Sivapuram Somaskanda – the untold story

The title of this post should raise a few eye brows – for the popular topic should be Sivapuram Nataraja – but no, it is no typo. What you are going to see today is the untold story of the “other” bronzes from the same temple. It is the dark side of what is considered to be a landmark judgement – of returning antiquities.

The case of the famed Sivapuram Nataraja is too easy to google – the jist is this….

1951: The Nataraja along with 5 other bronzes were found during renovation works carried out in the Sivapuram temple . and as per the Indian Treasure Trove act they were given to the temple ( ownership vested with the State).

“In 1951 Annamuthu Padayatchi of Sivapuram, Thanjavur unearthed 6 idols viz., Natarajar, Thirugnanasambandar, Somaskandar, Pillaiar and two Amman from his field.”

The Collector of Thanjavur, handed over the 6 idols to the temple authorities of Sri Sivagurunathasamy Temple of Sivapuram as per G.O.Ms.No. 2987/Revenue Department dated 29.10.1953.

1954-56: The Nataraja was sent for restoration to a local Stapathy ( afflicted by Bronze disease?). They were masterfully faked and originals stolen then.

The trustees of the temple wanted to repair the idols and this work was entrusted to Ramasamy Sthapathy of Kumbakonam in the year June 1954. In the year 1956 Thilakar of Kuttalam and his brother Doss induced Ramasamy Sthapathy to part with the original Natarajar and 5 other idols and to substitute the same with fake idols. Thilakar dispatched the original Natarajar idol to Lance Dane of Bombay, an Art Collector, arranged by Doss who kept the idol for 10 years

1963: an important clue and event – which we will see later.

1965: Mr Douglas Barret of the British Museum visits the temple. He denounces it as a fake and records it in his book. He also reveals that the original was with a dealer in Bombay.

Dr.Douglass Barret of British museum, in his book on ‘South Indian Bronze’ mentioned that the Natarajar idol in Sivapuram was a fake one and the original was with a private Art Collector. Tr.P.R.Srinivasan (curator of the Museum) alerted the Director of Museum and the Government of TamilNadu. An enquiry conducted on this resulted in registration of a case in Natchiarkoil
P.S.Cr.No.109/69 U/S 406 IPC. The Crime Branch C.I.D took up the investigation.

1967: The Nataraja idol came into the possession of Boman Behram, a Bombay collector of art, who sold it to Ben Heller, a New York art dealer.

Doss who kept the idol for 10 years and sold it to Bomman Beharan of Bombay who in turn sold it to Menu Narang. Benn Haller of New York bought it for 6 Lakhs rupees in 1969 and sold it to Norton Simon Foundation for USD .9 Lakhs

1973: Ben Heller sold the idol to the Norton Simon Foundation for a reported $ 900,000.5

1973: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York began planning an exhibition of the Norton Simon Foundation’s Indian art collection. Through the publicity surrounding the show, the Indian Government learned about the statue’s presence in the United States. This was the first time that the Indian Government had traced the object since its theft. Consequently, the Indian Government wrote a letter of protest to the MET and, with the help of the United States Department of State, blocked the show’s opening.
1973: The Nataraja idol was shipped to the British Museum for further restoration.

1973: The Indian Government filed suit in Los Angeles (the domicile of the Norton Simon Foundation) and New York (the domicile of Ben Heller) seeking restitution.Furthermore, it exercised political pressure on the Government of the United Kingdom, consequentially leading to Scotland Yard impounding the statue. The Norton Simon Foundation refused to return the Nataraja idol by asserting that India had no rights or title to it.

1975: India voluntarily interrupted the litigation for a set one-year period in a hope to facilitate an out-of-court settlement.

1976: The Norton Simon Foundation and the Government of India settled the case out-of-court by way of a mediated agreement.

The official Indian versions are the one’s in bold including below

A special party arrested Lance Dane, Thilakar, Doss, Ramasamy Sthapathy. Tr. S. Krishnaraj, the then D.I.G, CB-CID, TamilNadu visited United States and gathered evidence as to smuggling of the Idol. The Scotland Yard found that the Natarajar was sent to Mrs.Anna Plowden of London by Norton Simon Foundation for repairs as the idol developed corrosion and impounded it.

The Government of India filed a civil suit against the Norton Simon Foundation in England, New York and Los Angles claiming the Natarajar Idol. Thiru.K.K.Rajasekaran Nair, I.P.S, I.G.P (Crime), Madras sent a letter to the Government of TamilNadu to request the Ministry of External Affairs to get the Idol back. Dr.M.S.Nagaraja Rao, Director-General, Archaeological Survey of
India, NewDelhi got the Idol from the Indian Embassy, Washington and now the Idol is in the safe vault of Kabaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai. All accused arrested and convicted.

There is no information about the remaining idols

This is where it gets interesting – what happened to the remaining 5 bronzes?

“In 1951 Annamuthu Padayatchi of Sivapuram, Thanjavur unearthed 6 idols viz., Natarajar, Thirugnanasambandar, Somaskandar, Pillaiar and two Amman from his field.””

Remember the year 1963. This was the year when Sri. P. R. Srinivasan brought out his magnificent volume – Bronzes of South India – P.R. Srinivasan (F.E. 1963, L.R. 1994)

Fortunately he had taken photos of not only the Nataraja but also the Somaskandar. He also clearly notes the location as “under worship in the Sivapuram temple”

Now things get interesting as there is this exhibit in flickr dated dec 20th 2008. pertaining to an exhibit in the Norton Simon Museum.

The plate giving the provenance is “interesting”

Even to a lay man the comparison is obvious.

The Museum’s site also features the same bronze but without the plate

Now a little more help from google reveals interesting additions to the same Museum’s collection in the year 1972 ans 1973

Saint Samabandar :



“In 1951 Annamuthu Padayatchi of Sivapuram, Thanjavur unearthed 6 idols viz., Natarajar, Thirugnanasambandar, Somaskandar, Pillaiar and two Amman from his field.”

The information of the case are from the website of the State = which ends as “All accused arrested and convicted. There is no information about the remaining idols “

What exactly were the terms of the out of Court settlement reached? That too with someone who quote:

Simon’s comments on the Nataraja published in The New York Times: “Hell, yes, it was smuggled,” he was quoted as saying. “I spent between $15 and $16 million in the last two years on Asian art, and most of it was smuggled.”

Did the Dancing Lord leave behind his consort, son and devotee behind !!!!

Note to audiences: Antiquities, Global auction houses and Museums are a tricky subject and it is easy to brand them – but it is important for all concerned to take in the sentiments involved. The objective of this post is not to slander but to bring to light the truth. As noticed above the sums involved are huge but these are our ancestral treasures – embodiments of God. The condition of the hundreds of bronzes in the State godowns in our own country cry for attention – the threat to them make their return to their abodes risky as well – it is time for the best brains to get together and think of a solution.