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It was in late November 2003 when we visited the Adhikesava Perumal Temple at Arpakkam near Uthiramerur in Kanchipuram district. On the left of the temple, were two statues – each showing Buddha in a seated posture – lying abandoned in a dense thicket, ironically named Buddha Garden. The head of one of the statues was damaged. The other statue however, was intact, an impressive five and half feet tall. On closer examination was revealed a rare depiction of the Buddha with two faces, facing front and back, carved from a single stone.
According to the villagers, Buddhist scholars from several countries had visited the Buddha Garden to see the statues, said to date back to the Chozha period.
Interestingly, hinting at a syncretic past, in front of the Perumal temple is a Jain place of worship housing a gigantic idol of Mahaveera. Adjoining that is a Jain Research Centre, home to collections of books on Buddhism and Jainism. We had discussions with researchers on the remnants of both religions in the area, and also about the neglected Buddha statues. The village by then had no practitioners of Buddhism, but some people were following Jainism, the scholars at the centre told us.
Just a week later, on November 26, 2003 we were informed by the villagers of Arpakkam that the rare Buddha statue, with two heads was missing from the Buddha Garden. Though the two statues had been lying uncared for among bushes, when one of them vanished, the villagers were disturbed and upset over the loss of what they considered a local treasure.
Way back on November 26, 2003 we got information from the villagers that the rare statue was found missing. When left abandoned among bushes in the temple precincts, the statue was not valued much. But when it had vanished, the people had a feeling of sorrow and missed the statue very much
I gathered information about the statue from the then president of Arpakkam town panchayat, local revenue officials and from the police who had registered a case. The local people suspected the involvement of an NGO working in the area. After some time, I again visited the village to have updates on the case. I met some people I had acquainted myself with before and enquired about the case which seemed to have been put on the backburner.
I also called at the residence of a researcher into Buddhism and Jainism whom I had met and talked with during my earlier visit. I told the person who answered the door who I was and the purpose of my visit. I was kept waiting for a while till the researcher finally stepped out. Surprisingly, he treated me like a stranger despite our previous meeting.
When I asked him about the missing statue, he responded with unexpected anger and said: “Did he (the president of Arpakkam town president, an Adi Dravidar) know more about the Buddha statue than me? You have given prominence to his name in the news…. Do both of you belong to the same caste?”
This was followed by a torrent of hate from him. While taken aback at this unexpected attack from a scholar, I remained calm and said: “Sir, mine is the profession of writing in journals. I give importance only to the news and not to castes. I never act influenced by casteist considerations.” However, he refused to relent and seemed more annoyed by my calm response. After asking him how the case was progressing, I left.
As the case was moving at a snail’s pace, I approached the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police in 2004. Bodhi Devavaram, managing trustee and chief of the Buddhavedu Dhyana Buddha Thirumeni Thiruthalam Trust at Kundrathur near Chennai, who had accompanied me, requested the Idol Wing authorities to take measures to restore the statue to the village, elaborating on the cultural and hereditary significance of the statue.
After a while, the Arpakkam police informed us that the case had been closed for want of leads. I took up the issue with the higher-ups in the TN police, requesting reopening of the case. Bodhi Devavaram too plunged into action, submitting petitions to the Collector of Kanchipuram district and the then IG of the Idol Wing.
Years have since gone by. But there was no action on the case.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security had discovered the statue in the custody of convicted art-smuggler Subhash Kapoor
In 2016, it was known that a Buddha statue, a symbol of the Tamils’ long tradition of syncretic thought and culture, was found in a godown of antiques in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security had discovered the statue in the custody of Subhash Kappor, the Indian-American art dealer who was convicted for running a $100 million international smuggling racket of antiques. The statue is now said to be under the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Tamil Nadu government has not taken any action to retrieve the Buddha statue and bring it back to Arpakkam.
Bodhi Devavaram said, “The Buddhist statue now in the U.S. belongs to Arpakkam village. We have got strong evidence for that. It is part of our cultural heritage. So, serious efforts must be made to bring our treasure back from the U.S.”
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