Jain idols: A heist and a recovery that fails to convince

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15 antique idols stolen from temple; Inter-state trail leads to leading jewellers. 15 antique idols stolen from temple; Inter-state trail leads to leading jewellers.
Summary15 antique idols stolen from temple; Inter-state trail leads to leading jewellers.

An idol heist from Karnataka in July, among the biggest in decades, remains as mired in mystery as ever after the recovery of some of the idols and four arrests from a crime network that spreads through at least four states.

Police claim to have recovered eight of the 15 Jain idols, said to be worth several thousand crore rupees, but say five of these idols have been melted. The trustees of the temple where the idols belonged are not convinced that these are indeed the molten remains of the lost idols, and have hired a private detective to trace the originals. They have also uploaded CCTV footage of the theft on YouTube, and jewellers who have seen the video believe such a thief couldn’t possibly have melted the idols, which they guess have probably been smuggled out of the country.

The main accused is part of a jewellery chain and related to its owner, who is based in Raipur and among the leading jewellers in Central India. The trustees allege that Karnataka police have told them that the Chhattisgarh police are not cooperating as the jeweller is “highly influential”.

The idols, dating back two centuries before Christ, belonged to Guru Basadi temple in Moodbidri, a religious town of Dakshin Kannada. The theft was discovered on July 6. The locks were found broken and CCTV cameras had recorded the thief’s image. His face was covered but based on local inputs police identified him as Ghanshyam Das, alias Santosh, of Orissa. A week later, Karnataka police raided the home of his father-in-law, Digambar Mohanty, in Bhubaneswar and recovered three intact idols and “five that had been melted”. Mohanty and Das’s wife Diptimayee were arrested from there, and Das later from Srikakulam by the Andhra Police police.

Following the interrogation of Das, Karnataka police raided in early August the Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, showroom of Anoopchand Trilokchand Jewellers, among the biggest jewellery chains in central India, and arrested Subhash Sancheti alias Rajaji, owner of the Bhilai branch and brother-in-law of the chain’s owner.

“Our probe found that the idols had been disposed of at their shop. This was not the first instance. Das had been supplying stolen items to this jeweller for long,” Mangalore police commissioner Manish Karbhikar told The Indian Express.

The jewellery chain’s owner, Shanti Baradiya, soon visited the temple. “He sought a settlement. We told him that’s the task of the police. The only way we can settle with him is if he returns the idols. Police have told us the remaining idols are with them,” said Swami Bhattarka, managing trustee of the shrine, adding, “Karnataka police told us Chhattisgarh is not cooperating in the probe.”

“Yes, I visited them, but not for a settlement,” Bardaiya told The Indian Express. “I told them we too are of the Jain community and have not committed any theft.” About Sancheti’s arrest, he said: “If anything was done, it was at his (Sancheti’s) end. We know nothing about it. We condemn the theft.”

Abhijit Jain, who belongs to the family of the temple trustees, said: “It’s not possible to evaluate the idols, but even the value of diamonds and precious metals taken on a carat basis should be not less than a few thousand crores. Add to it the antique value and you get an impossible figure.”

About the claim that eight idols have been recovered, Abhijit said, “Five have been melted down. We don’t really know if these were the idols or just molten metal.”

Raipur jewellers point at the YouTube video and junk the police claim. “Look at the video. The thief so carefully selected the idols; he wanted those specifically. Why would he melt them?” said a leading jeweller. “If melted, the invaluable and antique nature is lost and its worth is reduced to the price of the molten metal.” Had the idols still been with the arrested accused, the jewellers feel, these would have been recovered by now. “The idols are probably lost forever.” 

Demanding a CBI probe, the temple authorities have written to the prime minister, the President and Transport Minister Oscar Fernandes. “The main accused has given a statement to the police that he has sold the remaining idols to some jewellers in Chhattisgarh. The jewellers he has named are highly influential persons in Chhattisgarh. It has come to be known that the case has an angle of politics in Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Therefore the police team finds it difficult to lay hands on highly influential persons and subject them to interrogation. This has crippled the investigation and blocked the recovery of the stolen idols,” reads the September 4 letter by Swami Bhattarka to Fernandes.

“These are precious, invaluable idols, and now with wrong people. We do not want these to cross the Indian border.”

Status report

Found

Vasupujya Swamy in Padmasana, ruby

Munisuvrata Swamy,

blue sapphire

Chandraprabha Swamy in Padmasana, pearl

declared ‘Melted’

Chandranatha Swamy, gold

ring, gold (worshiped as an idol because it has Mahaveera Swamy engraved on it)

Pancha Parameshthi, gold

Bahubali on a golden seat, pearl

Parshwanatha, gold

Missing

Chandraprabha Swamy in Padmasana, diamond

Parshwanatha Swamy in Padmasana, emerald

Neminatha Swamy, blue sapphire

Arihanta, blue sapphire

Arinatha, crystal

Mallinatha, blue sapphire

Munisuvrata, crystal

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