Rampant Theft Of Idols In Odisha: What Needs To Change

Rampant Theft Of Idols In Odisha: What Needs To Change

by Arun Kumar Das - Thursday, March 24, 2022 12:14 PM IST
Rampant Theft Of Idols In Odisha: What Needs To ChangeIdols recovered from Ratnachira Valley in Odisha by the group “Rediscover Lost Heritage” in 2021
  • Odisha, perhaps, has the most ancient idols and images among all states.

    Sadly, the state has become a major hub for illegal idol exports.

The spate of idol thefts in Odisha in recent days is an indicator of organised crime in the state. Odisha tops the list both in temple idol theft and the failure to recover stolen artefacts.

In every decade since the 1950s, the number of idols smuggled out of India is between 10,000 and 20,000, and the looting continues to this day. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, more than 15,000 items were stolen from Indian temples between 2010 and 2012.

According to a 2018 audit by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, 1,200 ancient idols were stolen between 1992 and 2017 from the temples of Tamil Nadu alone.

Overall, 4,408 items were stolen from 3,676 protected monuments across India during the same period, but only 1,493 were intercepted by police. Of the remaining artefacts, around 2,913 items are feared to have been shipped to dealers and auction houses worldwide.

The same will hold true for Odisha, only we do not have official figures.

Odisha, perhaps, has the most ancient idols and images among all states. They are everywhere — in small shrines, little temples, huge sacred complexes, strewn over in archaeological sites. The state has become a major hub for illegal idol exports as container shipment is facilitating their exit by sending the stolen items along with recently made statues and idols.

The State Convener of INTACH, Amiya Bhusan Tripathy, who is also the former DGP (director general of police) of Odisha, lamented that there is an absolute lack of awareness and gross apathy regarding the intrinsic value of these idols that represent the rich cultural heritage of the state.
The prevailing laws intended to prevent idol theft and burglary are inherently ineffective.

A holistic National Heritage Protection Policy and System should be put in place. There is no true objective database for all the antiques, both stone and metallic idols in the approximately 22,000 ancient places of worship in Odisha. It is true that more than 95 per cent of the antique idols in these temples remain legally unregistered as the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities remains incomplete.

Tripathy further says Odisha is the easiest target. The state does not have a dedicated enforcement wing for heritage crimes. The law enforcement agencies are not aware of the enormity of these thefts. Heritage crime is a sophisticated crime akin to cyber and wildlife crime. It’s unfair to expect a sub-inspector or a havildar to solve it. The state needs a special wing that understands art valuation, shipping, documentation, and currency transfers. The state does not have mandatory registration of old idols.

Biswajit Mohanty, another senior member of INTACH, blames the inconsequential and weak laws like the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, and the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, which are ineffective in curbing these crimes. Mohanty is of the opinion that new legislation and amendments are the pressing need of the hour.

The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, for instance, aims to protect “antiquities,” an omnibus term that includes, among other items, sculptures in stone, shrines, terracotta, metals, jewellery, ivory, paintings in paper, wood, cloth, skin, and manuscripts over a hundred years old.

"Sadly, the Antiquities Act has no penalising provisions and the only section available for heritage thefts is IPC Section 370, which predominantly deals with house breaking theft and carries a maximum penalty of six years and Rs 3,000 It needs to be revamped and made more stringent," adds Mohanty.

Heritage explorer Deepak Nayak, who has worked on the recently completed three-year-long survey of the heritage of the Mahanadi valley, has made shocking revelations in the yet-to-be-released report.

There are reports of rampant theft of ancient artefacts all along the course of the river valley. Many hitherto reported and documented images, carved panels, and archaeological pieces were just missing from their rightful places. Even temples that are in the submergence area of the Hirakud reservoir have been vandalised by idol thieves.

Precious Jain and Buddhist idols have vanished in the last decade. Many rare sculpted pieces are lying in abandon and in the open. In the Buddhist sites of Ratnagiri and Lalitagiri, many of the votive stupas have been stolen and removed from their original places.

Proper methods should be adopted as per international norms to discourage this rampant illegal trade. The metal idols should have laser markings as the base as evidence of ownership. In the event of theft, this will be evidence. The stone idols should have metallic engraving at the base having the name of the temple and the place.

The State Archaeology Department should develop a database by photographing and documenting the physical dimensions of the antique idols including their specific identifying features. There have been many instances where recovered stolen idols could not be traced back to their original places and are lying in different police malkhanas and ASI godowns. Many recovered images stolen from Odisha cannot be traced back to the place they were stolen from.

Also Read: Gods Beneath The Garbage: Treasure Trove Of Ancient Idols Discovered In Odisha's Ratnachira Valley, After Decades Of Neglect

Arun Kumar Das is a senior journalist covering railways. He can be contacted at akdas2005@gmail.com.

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