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

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

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