It was in the summer of 2003 in Goa. An intelligence input received indicated an attempted bid to retrieve some idols, from the river bed of Mandovi at a point close to a Village where immersions ceremonies were being held by native Hindus, by some smugglers who dealt with antique idols.
Operation conducted at the designated spot during the day time, though alerted the retrievers and enabled their escape, nonetheless resulted in seizure of one antique stone idol left behind by the escapees. But, as the intelligence had indicated presence of more than one idols, therefore under water operation was launched at the designated spot, taking help of National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) divers and pressing the customs interception boats into action.
The operation continued for three days at the eerie site with the divers encountering human skulls and bones in the pits in the river bed and setting monsoon making the waters rough and choppy, thus making the whole operation difficult to conduct.
NIO, after rendering help for three days, advised calling off the operation and finally withdrew from the same. However, on persistence of the informer, the operation by the Customs continued and help of some professional divers was taken, which enabled retrieval of another idol of Natraja (Shiva) in ashtdattu (eight metals) on the 4th day, confirmed to be more than 800 years old by the NIO testing.
The monsoon finally disallowed the operation to be carried any further and the same had to be abandoned as the divers were unable to have a visibility not beyond two feet in the muddy waters. So, final score was retrieval of two idols. The peculiarity of a feature, confirmed in respect of both the idols by the NIO testing, was that they were lying in the river bed for more than a decade.
Though the operation was called off, the job of investigation was far from over. The intelligence inputs were hardly of any avail in indicating as to where the idols came from and only expressed the possibility that these idols were abandoned more than a decade back, when two warring gang of smugglers clashed in the river. The name of persons who were retrieving by making valiant effort of working under water without proper equipment at such a lonely site, were also not available from the intelligence inputs and their escape did not help the matter, any further. Thus, the whole investigation was nothing more than a wild goose chase.
The immersion site where the operation was conducted was close to a coastal village and out of desperation to get some clue, the sarpanch of the village was called to find out about any special incident which might have happened to his knowledge about a decade back and was shown the idols which were recovered. It was only then that he narrated that about 12 years back, an immersion ceremony of the Hindu idols from a temple stated to be in a little far off village in Goa only and dating back to the times of Vijaynagara Empire had taken place at the immersion Ghat. Since, the version corroborated the forensic evidence provided by NIO of idols being in the river bed for more than a decade, therefore a back check with the temple authorities was imminent. When the temple priest was contacted, he confirmed that in 1992, the temple had performed immersion of seven Hindu idols and the reason for the same was that as per Hindu rituals of idol worship, any idol if it is chipped of in part or whole becomes Khandit ( lifeless)and is no more considered worthy of worship as it is believed that Praana (life) which is brought in an idol when it is made worthy of worship at the time of installation i.e. during praana –pratishta rituals, has left the idol and therefore it is fit only for immersion.
The fact was confirmed from the scrutiny of idols as one in the stone was slightly chipped of from the nose, and in the idol of Natraaja, the floral ring around the dancing idol was found broken. The priest was taken to authenticate whether the idols recovered by us were the same which had been immersed in the river 12 years back. He, after visual examination, duly confirmed the same. The priest also informed that such rituals are carried out everywhere in India in the temples and many idols which are otherwise having antique value are just immersed in the river beds.
The case was an eye-opener to us as customs officers, as it indicated how a colossal loss of national cultural heritage is and might be taking place away from the probing eyes and without the knowledge of authorities and smugglers may be retrieving such idols with persistent ease and selling these in the multi-million dollar antique market. While we could not retrieve more than two out of the seven and cannot even say with authority whether these were retrieved before we came to know about them or whether the remaining five are still in the river bed only, the two seized by us were kept in Customs godown to be placed in Customs Museum, which was being conceived at that time.
However, we were equally determined that the lessons drawn from the seizure which was made after spending few lakhs of rupees of the ex-chequer should not be lost sight of. Accordingly, we wrote our reports and made a significant suggestion that to preserve such national cultural heritage in future and equally to give due regard to the religious rituals of Hindus, such immersion ceremonies involving antique idols should henceforth be mandatorily notified to Archaeological Survey of India(ASI) or any other designated agency, so that they may retrieve them rather than smugglers doing it and our precious cultural heritage may find its space in the Museums of India rather than adorning the living rooms of an antique collectors, to the deprivation of the whole nation.
The worst is that such abandoned idols may not even get covered under any crime under Indian Penal Code since these are no one’s property and even under Customs Act can be seized only when actually attempted to be exported and under The Antiquity and Art Treasures Act, 1972 even if these are considered as antiques and not as broken stone or metal pieces, the only requirement is that these should be sold under license. Violation of which is again a minor violation. To my regret, above mentioned is one suggestion I could not see implemented till my retirement from the Department, though the same was most reasonable. I only wish that someone responsible amongst the higher-ups in the government will read this write-up and will take steps to implement it.