Ancient idols of Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman after a ritual ahead of being handed over Indian officials at India House, London.

A SET of three idols of Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman, stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu decades ago, were returned to the Indian government on Tuesday (15), after a collector voluntarily offered to hand them back on discovering their true history.

The theft dated back to 1978, and led to an investigation by the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police working along with the Met Police’s Art and Antiques Unit.

Subsequently, officers informed the unnamed collector, who had acquired the statues in good faith, about their dubious provenance.

After matching them up with archival photographs from the 1950s held at the French School in Pondicherry, it was proved that the idols in his possession were those belonging to the Vijayanagara period and stolen from Sri Rajagopalaswami Temple at Ananthamangalam in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu.

In a ceremony streamed from India House, priests from Sri Murugan Temple in London conducted a short ritual before the idols were officially handover to India.

Indian High Commissioner to the UK Gaitri Issar Kumar said she hoped the event would inspire British collectors and museums to help repatriate idols smuggled from India.

“Today marks the successful completion of the search and rescue operation of these very beautiful idols, which were consecrated and worshipped side by side for years,” said Indian High Commissioner to the UK Gaitri Issar Kumar.

“We wanted to ensure these deities were handled with due reverence and propriety before they are shipped back to India.

“On behalf of the government of India, I hope this will inspire museums and collectors to carefully look and check their collections and help us restore deities that belong to the people of India and have been worshipped for centuries.”

Addressing the virtual event, officials from the state government of Tamil Nadu lauded the voluntary gesture of the collector, who was described as a lover of Indian arts and culture.

“The voluntary handover of these idols highlight two enforcement issues: the need for effective communication and dialogue, and the proper documentation of all cultural heritage, which would not only act as a deterrent to thefts but also help as evidence without which the outcome of this case may have been very different,” said Detective Chief Inspector Tim Wright of the Met Police.

“The Metropolitan Police are proud to have been involved in the return of these Chola bronzes to India. Not only are they beautiful and historically significant, they are of course of religious importance, and therefore it is particularly gratifying that they are to be returned to the temple from which they were taken.”

Wright added that he was “delighted to be joined here today by a representative from the Metropolitan Police’s Hindu Association [DC Usha Evans” in recognition of the force’s efforts.

Indian tourism and culture minister Prahlad Singh Patel, connecting virtually to the event from Delhi, welcomed the repatriation of the statues, which he said were among over 40 “priceless” stolen artefacts restored to India since 2014.

He also revealed that documentation from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and other experts had been collated for the British Museum as part of efforts to seek the repatriation of another idol which belonged to India.