Left: Tunnel dug by thieves. Right: Hua Pagoda

Modern-day tomb raiders caught red-handed tunneling into 1,400-year-old Chinese temple

A gang of modern-day tomb raiders have been caught after they rented a restaurant near the ancient Guanghui Temple in China and used it as a base to dig a 50 meter (165 ft) underground tunnel in an attempt to pillage the treasures inside.

The thieves were trying to reach the Hua Pagaoda, part of the Guanghui Temple, located in Zhengding,  a county of southwestern Hebei province, China. The four-storey pagoda was first erected during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), a period often regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization: a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. The pagoda is richly decorated with carvings of Buddhas, elephants, and aquatic animals. Hua Pagoda also has four small buildings attached, all crowned with an egg-shaped tip.

The Hua Pagoda of Guanghui Temple

The Hua Pagoda of Guanghui Temple (public domain)

People's Daily Online reports that the gang of eight thieves began digging the underground passageway from a restaurant they rented in February and made it within 20 meters (65 feet) of their target before they were caught red-handed.

While serving snacks to the public at the front of the building, a team on the inside was hard at work with shovels, ladders, and power drills - digging their way towards the temple's famous Hua Pagoda,
writes MailOnline.

Tunnel dug by the thieves trying to reach the Hua Pagoda

Tunnel dug by the thieves trying to reach the Hua Pagoda

The daring plan to loot treasures from the ancient temple as brought to a grinding halt after the Criminal investigation Bureau received a tip off regarding the gang’s activities.  They managed to locate the tunnel and were then able to trace it back to the restaurant. Inside a back room they found dozens of bags filled with sand, as well as a wooden board covering a seven-meter deep tunnel leading towards the Hua Pagoda.  Five of the eight gang members have now been arrested, and three more remain on the run.

The case follows a similar situation in Shaanxi province in December, 2013, when a pair of grave robbers were caught trying to loot a Tang Dynasty tomb. Only that time, their plans were foiled after they became trapped in the burial chamber and had to be rescued by the police, who subsequently arrested them.

Tomb raiding is a huge problem in China where thieves are using increasingly aggressive and sophisticated methods to extract the wealth of relics buried underground from China’s ancient civilizations, including dynamite and even bulldozers. Artifacts are then sold on the black market within days to international dealers.

Experts say the problem became worse as China's economy opened up, with domestic and international collectors creating a huge market for thieves.  According to the Ministry of Public Security, police investigated 451 tomb-raiding cases in 2010 and another 387 involving the theft of relics, and the numbers have only increased since then.

But international collectors bear as much responsibility for the crimes as the actual thieves as the high prices they offer create the incentive for criminals to exploit and destroy the country’s extraordinary historical treasures.

Featured image: Left: Tunnel dug by thieves. Right: Hua Pagoda

By April Holloway

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