The Temple Raiders Of South India

The recent temple attacks, sparked by the desecration of the Ram idol in Ramateertham have caught national attention, causing a row among different factions politically. Though an investigation on the matter is still underway, the police have stated that they have found a group of suspects who could have been responsible for these storm-stirring acts – the actions of which have put the political parties of the State of Andhra Pradesh at loggerheads with one another. 

This, however, isn’t the first time temples have been used for political or financial gain. Temples have long been the target of people’s malicious agendas in the country. They’ve signified centres of great wealth, spiritual and religious significance and anchors for socio-economic harmony. For millennia they’ve even acted as places for higher education and cultural promotion. As seats of power that have doubled up as universities, banks, and spiritual enlightenment institutions, temples have accordingly suffered their fair share of abuse and attack. In Hyderabad itself, the Chilkur Balaji temple, on the banks of the Osman Sagar Lake, was once the victim of a similar crime. In their instance, the Chilkur Balaji was robbed of several of their idols in the early 2000s. Protected by families of priests who dedicate their lives to the temples and their deities, these buildings are particularly susceptible to thefts in the middle of the night when there isn’t an active guard on the lookout, while the priests sleep in their quarters. 

This lacunae has been used by criminals in the past to their advantage several thousands of times over, leading one to question what type of person would attack a religious centre and steal the very idols that have been worshipped for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In his book, The Idol Thief, by S Vijay Kumar, the author shares the story of one of the most prolific temple thieves in the world, Subhash Kapoor. Based in New York, Kapoor had for years created an empire around the world where he sold antiquities usually procured from the sanctums of temples in South India. There have been many like him in in the country, wheeler-dealers, antique smugglers and criminals who have sold Chola Natarajas, stone Krishnas, granite Varahas for millions of dollars on the open market. The last Nataraj sold by Christie’s realized a price of a little over a million dollars!

Subhash Kapoor

In Tamil Nadu, the Brihadeshwara Temple complex lost one of its famed Natarajas to theft very much like the temple theft at Chilkur Balaji. The bronze Chola sculpture was then smuggled out of India and sold to a museum in Australia, through one of Subhash Kapoor’s channels. Upset by the clear brazenness of this act, police in the state created a separate unit to combat this type of crime and zeroed in on the international art smuggler, Subhash Kapoor, as being the mastermind behind it, along with smaller players from Chennai and Bengaluru. In 2014, the same idol was returned by the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, to Narendra Modi. It signalled a shift in the system, one where thefts and attacks on temples would no longer be tolerated. 

As the years have passed, several ancient temple sculptures and idols have been returned to the Indian Government by foreign leaders. There was the stone Durga from a temple in Pulwama, Kashmir, that was returned by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Over 200 statues were officially returned to the Indian Government by the US, under the Obama Presidency. Talks for further repatriation of such idols are underway worldwide, often leading to the return of statues stolen from temples from as far back as the 1970s. Foreign private collectors too have followed suit when it comes to statues and items of religious significance that they may have purchased through a private sale or at auctions where the provenance of the items were changed or forged. 

One body, the IPP, or the Indian Pride Project, does some great work when it comes to identifying and lobbying for the return of such idols. Headed by S Vijay Kumar (the author of The Idol Thief) and Anuraag Saxena, a professional, this particular non-profit has been at the spearhead of this movement. With the help of well-wishers worldwide, the IPP has managed to pinpoint stolen temple artefacts and notify the relevant legal authorities in several parts of the world, often leading to arrests and the return of the objects. Such has been their level of success, that it was along with their cooperation that authorities managed to arrest Subhash Kapoor in Germany and then bring him back to India, where he is today in jail for his crimes. 

Filmmaker, Nikhil Singh Rajput, created a short film titled Blood Buddhas, on this very subject. In the movie, Nikhil shows how these temples were robbed and desecrated, where the statues ended up and how an entire racket was set up to allow for this to happen, right from corrupt cops and politicians to the auction houses involved in the sale of the items. He also draws particular attention to the ASI, or Archaeological Survey of India, the body responsible for preserving these idols and returned statues. The ASI’s inability to store these invaluable objects, their slow response time and general laissez-faire attitude, he says is primarily responsible for the sorry state of affairs. The movie also shows the bipartisan support the movement enjoys, be it from the BJP, the Congress, the AIADMK or the TDP. 

Be it for political gain or financial profit, desecrating or robbing from a place of religious worship is probably one of the most heinous crimes one can commit. It hurts the sentiments of a large group of people, to whom such idols and places of worship are the closest that they can come to being in the presence of God. The most recent attacks in Andhra Pradesh are just one of a few occurrences in a long list of crimes that temples have been subjected to for the last few centuries. With a new government at the Centre and a protectionist attitude towards preserving Hindu temples, we can see the tide turning for criminals targeting temples now. Hopefully, a change that will see a permanent solution to the problem.     -- Vishwaveer