By: Kishori Lal
Mandi (Oct 26): There seems to be no letup in thefts of rare idols, statutes, wooden masks and other antiques from Himachal Pradesh as the loot continues while the state government and law enforcing agencies maintain a stoic silence over the matter. The recovery of three 500-year-old ashtdhatu idols here recently has once again highlighted the gravity of the situation and the dismal failure of the police and priests in safeguarding the treasure of the past. As a result, rare and invaluable antiques of the Himalayan shrines, dating back to the Buddhism era and earlier centuries, have now vanished from temples across the state.
The police force is still groping in the dark about the theft history of the ancient idol recovered here from Padal near the residence of additional SP Mandi, adjoining Sadar Police Station, by a team of Intelligence Bureau comprising ASP and SHO from Bilaspur this month. It is still not known from where the idol had been stolen. SP Sonal Agnihotri said two persons were arrested and they have not given any clue from where the eight idols, 4 each from Mandi and Bilaspur, were stolen.
Police sources said that a powerful international gang is operating in the state and stealing rare monuments. Ajit Narayan, a retired director general of police, said that most of the Buddha-era idols and statutes are in shrine located in the snow-capped vales of Lahul and Spiti district and these are the most vulnerable for thefts. The gangs of statute-thieves visit these areas in the guise of tourists and get away with statutes during the winter when most of the shrines are closed. Most of the stolen monuments are sent abroad where they fetch huge price.
Ravinder, a priest, revealed that about half-a-dozen precious wooden masks of a snake god were stolen from a shrine in village Urhgosh from Lahul Valley some time back. The theft was noticed when the door of the temples were opened after four long months of winter when the valley was snow-locked. Obviously, these had been stolen in the late autumn when the valley was closed for traffic due to snowfall.
Panicked by increasing number of thefts, old monasteries located at an altitude of 10,000 ft or above in the Greater Himalayas, which were open for centuries for devotees, have now been locked. Monks have of late realized that the ancient antique idols are no longer safe so long as gangs of smugglers are operating. “The idols of Buddha are invaluable and they fetch huge price in the international market and this is the only reason of their theft,” said Thupten Hara, secretary, Zigar Monastry, Rewalsar. He added that the fear among monks is real as over 200 idols and antique objects have been stolen from various temples in the state since 1990. Their value, he surmises, runs into millions. The locals believe that the number of antiques stolen is much higher.
Shailendra Singh, a retired PRO settled in Solan, laments that despite a crackdown on smugglers, idol thefts have become a regular feature in the state. In May 2007 police recovered three precious 250-year-old metal idols of ruling deity Mahasu from a nearby forest of Dunnu village in Solan. He adds that similarly in 2006, a 1100-year-old idol of 8-armed idol of Ganesha was stolen from the courtyard of Hatkoti temple about 100 km from Shimla.
He also recalled that two of the eight idols of Devi Shoolini of Solan, the presiding deity, were taken away by a gang of robbers who had also committed a robbery in the adjoining Rajgarh region and got away with an idol of the local Devta. Dharam Prakash, a priest, said an an antique idol was stolen from Miya Ka Mandir located in densely populated locality near the official residence of SDM Nahan in October 2009.
Asif Jalal said he had recovered a bronze icon of Lord Budha during a raid in a village in Hamirpur when he was SP there and arrested a gang member under the Antiquity and Art Treasure Act. The police had recorded the telephonic conversion of the idol smuggler when he was negotiating with a party to sell it for Rs 1 crore. Later the police had sent the icon to the Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi.
Retired IG BL Pandit believes that the 5th and 6th century idols and antiques in the temples of Kinnaur, Chamba, Bharmaur and Lahul-Spiti in particular are the most vulnerable to loot of smugglers. The connivance of the locals, who are not aware of the fabulous value of the antiques, is not ruled out by the police.
The theft in 1993 of a multi-crore Chungraj deity from Kamru Temple in the tribal district of Kinnaur had made headline in the newspapers and brought under suspicion even some police officials for alleged connivance in its smuggling. A story was allegedly concocted that the idol had been shipped off to Italy. It followed a spate of protests from the locals and public representatives who also raised the matter in the Vidhan Sabha. Eyebrows were raised about the sequence of events which lead to the recovery of the idol, which could not be confirmed to be fake or real. One fine morning one of the partners of a Delhi-based gang promised to leave the idol in the lawn of Himachal Bhavan in New Deli. This was done and the matter got hushed up.
Meanwhile, Himachal Police and the Special Cell of Delhi Police busted an international gang of antique smugglers and recovered two rare idols of Kunzum goddess stolen from the 15,500-foot high Kunzum Pass. Such thefts at inaccessible heights is not possible without the active connivance of the local people, said retired IGP BL Pandit.
In 2005 eleven antique ashtdhatu idols were stolen from the temple of Chohag deity in Madhok village of Spiti Valley. In the year 2009 the recovery of a 20-kg antique bronze icon of Bhuddha from Hamirpur, thieves rubbing their hands with two of the eight idols of Devi Shoolni and also five highly valued antique idols from ancient Miya Ka Mandir in Nahan speaks volumes about the nexus of idol smugglers prevalent in the state.
According to BL Malhotra, author of Ancients Temples of Himachal Pradesh, more than 200 idols valuing in billions have been stolen from different temples of the state. Himachal Pradesh has over 2,000 temples and monasteries that are centuries old. Of these, 60 are under the supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), while 31 are under the control of the state’s language, art and culture department.
Recent incidents of thefts of ancient idols in the state:
2005: Eleven antique ashtdhatu idols were stolen from the temple of Chohag deity in Madhok village of Spiti Valley in the month of February.
Later in the year Delhi Police in collaboration with the state police recovered two idols of Kunzum Goddess stolen from the 15,500-feet-high Kunzum Temple in Lahul-Spiti.
2006: A 1,110-year-old Ganehsa idol was stolen from the courtyard of Hatkoti temple in Shimla district.
2007: Stone idols of Shiva and Parvati, known to be sculptured by the Pandavas during their stay in Himalayas, stolen from the temple in Jagatsukh village near Manali.
2008: Half-a-dozen precious wooden masks of a snake god were stolen from a shrine in village Urhgosh from Lahul Valley.
Two of the eight idols of Devi Shoolni, the presiding deity of Solan went missing.
2009: Seven antique idols stolen form Keem Temple near Rampur in Shimla district.
Within a week, five highly valued antique idols from ancient Miya Ka Mandir in Nahan went missing.
Buddha icon weighing 20 kg recovered by state police from Hamirpur.
2010: Century-Old bell stolen from the Indian Institute of Advance studies in Shimla.
Four 500-year-old Ashtdhatu Bhudda idols worth Rs 5 crore seized by state police in Mandi.