RISING TEMPLE : THEFTS IN ODISHA
Over the past few decades Odisha has endured several temple thefts in each of the districts. In total, the number of idols lost is estimated to be close to a staggering 10,000. Antique dealers have for decades targeted Odishan temples and smuggled such items out of the country to rake in big bucks by selling them to museums or auctioning them at international auction houses. There is hardly a day when idol thefts are not reported in the media. Odisha has become a major hub for stolen idol export. The thriving industry of stone sculptures in the state gives easy access to export stolen idols along with the newly carved ones.
In January this year, five old metallic idols from the Sri Gopinathdev Temple at Kakudia near Pipili were stolen. In April, thieves broke into the Mausi Maa temple, just 500 metres away from the Jagannath temple at Puri. Last year, miscreants barged into the sanctum sanctorum of the 800-year-old Daksha Prajapati temple in Banpur town of Khurda and took away 22 Ashtadhatu idols. They melted six of them, only ingots were recovered along with five other idols. Last year, the STF recovered two brass idols from the Jadupur on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. I had gone to see the idols at the STF office, the Sp told me that they had deployed a decoy, who was asked to pay a crore for them. Last year, Burglars broke into a Shiva temple in Malikeswarpur village in Kendrapada and decamped with an idol of Goddess Laxmi from the outer wall of the shrine. The idol, made from black chlorite was three feet high and weighed around one quintal. The theft of an 11-century-old idol from the Marichi temple at Ayodhya in Nilgiri December 26 2019 was solved with the arrest of Suresh Yadav from of Etah district in Uttar Pradesh.
In March 2017, an Ashtadhatu idol of Lord Krishna valued at around a crore was stolen from the 300-year-old Dadhibabanjew temple in Choudkulat village. The miscreants also stole brass idols of Lord Hanuman and Goddess Durga. In 2015, six rare antique idols were stolen from the Varahanath temple in Jajpur. Three 13th century antique stone idols were stolen from the famous Chandrasekhar Jew temple at Kapilash in the same year. In 2014, the chlorite Jain idol of Adinatha Deb was stolen from the Grameswar temple at Nivarana village under Niali Police Station. It was regarded as one of the rarest Jain statues of Odisha. The 2.5 feet height black-stone statue was later recovered, but the thieves had pruned it considerably and it was half its size when recovered.
While working on the Prachi Valley project, in the course of two years, I came to know of nearly 50 temple thefts in the jurisdiction of four police stations. Idols which were photographed and documented by scholars in the last three decades have vanished. Both the locals and the police themselves admitted that many more thefts have been unreported. Surprisingly, only one single recovery has been made, the rest of the precious idols have been lost forever. There were 20 cases of idol theft in the last decade in Bhadrak, but not a single recovery has been made.
Intach had repeatedly expressed its concern over rising cases of temple thefts in Odisha and illegal exports of idols. It has urged the government for framing a holistic policy and taking legal measures to deal with the menace. The prevailing laws intended to prevent idol thefts and burglary are inherently ineffective and a holistic national heritage protection policy and system should be put in place. There is no objective database of antiques – both stone and metallic idols — in the approximately 22,000 ancient places of worship in Odisha. Inconsequential and weak legislations like the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act and the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904 are ineffective to curb these crimes. There is an absolute lack of awareness and gross apathy regarding the intrinsic value of antique idols that represent the rich cultural heritage of the state.
More than 95 per cent of the antique idols in the State remain legally unregistered as the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities remains incomplete. New legislation and amendments are a need of the hour and the police should have a separate wing to deal with such crimes. The state Archeology and the ASI should adopt methods as per international norms. Metal idols should have laser markings and the stone ones should have metallic engravings as evidence of ownership. There have been many instances where recovered stolen idols could not be traced back to their original places, and are lying in different police stations malkhanas and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) godowns. These idols should be returned back to the temples from where they were stolen. They are not objects of art, they are deities which were worshipped.
The practice of collecting Indian ancient statues can be dated back to the British Raj, when our colonizers took back with them several artifacts of historical importance. China too has been a notable victim of this, particularly when the Europeans stole from its famed Summer Palace during the siege of Peking in 1860. However, in its typical fashion, China resorted to a quick solution to bring back its lost heritage, they reportedly hired professional agents and thieves to bring back many of their stolen antiques from museums across Europe. The KODE Museum in Norway, The Swedish Royal Palace, museums in Durham and Cambridge and the Chateau de Fontainebleau have all been burgled in recent years, allegedly by Chinese operatives who have broken in and taken only items of Chinese heritage. Such has been the brashness of the Chinese in these matters that the government has even publicly displayed some of the relics that were stolen from the European museums.
India on the other hand, has taken a far softer route of using diplomacy to request for the return of our stolen ancient wonders. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initial tenure, the nation saw several such diplomatic repatriations, with the US vowing to return 200 statues, Tony Abbott’s return of the Nataraj, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gift of several smaller figures and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s return of a stone carving of Goddess Durga. The Durga carving, which Merkel returned to India, was traced back to a small temple in Pulwama, Kashmir, giving rise to the question as to how did it get smuggled out the country and land up in Germany.
The British museums are nothing more than chor bazaars. The only official body responsible for bringing back all our ancient idols is the ASI, but they have not been able to accomplish much of what is expected of them. We need to first come up with a central database. We do not even have photos or dimensions of the statues because they’re considered sacred, and measuring them was seen as unholy. There should be a state-wise anti-smuggling wing that specialises in ancient heritage.
Countries like the US and China have enacted heritage protection laws so have not-so-prosperous countries like Jordan and Mexico. Its saddening when a culture rich country like India, chooses not to. Ironically, there are some lobbyists within our country, who have invested heavily in our national treasure and want to amend the Antiquities Laws. It leaves one wondering if we as people truly want to support the cause of protecting our millenniums-old ancient heritage.
By Anil Dhir