Smuggling of stolen statues from temples rampant across Bihar-Nepal border

Smuggling of stolen statues from temples rampant across Bihar-Nepal border

Smuggling of stolen statues from temples rampant across Bihar-Nepal border

Investigations by the police in Bihar’s West Champaran district has unearthed a smuggling trail of stolen antique statues, involving criminal gangs operating on both sides of the border. 

Bettiah: On April 27, Sahodara police in Bihar’s West Champaran district conducted a raid in Devgarh village and arrested four persons, including two citizens of Nepal, for allegedly smuggling a statue of Buddha from the neighbouring country. It was to be sold in India.

On May 4, West Champaran's Bettiah police arrested Md. Ali Jahaan, an accused in the loot at the premises of a finance company, and seized three statues made of ashtadhatu (alloy of eight metals) and recovered 12 idols from the Muzaffarpur district.

Bettiah’s Superintendent of Police, Upendra Nath Verma, confirmed the arrest of seven smugglers between April and June this year and the recovery of five statues from their possession, including two statues of Buddha. He said that police are investigating the smuggling of statues across the national border.

"There are several gangs smuggling statues either stolen from temples in India or ferried from Nepal," said Verma. "We are keeping a close tab on such activities and have held meetings with our counterparts in Nepal to curb such crimes," he said.

Verma said that Jahaan confessed that the statues recovered from him were stolen from a temple at Motipur in Muzaffarpur district with an intent of smuggling them into Nepal. Acting on this information, a joint team of West Champaran and Muzaffarpur police conducted raids in Makhdumpur Kodariya village under Karza police station of the district and recovered 12 idols that were found buried. This was a crucial development in solving the case, he said.

Harikishore Sah, a police officer at Karza police station in Muzaffarpur district, who is investigating the theft of seven antique idols of deities from Shri Ram Janaki Badi Mutt at Nariyar village, said that in February this year a few idols were also stolen from a temple that came under the jurisdiction of Jaitpur police station.

On June 13, 2021, devotees found that the idols of two deities at the Ram Janaki temple in Basawariya locality of Bettiah were desecrated. This triggered a mass protest and police are investigating the hand of smugglers in this suspected attempt to steal the statues.

In the past, several cases of theft of statues from temples have been reported in this region. Two statues were seized by Sahodra police in West Champaran in 2010 and 2016. A statue of Buddha was seized by personnel attached to the same police station in 2018. These statues reportedly continue to be in the custody of the Sahodra police station.

Jayant Kant, Senior Superintendent of Police of Muzaffarpur, spoke to 101Reporters about these thefts, including that of a 2,600-year-old idol of Mahavir stolen from a temple at Dipakarhar village under Khaira police station limits of Jamui district in 2015. He said that incidents of smuggling of narcotics, firearms, cattle, gold and counterfeit currency notes from across the border were also being investigated in his area of jurisdiction.

"The modus operandi of statue smugglers too has striking similarities to these crimes. It has three layers of operators – those who steal them, the transporters and the sellers. The statues of Hindu deities and those of Lord Buddha are priced high in the international market," said Kant.

The 2,600 year-old Mahavir statue is at present in the possession of the Archaeological Survey of India. Kant said that the force was able to recover this statue because those involved in the crime could not find a buyer. "The statue’s spiritual importance to the devotees of that idol is clear from the fact that the temple received in donation about Rs. 70 lakh for its restoration on the very first day," said Kant.

On the other side of the fence, police officials in Nepal confirmed only incidents of smuggling items such as cattle and gold from their country to India. "As far as stealing of idols from temples is concerned, it is a very rare incident. We, however, have a very stringent law to handle such cases in Nepal," said Bel Bahadur Pandey, superintendent of police at Parsa district of Nepal.

Meanwhile, the demand for sending seized statues to the nearest museum, Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, Bhitiharwa, has gained momentum in West Champaran with the museum authorities writing to the district magistrate and superintendent of police, seeking custody in accordance with Bihar Police Manual Act, 1978. 

However, the police have a different take. "With these seizures involving the cases of theft and smuggling, the matter is sub-judice and a decision in this regard will be taken in accordance with the legal procedures," said Upendra Nath Verma, superintendent of police, Bettiah.

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