• In Guhagar village in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, a 4 kg silver idol and four donation boxes were stolen from a140-year-old temple in 2010. The police is yet to find the stolen objects.

• In Rajapur district, the 500-year-old Dhutpapeshwar temple was robbed of the silver masks of Lord Shiva and Parvati and an antique chess-set of conch-shells in the same year. The theft was traced to a local thief, who confessed to have melted the silver. The chess set was never recovered.

• In Gondhia district, the silver crown and canopy of Lord Ganesh of Tiroda were stolen.

• In Satara district, 11 kg of silver ornaments were stolen from the Kaleshwari temple on Mandhardev Hill, including a crown and padukas worth Rs 5.12 lakh.

Maharashtra’s temples, numbering over 4 lakh, are witnessing an alarming rise in incidents of theft. According to a survey conducted by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, 1,341 thefts occurred in temples between 2008 and January 2012. Valuables worth Rs 19,355,930 were stolen. The police, the report says, has succeeded in solving only 394 cases and recovered 14% of the valuables. This has forced many temple authorities to hire private security guards and install CCTV cameras to guard their idols. In January 2012, the state government even issued a Government Resolution (GR) announcing that trusts managing places of worship would be booked and cases would be registered against them in any incidents of robbery or theft.

Athar Bhai, a Mumbai-based antiquity dealer attributes this rise in idol thefts to India having exhausted its quota of supplying antiques abroad: “Treasure hunters have suddenly discovered that these idols that were lying forgotten for centuries in remote villages have immense value abroad. With the Archaeological Survey of India becoming very strict in its vigilance of exporting stone idols, even a small Hanuman idol standing under a banyan tree is worth thousands.”

Advocate Rupesh Parulekar, legal consultant for leading temples across the state including the famous Lord Mangesh temple in Goa, says, “Every small village temple with its own local deity is worth a fortune. Many of them are over 500 years old and often have ancient jewellery made of gold, silver and diamonds worth crores of rupees.”

Parulekar says that the district collector of Rajapur, post the theft at the Dhoopkeshwar temple, sent letters to all the panchayats to install CCTV cameras and deposit the jewellery at the collector’s treasury office for safe-keeping. While the cameras have been installed and private security guards have been hired, the jewellery is yet to be deposited. “Even today people believe that every deity protects its own jewellery,” says Parulekar.

A leading antique dealer, however, said that without local support it was impossible to rob the temples. “It’s all a racket. The locals themselves rob the idol and get the news of the theft published in local newspapers. The news circulates in the antique market and generates curiosity. These idols are then sold off through a chain of middlemen,” he says.

Idols of Buddha are currently a lot in demand and are mostly sold in China, fetching anywhere between Rs 21 cr and Rs 100 cr. “The idols of Lord Shiva, Ganesh and various forms of Parvati remain popular too.”

Madan Singh Chouhan of ASI, says, “In the 13th century there was a wave of temple building in the country and hence one shouldn’t be surprised to find a small shrine in a remote village which is amazingly decorated. Most temples in the state were constructed during the Gupta period. Unfortunately the ASI does not have concrete data on these smaller temples and shrines or of the idols installed in them.”

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