The woefully inadequate protection that exists for our sculptures and icons was once again exposed in the last couple of weeks. A national daily revealed that an icon from the Vriddhachalam temple near Neyveli had been secreted away a few years ago and had made its way to a museum in Australia. What is worse, the theft could have gone undetected as a fairly faithful replica had been put in place of the original and was being worshipped. Is this the way we safeguard our heritage?

The switch of the carvings – one priceless and several centuries old and the other a near worthless replacement – has caused great concern. It would have never been exposed had it not been for a sharp-eyed blogger who found that the icon in worship was not identical to what had been photographed in the 1940s. For one, the idol had grown an arm that was earlier missing. And then the original with broken limb surfaced in a museum’s collection, thereby making it clear that there had been an ingenious plot to rob the temple of some of its sculptural wealth.

This particular theft has come to light. There may be several that may never surface. This is because we have no continuous system of cataloguing what is present at our various temples and monitoring their well-being. The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Board, which is responsible for maintaining our shrines, is run as a ministry and is peopled with bureaucrats. It may have contracts with temple craftsmen and sthapathis but it does not have archaeologists and historians. And that those whom it nominates for rectification and renovation of shrines have no knowledge of conservation and preservation was made clear in the recent instance of repair work at the Vishnu temple in Pulicat. Centuries-old laterite slabs were removed and replaced with concrete.

The practice of renovating and re-consecrating our shrines every few years has only added to the risk our sculptures face. Ancient ones that have suffered damage over centuries are replaced with new ones on the plea that chipped idols cannot be worshipped. Even the switch at Vriddhachalam may have happened that way. The old icon may have been replaced with a new and intact one, and then the old one may have simply been sold. Then there is the craze for sand-blasting and pasting of glazed tiles which destroy the inscriptions. And lastly we now have this sudden epidemic of building gopurams where none existed previously. In the process, as in the case of the Virupakshiswarar Temple in Mylapore, stones bearing inscriptions from the time of the Cholas have vanished.

Temples that are under the control of the Archaeological Survey of India have fared better. These are documented and preserved well but of late there is a growing body of opinion among the religiously minded people that handing over temples to the ASI causes a setback to ritual practices. Nothing could be further from the truth but this attitude has ensured that the ASI taking over any temple is fraught with long-drawn tensions, often ending in failure.

What is needed therefore is a dedicated team of curators and archaeologists within the HR&CE. The team members need to renew the practice of documenting our vast sculptural wealth.

A database has to be maintained for each shrine. While the larger temples can have teams exclusively for themselves, the smaller ones can be handled together based on location with responsibility being assigned to a team.

This approach will not only benefit the temples but is also likely to encourage students to take to archaeology as a subject for graduation in universities. Currently it is a well known fact that seats in this particular department are almost unwanted. That means fewer archaeologists and historians in our midst each year and that in turn means our sculptures are only going to be neglected further.

The recent expose needs to be treated as an opportunity to realise what we are lacking in and improve ourselves. We need to act soon if we are to save what we are still left with in our age-old shrines.