Steeped in corruption and nonchalance, there is more than one reason to relieve the Hindu Religious and Charities Endowment department of its primary duty of administering Tamil Nadu’s rich temple ecosystem.
The Hindu Religious and Charities Endowment (HR&CE) department of Tamil Nadu government has been the subject of many outrages. The department is notorious for careless handling of art and architecture that are centuries old. The officials running the department are alleged to be among the most corrupt and complicit in the irregularities committed in handling temple finances.
Many examples have been provided to demonstrate that the department needs to be quickly relieved of its primary duty of administering Tamil Nadu’s rich temple ecosystem.
The story of Kanchipuram’s Ekambareswarar temple is one such tragic example, where theft and corruption have caused untold damage to cultural and religious artefacts, and even considerable financial loss.
The scams begin as early as 2003 when the Skanda idol that is part of a Soma-skanda bronze work ‘goes missing’. The Soma-skanda bronzes are a well-known icon in South India – it consists of a Shiva, a Parvathi and a child Skanda flanked by his parents. The Ekambareswarar temple too had once such magnificent Chola bronze dated to the tenth century. Suddenly in 1993, the Skanda in the Soma-skanda bronze goes missing. A replacement was kept in its place and devotees have been worshipping it, no questions asked.
How does an entire idol fall off and then go missing? How have there been no investigations? A right to information (RTI) that sought details of the “lost” Skanda idol and all that may have taken place around its loss received a response that does not provide any useful details.
So a part of a tenth-century bronze icon goes missing and life goes on as usual in the temple run by the HR&CE department of the Tamil Nadu government. Police complaints are filed, but largely nothing happens. Nobody seems to have been held accountable for the loss or theft.
Fast forward to 2015, to almost 25 years after the loss of the Skanda icon. The temple priests along with the executive officer (EO) submitted a proposal to the HR&CE commissioner to create a new Soma-skanda bronze idol, as the original metal idol had deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be taken out in procession.
The chief sthapati (architect) of the temple, Muthaiah, inspected the original idol and determined that it was composed principally, about 75 per cent in his estimate, of gold. “When idols are damaged, they must be made of the same material,” he decreed.
Permission is obtained, but the quantity of metals to be used was not as prescribed by the architect. The idol, whose total weight was 50kg, as stated by the temple executive officer, was to contain metals in the ratio of 80 per cent copper, 12 per cent brass, 2 per cent tin, 1 per cent silver and only 5 per cent gold.
Further, the executive officer is advised that as instructed in the sketch specification by the chief sthapati, the idol shall be made first using wax and thereafter, it shall be made after getting the approval of the chief sthapati.
The new idol was readied and consecrated. However, some devotees objected to replacing the old idol with the new one in the temple procession.
According to an activist, on the day of the procession, some of the protesting devotees and a journalist accompanying them were beaten up and locked inside the temple.
Some of these activists claimed to have discovered that there had been some shady business in the making of the new idol. Earlier, these activists had filed RTI requests seeking to know how much gold was collected and if a receipt was made out for the same for the purpose of making the new idol.
The HR&CE department replied that no gold had been collected and so no receipt was issued. However, activists allege that the department did put up a notice to collect funds for the gold:
“But we know for a fact that the notice was displayed in the temple for almost a year and thousands of devotees donated cash and gold. They have collected more than 5.75 kg of gold.”
“We wanted to know if the new idol was made using 5.75 kg gold and if anyone from the department was present when the gold and copper alloy was mixed.”
The HR&CE department in its reply admitted that “no one from the department was present”, but said that a temple priest witnessed the gold being mixed. But it gave no answer as to how much gold was used.
A petition was filed in the magistrate court, Kanchipuram, against the HR&CE department for its failure to disclose the quantity of gold collected and used, and after examining the evidence, the judge ordered the local police to file a first information report (FIR). An FIR was filed against nine people, including the temple EO Murugesan, chief temple sculptor Muthaiah, another sculptor, Masilamani, and temple priest Rajappa. The idol wing of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) headed by inspector-general of police, A G Pon Manickavel, registered an FIR against the nine people based on an order by a Kanchipuram court.
As questions were raised and the idol wing probed the case, checking for the composition using scientific instruments, it was proved that there is no gold in the newly made idol! More than 5kg of gold allegedly collected, but nothing found in the idol.
So, a tenth-century Chola bronze (or part of it) goes missing, and nobody is held to account for this priceless loss. Then, 25 years later, a replacement is planned for which gold is collected. But, wait for it, no gold is used in the replacement idol! The collected gold seems to have disappeared (or pillaged by greedy officials).
Strangely, despite the devotees having seen the order soliciting donations themselves, the authorities are in denial of any such notices seeking gold donations being issued. As clarified by the authorities, since a 2011 order prohibits them from collecting donations or using temple funds, they advertised the date of metal pour and requested the interested donors to come forward and donate their offering directly in the pour. And they claim to have video recordings of devotees “pouring” gold directly into the melting oven, but conveniently have no records or receipts of such donations whatsoever.
Tragically enough, we now find that the chief sthapati, on whose expert advice the entire operation was carried out, is not even qualified to be advising the government or HR&CE department on bronze idols and what to do with them. “My medium of work is stone and my role is advisory alone”, he confesses. Why, then, was he asked to inspect the original damage, prescribe remedial measures, supervise the efforts and approve the tasks undertaken? No answers are forthcoming.
According to India Pride Project activists, who actively track theft of idols and heritage property, quite a few such Skanda icons have been broken off the main bronze icon to be sold in international art auctions. “A decade ago a bronze Skanda closely matching the style of the missing one was on sale with a dealer in London. If we have access to a good resolution photograph of the original Skanda or even the Shiva and Parvathi we can offer a match on stylistic grounds”, they say.
To be sure, this is a shortened version of the events that transpired. We’ve omitted stories about how CCTV cameras that were supposed to be recording proceedings have been destroyed, corruption in other aspects of the temple and how activists trying to uncover the truth have been attacked.
A tenth-century exquisitely designed bronze in any part of the world would be a prized possession of a community. It would be celebrated, housed in swanky museums with audio guides explaining how such objects are made and so on.
In our country, the government loses a part of the idol to theft, refuses to hold anyone accountable for it, makes a replacement and corrupts that process too.
Special inputs from Elizabeth Mani of 101 reporters