History sheet

A tiny police wing is trying to bring back the thousands of idols stolen from Tamil Nadu

But is the department any match for the smugglers?

Twirling one end of his jet-black handlebar moustache, Inspector General Ponn Manickavel said: “When the police looks one way, ten idols are stolen on the other side of Tamil Nadu. When we look the other way, twenty more thefts happen on the other side.”

It was a warm May afternoon at the Idol Wing of Chennai’s Police Headquarters. Ponn Manickavel sat upright at his wooden desk, which was covered with files and Tamil books. Speaking to a senior police officer, he discussed the Idol Wing’s most recent efforts – securing stolen panchaloha idols that had been found in the National Gallery of Australia. But Ponn Manickavel was disposed to digressing and the history of the Chola dynasty in Tamil Nadu was his pet topic. Armed with a history book, the inspector general detailed the lineage of the Cholas. “Everybody should know their history,” he declared. “If we don’t know our history and culture, who are we then? We won’t have an identity.”

For the past five years, Ponn Manickavel has been the head of the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police. The department was formed in 1983 and is dedicated solely to solving cases of idol thefts across the many temples of Tamil Nadu. In 2012, it tracked down New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who was arrested for smuggling hundreds of idols out of Tamil Nadu’s temples and selling them to buyers worldwide for crores of rupees. Kapoor has been in a Chennai jail ever since.

Last year, the Idol Wing also nabbed Deenadayalan, an art dealer in Chennai who was said to be an associate of Kapoor. Deendayalan ran an art gallery, which provided the perfect cover for possessing ancient artefacts, stolen from neglected temples in remote villages of Tamil Nadu. The Idol Wing had been observing him since the early 2000s and finally arrested him in 2016, recovering around 300 stone and bronze idols from his house and godown in Chennai.

“The staff strength at the wing is very low, but we are handling cases at a large scale,” said PA Sundaram, Deputy Superintendent of Police, “under the guidance of Inspector General Ponn Manickavel.”

The idol of the Dancing sambandar, a young saint, is yet to be retrieved. Credit: India Pride Project
The idol of the Dancing sambandar, a young saint, is yet to be retrieved. Credit: India Pride Project

Crack team

The Idol Wing is one of the oldest departments of the Tamil Nadu police. Once attached to the Crime Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department, the team has now come under the State Police’s Economic Offences Wing.

Originally, the wing was to retrieve idols dating back to the Pallava and Chola dynasties between 600 CE and 1300 CE, that were being smuggled out of the state. Since Tamil Nadu houses high-value artefacts that sell for crores of rupees, rural temples are often plundered.

“This wing has been formed for the protection and the enrichment of the Tamil culture,” PA Sundaram read from the Idol Wing’s printed manual.

Using informants throughout the state, the Idol Wing finds out where a sale is taking place and attempts to catch smugglers red-handed. Ponn Manickavel admitted the team also relies on help from volunteer groups.

“Archaeologists tell us if the idol is antique or not,” Sundaram added. “They don’t really help us find the idols.”

Rampant thefts

Sundaram insisted that idol thefts were under control as of the past four years, under Ponn Manickavel’s guidance. But idol expert Vijay Kumar disagrees. Kumar is a Singapore-based shipper, whose passion lies in temple art and artefacts. For several years now, his team, the India Pride Project which consists of 30 members and many more volunteers, have been working to trace stolen artefacts and bring them back to the country.

According to Kumar, there are scores of leads that need to be followed up by the police. “We wanted them to lodge more cases against Subhash Kapoor,” he said. Kapoor has been booked under four cases thus far, all of which were in Tamil Nadu. “He has smuggled thousands of artefacts from North India – which the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing has not included in its charges,” Kumar added.

Stolen Buddha from Nagapattinam temple. Still to be recovered. Credit: India Pride Project
Stolen Buddha from Nagapattinam temple. Still to be recovered. Credit: India Pride Project

Back in 1956, six bronze idols were found when a farmer was digging his field in Sivapuram, including a bronze statue of Nataraja, the dancing avatar of Shiva. The Village Officer donated the statue to a nearby temple. When the idols were being cleaned, supervisors made six replicas and replaced the bronze statues. The idols were then sold off to an art dealer in Mumbai, then to a dealer in New York.

The Idol Wing managed to retrieve the bronze Nataraja and the case was subsequently closed. But there is still no trace of the other five idols, according to Kumar.

Similarly, during raids at a London art gallery with the Scotland Yard, a team of Tamil Nadu policemen seized 280 idols from Tiruvelikudi village, and arrested the dealer. But according to Kumar, the 280 idols never returned to India.

Clay feet

The Idol Wing is severely understaffed and under-equipped. When it was newly formed, it was supposed to have 100 police officers. Now it has only seven officers listed on its website. Recently, the Madras High Court observed that of the 29 personnel sanctioned for the Idol Wing, 9 positions were vacant. “It is almost like a punishment post,” said Vijay Kumar. “It should be centralised and incentivised. Each of these cases take years to crack.”

