During the 1980s, there was a sudden increase in thefts of Panchaloha idols and the spectre is once again returning with three cases of arrest in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh recently.

Three Panchaloha idols of deities Varadarajula Swamy, Sridevi and Bhoodevi from an ancient temple at Rajole in Kuravi mandal in Warangal district which were stolen on March 15, 2016, are now in safe custody but hundreds of idols from the temples across the two Telugu-speaking States are missing for years.

According to the Telangana State Department of Archaeology, about 38 idols from across Telangana and AP were recovered between 2008 and 2013 but these idols are the ones that the police hands over to the department once a case is resolved, for safe custody. According to experts, there are close to 100 precious idols that date back to over 300-400 years that come under “untraceable category”.

Stolen idols data from 2014 till date is being corroborated, said an official and on condition of anonymity confirmed that there are at least a couple of cases reported every month. According to a CAG report in 2013, 91 idols of archaeological importance in India had been missing or untraceable.

Telangana State Department of Archaeology director NR Visalatchi says, “The police hands over the stolen idols to the department for safe custody. The department has its limitations in protecting the idols.”

Vijay Kumar, based in Singapore, who blogs on stolen idols and has been in touch with the US Homeland Security, says that illegal trade of art and artefacts is estimated to be worth Rs 40,000 crore a year. No doubt that the Tamil Nadu government started a special Tamil Nadu Police Idol Wing which is in constant touch with the US Homeland Security.

Though many precious idols go missing from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh every month and rarely get reported, there is no such wing in either State. In the garb of ‘researcher’ and ‘antique collector’ smuggling of international antiquities goes on which requires capital and connections.

Such is the volume of stolen idols that earlier this year in June, the US government returned over 200 stolen idols to India during PM Modi’s visit. But there are thousands of idols stacked away in museums and private collections the world over.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, over 4,000 items were stolen from Indian temples just in a span of three years between 2010 and 2012 and in the past two decades about 2,913 idols and antiquities have been traced in museums.

K Padmanabha, Deputy Director, Telangana Department of Archaeology says, “We recovered two Lord Rama, two Lakshmana and one each of Sita and Radha Devi idols that were stolen from Parlapalli village and date back to 400 years. There are scores of idols strewn across the State that need protection.”

The modus operandi is complex as companies buy and sell objects among themselves to hoodwink officials before forwarding them to auction houses and collectors. Objects are first shipped to Switzerland which is considered safe because of free trade zone. Auction houses claim that they buy the objects from Swiss soil and not from India.

Dealers have a deep network connecting remote areas of the country. The modus operandi used by smugglers is to prepare a copy of the looted antique and submit it to the Archaeological survey; once the tag of ‘non-antiquity’ is granted, the certificate is used to tag to the genuine antique and ship it out of the country.

Smugglers use paperless money remittance system (hawala) which is virtually untraceable. Ghiya from Jaipur and Subhash Kapoor, a US citizen (who is now in Tamil Nadu jail), have been involved in smuggling idols out of India for decades.

Subhash Kapoor who owns Art of the Past, an art gallery in New York, is accused of smuggling more than $100 million worth of stolen art from India.

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