IT WAS one of the biggest heists in Tricity in recent months. The eight intruders sneaked into the premises of the Mahadev Shiv Mandir, situated in the Shivalik foothills near Saketri, and left with a massive quantity of ornaments used for the decoration of the 11 deities of different gods and goddesses. Temple officials estimated the loss at Rs 25 lakh. They did leave behind a trace: in 21 high-resolution CCTV cameras installed on the huge shrine campus.
There were five security guards, two other watchmen, besides three priests on the premises at the time the burglary was committed, but they had heard and seen nothing. That was on February 18. In the two months since then, there have been three other burglaries at Tricity temples.
Slightly over a month after the Saketri temple burglary, on March 23, four men scaled the boundary wall of a shrine located in Sector 16, Chandigarh, and took away jewellery worth Rs 2 lakh and Rs 45,000 in cash. Then on April 10, the temple thieves struck again — at Sri Sanatan Dharam Mandir and Shri Digamber Jain Mandir, located in front of each other in Sector 27.
“We have determined that it is one gang that targeted all these shrines in Panchkula and Chandigarh,” said Inspector Jaspal Singh Bhullar, SHO of Sector 26 police station, under whose jurisdiction fall the temples burgled on April 10. “When we matched the CCTV footage, we found that their build, clothes and even the way they had covered their faces with a cap and handkerchief were the same,” the SHO said.
But beyond that elementary conclusion thanks to functioning CCTV cameras, the police have made no headway. The gang is at large and nervous management committees of other temples have decided to adopt their own security measures, including hiring of professional security guards, installation of CCTV cameras, security alarms, and born of resignation, one other measure in case all else fails, as it well might given the inability of the police to find the culprits: replacing gold and silver jewellery with inexpensive, duplicate ornaments. In fact, the Sector 19 temple that was burgled had already taken this step after the burglaries at other temples and managed to prevent a big loss.
“This is the only way to save the precious valuables from the thieves. Though we were left embarrassed with the theft at our historic shrine and there is a sense of guilt in us that we failed to save the valuables made from the the charity of lakhs of people, we have now decided not to display original jewellery on the deities and will decorate them with artificial jewellery. Many people are coming forward to donate money for the purchase and making of more jewellery. Definitely we will get real ornaments made but will be kept in bank lockers, and we will use the real ones only on special auspicious occasions and under the additional tight security cover,” said Kesho Ram Gupta, chairman of the 20-member management committee of Mahadev Shiv Mandir, Saketri, when CNL met him at his office in the temple.
Gupta, who was appointed chairman of the committee merely seven months ago, said, “I called Vijay Anand, the head priest of the Sector 19 temple that was burgled on April 9 to praise him personally for his idea of replacing the original jewellery with jewellery made of fake silver. There is no harm in this practice and it is not unethical. With this, we are not only minimising the loss but also protecting the money people have donated to the temple.”
Taking note of the insecure and low boundaries of the Saketri shrine that skirt the forested areas of Chandigarh, the management committee approached the UT Forest Department, urging it to construct a huge and solid boundary between the forest and the shrine.
Kesho Ram Gupta said, “The UT forest department headed by IFS Santosh Kumar accepted our application and the construction work is going on. The existing boundary wall between the forest and the temple was also constructed by them, but this time they are increasing the height and length of boundary wall, which is being made with hill rocks and huge stones. Our shrine is situated in Haryana, which is on the edge of forest cover of Chandigarh. The construction work of the boundary wall will be completed in next two weeks. It will also be helpful in keeping away sambars, blue bulls and wild boar.”
B P Arora, Hindu Parav Mahasabha, a common body of 101 small and big temples in Chandigarh, said, “I agreed with this method but this shows the failure of law and order in our cities, and failure of police authorities. When committee members of different shrines suggested this idea, I nodded in favour of this suggestion but realised that we have failed to protect our treasures. Indeed, in previous years also thefts were reported in shrines, gurdwaras and other religious places but this time the thefts have taken place in unbelievable ways. On April 10, when the Sector 27 shrines got burgled, just minutes earlier a PCR Gypsy of Chandigarh Police had crossed the main road blowing its hooter. It was caught on the CCTV camera installed at the entrance of one of the targeted shrines.”
The members of the Mahasabha had staged a protest against the Chandigarh Police demanding the arrest of thieves on April 10. The police officers assured the protesters that thieves would be arrested within 10 days. That deadline will expire on April 20.