Recent events have hurt the Wing’s reputation and credibility. Two police officials who worked at the wing eight years ago have been accused of selling a set of panchaloha idols which they seized, to Deenadayalan for Rs 15 lakh. The incident was reported in January, but soon after, Inspector Kader Baccha, one of the accused, was promoted as the Deputy Superintendent of Police in another district. Subburaj, then the Head Constable of the Idol Wing, was promoted as Sub-Inspector at a city police station.

Last month, upon enquiry by the Madras High Court, both were arrested.

How big is the network really? When 12 of Subhash Kapoor’s godowns were raided, around 2,622 objects were found. “This was just the holding stock of one small dealer in New York, who had been in the business for 35 years,” said Kumar. “You can imagine what the network must be like.”

Despite the fact that idol thefts have gained sizeable media coverage, the Idol Wing is still something of a dinosaur. The department’s technology is no match for the highly sophisticated methods used by smugglers.

“To me, getting a piece back is just a token restoration,” said Kumar. “Unless you dismantle the idol smuggling network, you can only lose more artefacts.”

Credit: ICE Homeland Security investigations via India Pride Project
Credit: ICE Homeland Security investigations via India Pride Project
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

What’s the difference between ‘a’ washing machine and a ‘great’ washing machine?

The right machine can save water, power consumption, time, energy and your clothes from damage.

In 2010, Hans Rosling, a Swedish statistician, convinced a room full of people that the washing machine was the greatest invention of the industrial revolution. In the TED talk delivered by him, he illuminates how the washing machine freed women from doing hours of labour intensive laundry, giving them the time to read books and eventually join the labour force. Rosling’s argument rings true even today as it is difficult to deny the significance of the washing machine in our everyday lives.

For many households, buying a washing machine is a sizable investment. Oddly, buyers underestimate the importance of the decision-making process while buying one and don’t research the purchase as much as they would for a television or refrigerator. Most buyers limit their buying criteria to type, size and price of the washing machine.

Visible technological advancements can be seen all around us, making it fair to expect a lot more from household appliances, especially washing machines. Here are a few features to expect and look out for before investing in a washing machine:

Cover your basics

Do you wash your towels every day? How frequently do you do your laundry? Are you okay with a bit of manual intervention during the wash cycle? These questions will help filter the basic type of washing machine you need. The semi-automatics require manual intervention to move clothes from the washing tub to the drying tub and are priced lower than a fully-automatic. A fully-automatic comes in two types: front load and top load. Front loading machines use less water by rotating the inner drum and using gravity to move the clothes through water.

Size matters

The size or the capacity of the machine is directly proportional to the consumption of electricity. The right machine capacity depends on the daily requirement of the household. For instance, for couples or individuals, a 6kg capacity would be adequate whereas a family of four might need an 8 kg or bigger capacity for their laundry needs. This is an important factor to consider since the wrong decision can consume an unnecessary amount of electricity.

Machine intelligence that helps save time

In situations when time works against you and your laundry, features of a well-designed washing machine can come to rescue. There are programmes for urgent laundry needs that provide clean laundry in a super quick 15 to 30 minutes’ cycle; a time delay feature that can assist you to start the laundry at a desired time etc. Many of these features dispel the notion that longer wash cycles mean cleaner clothes. In fact, some washing machines come with pre-activated wash cycles that offer shortest wash cycles across all programmes without compromising on cleanliness.

The green quotient

Despite the conveniences washing machines offer, many of them also consume a substantial amount of electricity and water. By paying close attention to performance features, it’s possible to find washing machines that use less water and energy. For example, there are machines which can adjust the levels of water used based on the size of the load. The reduced water usage, in turn, helps reduce the usage of electricity. Further, machines that promise a silent, no-vibration wash don’t just reduce noise – they are also more efficient as they are designed to work with less friction, thus reducing the energy consumed.

Customisable washing modes

Crushed dresses, out-of-shape shirts and shrunken sweaters are stuff of laundry nightmares. Most of us would rather take out the time to hand wash our expensive items of clothing rather than trusting the washing machine. To get the dirt out of clothes, washing machines use speed to first agitate the clothes and spin the water out of them, a process that takes a toll on the fabric. Fortunately, advanced machines come equipped with washing modes that control speed and water temperature depending on the fabric. While jeans and towels can endure a high-speed tumble and spin action, delicate fabrics like silk need a gentler wash at low speeds. Some machines also have a monsoon mode. This is an India specific mode that gives clothes a hot rinse and spin to reduce drying time during monsoons. A super clean mode will use hot water to clean the clothes deeply.

Washing machines have come a long way, from a wooden drum powered by motor to high-tech machines that come equipped with automatic washing modes. Bosch washing machines include all the above-mentioned features and provide damage free laundry in an energy efficient way. With 32 different washing modes, Bosch washing machines can create custom wash cycles for different types of laundry, be it lightly soiled linens, or stained woollens. The ActiveWater feature in Bosch washing machines senses the laundry load and optimises the usage of water and electricity. Its EcoSilentDrive motor draws energy from a permanent magnet, thereby saving energy and giving a silent wash. The fear of expensive clothes being wringed to shapelessness in a washing machine is a common one. The video below explains how Bosch’s unique VarioDrumTM technology achieves damage free laundry.


To start your search for the perfect washing machine, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Bosch and not by the Scroll editorial team.