A set of three idols of Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu decades ago, were restored to the Indian government on Tuesday after a collector voluntarily offered to hand it back on discovering their true history. The theft dates back to 1978 and led to an investigation by the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police working along with colleagues in the Metropolitan Police in London. The unnamed collector, who had acquired the statues in good faith, was informed about their dubious provenance by the Met Police. After matching them up with archival photographs from the 1950s held at the French School in Pondicherry, it was proved that the idols in his possession were those belonging to the Vijayanagara period and stolen from Sri Rajagopalaswami Temple at Ananthamangalam in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu.
In a ceremony streamed from India House in London in keeping with the limit on gatherings due to the COVID-19 restrictions, priests from Sri Murugan Temple in London conducted a short religious ceremony for their handover to India. “Today marks the successful completion of the search and rescue operation of these very beautiful idols, which were consecrated and worshipped side by side for years. We wanted to ensure these deities were handled with due reverence and propriety before they are shipped back to India,” said Indian High Commissioner to the UK Gaitri Issar Kumar.
“On behalf of the government of India, I hope this will inspire museums and collectors to carefully look and check their collections and help us restore deities that belong to the people of India and have been worshipped for centuries,” she said. The UK-based collector behind the handover, who has chosen to stay anonymous, was described as a lover of Indian art and culture.
Addressing the virtual event, officials from the state government of Tamil Nadu praised his voluntary intervention and expressed the hope that no further action will be taken against him. “The voluntary handover of these idols highlight two enforcement issues: the need for effective communication and dialogue, and the proper documentation of all cultural heritage, which would not only act as a deterrent to thefts but also help as evidence without which the outcome of this case may have been very different,” said Tim Wright, from the Metropolitan Police. Minister of Culture and Tourism Prahlad Singh Patel, connecting virtually to the event from Delhi, welcomed the repatriation of the statues, which he said was among over 40 “priceless” stolen artefacts restored to India since 2014.
He also revealed that documentation from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and other experts has been collated for the British Museum as part of efforts to seek the repatriation of another idol which belongs in India.