Kumbakonam at US Auction House: How TN Police Solved 50-Year-Old Idol Theft Case

THE TRAIL had gone cold before it even started.

In his office in Kumbakonam, Inspector R Indira had a case on his hands: five idols, including a 7th century statue of Goddess Parvati, had been stolen from the Nadanpureeswarar temple near Kumbakonam in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, with an FIR recorded on May 12. , 1971.

Copy of the first Tamil translation of the Bible

More than five decades later, as police tried to solve the case, there were few clues – no photograph of the stolen idol and little evidence of its current status. Last month, after weeks of searching, the team finally found Parvati’s idol at an auction house in the United States.

The idol recovery is one of around 60 cases of stolen relics that the Tamil Police’s Idol Wing has hacked over the past 10 months, with police now awaiting the return of the idols to India from the US, UK and Australia, among other countries.

Building on its early success, the Idol Wing now strives to salvage as many ancient idols as possible from overseas museums and auction houses. Most of the stolen idols come from central Tamil Nadu, a region with some of the most sophisticated temple architecture in medieval India from the Chola period and whose temples are known to have recorded thefts, both before and after. independence.


The police investigation into the Nadanpureeswarar Temple robbery began in July 2022.

Talk to The Indian ExpressThe Idol Wing’s general manager, K Jayanth Murali, says that when they started investigating the theft, it seemed like a tall order since the case was from 1971 and there were no photographs of the idols. .

“The temple was robbed and the theft took place in 1971. Although we didn’t have an Idol Wing at the time, a complaint was filed. The case was revived in 2019 when K Vasu, a temple administrator, contacted us, but we couldn’t do much because the temple lacked documentation,” Murali said.

Inspector Indira, who took over the case earlier this year, has resumed the search for the missing idols, starting by searching libraries and archives for any trace of the stolen relics. “Identifying the idols is a challenge because every little track has to be submitted to experts for validation. Also, in many cases, the smugglers are said to have replaced the original statues with replicas,” she said.


Indira’s search eventually led her to the French Institute in Pondicherry, which had black and white photographs, taken of the temple in 1957, of Parvati and the other missing idols. Inspector Indira and his team of 10 then embarked on a cyber probe. “They searched websites and catalogs of museums, auction houses and online pages of major collectors as well as European idol smugglers,” Murali said.

The team eventually tracked down Parvati’s idol in one of the digital catalogs of Bonhams, one of the leading auctioneers of artwork and collectibles, automobiles and jewelry in the United States. -United. The gallery image was sent to specialists at the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), who used photogrammetry (a technique of recording, measuring and interpreting images to obtain information about physical objects and their surroundings) to confirm that the image on the Bonhams website was of the same Parvati idol that was stolen.

But finding a long-lost idol is only a job half done. The procedure for claiming relics from another country is a lengthy process that involves several bureaucratic procedures.

A month after the investigation of the stolen idols began, the Idol Wing decided to claim them from the United States. As part of the claim, witness statements were taken from the temple and a Mutual Legal Agreement Treaty (MLAT) was drafted.

Then the MLAT will be sent to the State DGP, State Government and Union Government from where it will pass through the Ministries of Home Affairs and External Affairs before being sent to the Government American and then to Homeland Security, which will carry out its own investigation before sending the idols back to India.

DGP Murali says that over the past 10 months, the Idol Wing has prepared 60 MLATs – a success considering that over the past 10 years, only 22 idols have been picked up. Of the 60 cases, 37 idols are to be claimed in the US, 16 in Singapore, six in Australia and four in the UK.

Last year, 10 idols were recovered from foreign countries, eight of which were returned to temples and two are awaiting legal proceedings – the process of returning idols to temples is carried out by courts.

One of the 60 stolen idols that have been found in international antique markets is that of Chola Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, the mother of 10th century ruler Raja Raja Cholan. The case was reopened on the basis of a complaint filed in 2017. The idol of the queen, worshiped as a goddess, was stolen from a small village temple in Nagapattinam district more than a century ago .

A rare copy of the first Tamil translation of the Bible, stolen from the famous Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur, is another relic soon to be returned to the country.

Inspector Indira, who has led several of these cases, including that of the copying of the Bible and the idol of Sembiyan Mahadevi, says that as part of their investigation, the team is examining “untold numbers” of online pages – from museums, auction houses, collectors, and even smugglers.

“When we started our investigation into the missing Tamil Bible, the only information we had was that it went missing after five strangers visited the library in Thanjavur. We recognized them as members of a group that had visited the nearby village of Tharangambadi as followers of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (a Lutheran pastor and the first Pietist missionary to India who died in 1719). Later, at the priest’s family museum in Germany, we discovered a picture of the Bible. Although it was difficult to identify the perpetrators of the theft in 2006, we were able to locate the copy of the Bible bearing the signature of Maharaja Sarboji (Rajah of Thanjavur in 1798),” she said.