The Return of Lord Nataraja to his Hometown in Kallidaikurichi

Posted on: June 3, 2024 by

The Idol in AGSA

Objects in themselves carry no value. But when an object is viewed in the context of its history, culture and belief, it is not an object anymore. The ‘Idol’ of Lord Nataraja (Dancing God Shiva) that returned to Kallidaikurichi village in India is not an object but a once-lost god. For those who smuggled the statue out of India in 1970, it is an object, a 16th-century artefact. But for the people of Kallidaikurichi, it is a person. The object is a 700-year-old statue weighing 100 kg, 2.5 feet tall, valued at $36,00,000 in the International Antique market. The Nataraja of Kallidaikurichi, on the other hand, is the protective deity and a living entity – a god who returned to his hometown in September 2019, from the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), Adelaide after 19 years of exhibition or ‘imprisonment’. On the day of his return, his devotees welcomed him with rituals and flowers. Many travelled miles to receive him. There was a huge procession celebrating his return. Tears rolled down the cheeks of many, as they witnessed the return of their god. The ruined and abandoned temple had been revived. It was a carnival. It was a celebration. It was the reinstatement of the belief of hundreds who believed in their god and his blessings. It was the return of hope – the hope of prosperity and protection of the community.

The Idol being received in Chennai

What does an ‘Idol’ mean to a Hindu? Idol worshipping in Hinduism is not blind faith. It is an exercise to reach a state of mind that no longer requires imagery. The goal is to perform deep meditation (Dhyana) to quieten the mind and focus on the source of creation or consciousness (Brahman). However, the harder one tries to quieten the mind, the tougher it gets. And so, the numerous deities (Devatas) and their imagery or form (Murthy) makes focus easier. Each deity has a distinctive personality, radiating a unique energy. This gives the seeker many choices, to choose their favourite deity (Ishta Devata) that resonates with their personality and on whom they can contemplate and meditate on. Once the purpose is fulfilled and the mind has become quiet, the deity and its form is then dropped, and the mind hooks itself onto the higher state of consciousness. This is the purpose of an idol in the Hindu culture and the reason for the existence of many gods. By treating the deity as a person, the seeker connects more deeply with the form and engages with the deity daily, thus bringing discipline (Sadhana) in his lifestyle. Eventually, there are emotions at play, feelings that run wild as the connections with the deity or the ‘idol’ go deeper and deeper. The extreme woe of the people of Kallidaikurichi upon the loss of their deity and the emotional welcoming of the deity’s return are a result of this deep connection with their god.

The return of Lord Nataraja to his hometown

The Lord Nataraja is not an artefact, but a living entity. This concept is unique to India, both culturally and legally. In India, every deity of the temple is considered a living person in belief and, therefore, in legal purposes as well. Thus, a temple structure is a property that belongs to the deity. To sue or be sued, the case is filed by the deity represented by the trust of the temple. The smuggled idols displayed at museums worldwide may be artefacts, antiques or objects of interest to the international audience. But for the people of India and the people of the Hindu faith, they are living gods. The temple’s rituals and customs, followed for centuries, are another example. The temple’s deity is woken up in the morning with prayers and is bathed, fed, entertained, rested and put to sleep at night – just like a person! Even birthdays and marriage ceremonies of the deities are organised and celebrated.

The statue of Lord Nataraja might be an exhibit for the world, but for the people of Kallidaikurichi, he was a captive. The AGSA is a museum for the rest of the world, but for this community, it was a prison. These captive gods, today, are at museums worldwide. A lost god means a lost purpose and a loss of belief for the communities that have over many years cherished and spiritually connected with them for generations. And so, India today is amidst an operation, led by both governmental and non-governmental organisations, to bring back these smuggled deities back to their hometowns in India. This is not merely repatriation, but the restoration of a culture and more significantly, the reinstatement of belief and purpose in the communities of India.

Image Credits:

The Idol in the Art Gallery of South Australia.

The Idol being received in Chennai.

Lord Nataraja’s return to Kallidaikurichi.