"I promise on god that all these statues belong to Hindu temples. We have strong grounds to believe they are stolen property," said Idol Wing IG Pon Manickavel angrily to the waiting media, as he stepped out of Chennai-based businessman Ranvir Shah's residence after a shocking raid last week.
On September 27, a search conducted in the art connoisseur's Saidapet residence led to the seizure of 91 antiques, including 16 metal statues, 4 idols, 22 pillars, multiple arches,, stone carvings and even changu chakrams (a weapon of Lord Vishnu). The value of the antiques recovered was estimated at a modest Rs 100 crore, but researchers from the state Archaeological Department tell TNM that it is impossible to assign a value to these unique items.
"They are priceless and no number can be quoted to fix their value. These unique items are all from different periods of history and smuggling them is a loss to history that cannot be compensated," says a research scholar, on the condition of anonymity. Amongst the items recovered from Shah's residence are multiple statues of Nandis (Lord Shiva's vahanam), pillars with detailed carvings of gods including Hanuman and panchaloha idols. Both the Idol Wing and the Archaeological Department are convinced that these artefacts are over 100 years old.
"They have emptied an entire temple. Nobody in Tamil Nadu has the license to sell these antiquities," said IG Pon Manickavel.
And yet, less than a week after this massive raid, over 100 more artefacts were recovered from Shah's farmhouse in Kancheepuram district.
The raid on Ranvir Shah
An article from 2013 in The Hindu, describes Shah as 'a businessman, philanthropist and cultural activist'. His Prakriti Foundation has reportedly provided a platform for scholars, researchers, artists, critics, poets and filmmakers to promote a serious discussion 'of our cultural heritage'.
On Thursday, when TNM visited his Saidapet residence, a gigantic yellow crane blocked the breadth of South Mada street, as it pulled up relics of the cultural heritage that Shah claimed to promote, from his backyard. The operator was carefully lifting a seven-foot stone pillar that hung from a metal hook with the aid of lifting belts. Twenty-feet-high walls surrounded the two-storey building, making it impossible to see what was inside.
An Idol Wing official inspecting the removal of artefacts told TNM that the contents of the house were stunning. They were allegedly being collected from the time of Shah's father.
"The backyard is painted like a temple and he has several statues in the garden. It is all arranged around a pool of water. There are several pillars there from temples," he says on the condition of anonymity. "On top, there is structure with black brick-like material. Statues are placed inside it. Even within the house, there are artefacts everywhere. The entrance of the house is adorned by statues of Nandi."
However, he rubbished rumours that there were artefacts buried in the ground. All the antiques he owned had been displayed proudly in his residence and the Idol Wing is collating information on how they were procured.
Till a few years back, the wall around the house were only four-feet tall and you could view garden with stone pillars and statues, a neighbour tells TNM. "But they suddenly increased the heights of the wall," he claims.
And the Idol Wing claims they knew exactly why.
"We conducted a search in this house close to two years back to see what items were in Shah's possession. He heightened the walls after that," says the Idol Wing official present at the site. "We have come here twice since 2016 to inspect the artefacts inside. We have been studying the items, photographing them and consulting the ASI over the last two years in order to conduct this raid."
What led them to Shah?
In 2016, the Idol Wing arrested octogenarian Govindaraj Deenadayalan. The 84-year-old was part of an international idol smuggling racket. A well-respected art connoisseur, Deenadayalan was a long term resident of Alwarpet in Chennai and he showcased artefacts in his home gallery. He operated openly, not to mention with brazen abandon.
"He was not even hiding and selling his goods," says Vijay Kumar, Author of The Idol thief and co-founder of India Pride Project, a non-profit that aims to restore stolen artefacts to India.
"He had criminals who would help smuggle artefacts from temples across the state and bring it to him. He would then work with researchers and writers, giving them his artifacts to use on the covers of their books, thus increasing their value further in the market. Nobody ever questioned him. He was selling to high net worth individuals," he explains.
For 57 years, Deendayalan operated freely in Chennai, colluding with international smugglers to sell Indian artefacts to museums abroad. But the arrest of another smuggler, Subhash Kapoor in Germany in 2012, put a spanner in his works. Parallel investigations by the Australian police revealed that Subhash Kapoor worked closely with Deendayalan to smuggle a bronze idol of Nataraja from Sri Brihadeeswarar temple in Tamil Nadu's Ariyalur district.
The Idol Wing, according to Vijay Kumar, dragged their feet in the matter despite damning evidence against Deenadayalan but finally arrested him on May 31, 2016.
A senior official from the Idol Wing told TNM under the condition of anonymity that 859 idols worth over Rs 400 crore was retrieved from Deenadayalan's house and a godown where he stored stolen artefacts. Of this 157 were metal artefacts, 416 made of stone and 74 were wooden items.
"It was through Deenadayalu that we came to know about Ranvir Shah. We went to inspect his home, but he claimed to have all the required registration papers. He even produced it to us. So we had to carry out inspections of individual items. Only after determining that these items were over 100 years old could we act on it," says the official.
After the raids, IG Pon Manickavel said that 75% of the artefacts in Shah's residence were bought from Deenadayalan's gallery. But a senior official in the investigating team told TNM that only a tenth of the items seized from Shah's residence were from Deendayalan's collection.
Holes in the investigation
One of the first questions to arise following the recent raid is why Shah has not been arrested.
"He has the required registration papers. We cannot arrest him without incriminating evidence," says the senior idol wing official. "The people he has bought it from have given him certificates of transfer of ownership.”
In a statement to the Kumbakonam judicial magistrate, the businessman claimed that he had legally purchased the idols and had the documents to authenticate the same. He added that he was a law abiding citizen and will recover the idols from the investigators through due process of law.
Vijay Kumar however scoffs at this explanation. The provisions of The Antiquity and Art Treasures Act, 1972, prohibits trading of antiquities at least 100 years old and also any item of antique value without the Archaeology Survey of India’s (ASI) clearance.
"As per the Antiquity Act, when registering an antiquity, you need to mention exactly how it came into your possession, when you acquired it and the mode of acquisition. The ASI then has to examine the artefact and determine whether it can be registered. When the manner in which an antiquity is acquired is dubious (as proven by Deenadayalan's arrest), how can it even be registered?" asks Vijay.
"Clearly, the ASI has not done its job and it is hard to believe that an art expert like Ranvir Shah was unaware that these items were illegally procured," he alleges.
Based on Deenadayalan's arrest in 2016, the Idol Wing claims to have arrested 11 of his associates in Mahabalipuram, Puducherry and Kerala. But Ranvir Shah is allegedly the first customer to be raided.
"Deenadayalan is out on bail and there have been several court proceedings that prevented a thorough investigation. We will soon find even more people," says the investigating official.
But Vijay Kumar alleges that the two-year gap between the smuggler's arrest and the idol wing's action would have given his customers and associates enough time to escape the law.
"A two-and-a-half-year delay is unacceptable," says Vijay. "Evidence becomes irrelevant and the number of cases continue to rise. There are already 313 pending cases with the Idol Wing and the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department had admitted that they do not know the whereabouts of 1,400 artefacts. How will they catch up?" he asks.
The Idol Wing too seems to have thought of this problem. After the raid on Tuesday at Ranvir Shah’s farmhouse, IG Pon Manickavel changed tack and asked those who are holding illegally obtained idols to come forward themselves. “This is your last warning. If you have unknowingly obtained these idols, come return it to us,” he said.