Even as officials put in place an elaborate system to safeguard the precious idols, temple staff, who are uncared for, remain as vulnerable as ever
At a time when the Idol Wing-CID and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) are checking the antiquity of idols that are currently stored at the Icon Centre in Thiyagarajaswamy temple in Tiruvarur, the spotlight has turned on the plight of temple priests and other employees without whose help the exercise would not have been possible.
Somasundara Gurukkal, the priest of Thirukottaram temple, who was sitting outside the icon centre at the Thiyagarajaswamy temple in Thiruvarur on Friday, was one such man. As the bronze idols of his temple were being brought out one by one to be tested for their antiquity, Mr. Somasundara Gurukkal was visibly excited.
“This is Villendhivelan. Lord Muruga is holding a bow and such depiction could be seen in very few temples,” he said.
“Is this from your temple? Are you sure?” Inspector General Pon Manickavel, who heads the Idol Wing-CID, quizzed the priest.
“Yes. We have a Nataraja statue bigger than what is in the sanctum sanctorum of the Chidambaram temple,” Mr. Somasundara Gurukkal said with pride. He was here last year too to take out the idol during a festival. After the festival, the idols were returned to the centre as it was unsafe to keep them at the temple.
When Mr. Manickavel wanted to know who else had accompanied Mr. Somasundara Gurukkal, the guard of the temple, the accountant and the Executive Officer of the temple stepped forward.
“Are you convinced? Are the idols from your temple,” he asked and directed other officials of the Idol Wing to bring along local people too, particularly elders, to identify the idols.
“I have a reason to bring in the elders. At the Idumbeswarar temple near Kumbakonam, for instance, 77-year-old Sriram was shocked when he found the ancient Manickavasagar idol to have been replaced by a lookalike made just a few years ago,” he said.
Similarly, in Pandanallur, 62 idols in the Pasupatheeswarar temple constructed by Chola King Kulotunga-I, have been found to be of recent origin.
“Pandanallur is referred to as Viruthiraja Payankara Vazhanadu. The term speaks for its wealth. How could idols, less than 100 years old, gain entry into such an ancient temple,” wondered noted Archaeologist R. Nagaswamy.
The verification of idols does not stop with identification by the priests and temple staff. In fact, two people could be seen vigorously cleaning up certain points on an idol before handing it over to the scientists of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic (IGCAR) from Kalpakkam. The IGCAR scientists, drafted to check the metal composition of the idols, in turn pressed their X-ray fluorescence analyser (XFR) on the cleaned spot for a few seconds and, as if by magic, information on various metals that had gone into making the idol flashed on the analyser.
“Copper is the major component. It is followed by tin, lead, zinc and traces of iron and phosphorus. In some cases, brass dominate the combination, which could mean the idols belong to a different period,” noted one of the scientists at work.
The readings of the XFR are immediately recorded, and they will be added to other details relating to the idol separately being collated by experts from the ASI.
Prodded by the court
All this flows from the directives of a Division Bench of the Madras High Court, comprising Justices R. Mahadevan and P.D. Adikesavalu, on a petition filed by Mr. Pon Manickavel.
“I am for three dimensional laser imaging technology since XLR has limited utility. I am also for inscribing details on the image. For instance, the name Suddhamalli mentioned on a Nataraja statue helped determine its place of origin,” said Mr. Manickavel, who is just one month away from his retirement.
Asked what purpose would the current exercise serve, he said it would go a long way in preventing theft and smuggling of the idols out of the country.
While the authorities have won plaudits for their dedication and drive, the priests and other temple staff, including the security personnel, continue to live a life of misery and neglect.
For instance, Mr. Somasundara Gurukkal receives a measly monthly salary of ₹790 apart from paddy measuring six kalam (a local measure, approximately 230 kg a year) after every harvest. The guard receives a monthly salary of ₹900 and the accountant ₹800. They also receive some paddy after harvest.
Left to fight for their survival, how motivated and equipped these temple staff would be to take on the criminal gangs that are said to operate on a global scale is the moot question.