Nepal Check explains how a sustained campaign by art enthusiasts and community members is helping restore Nepal’s cultural heritage.

Acting Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy, Abigail Aronson hands over wooden struts dating back to the 12-13th century to Maheshwar Neupane (right), secretary of Tourism Ministry and Jayaram Shrestha (left), head of the National Museum on July 12 in Kathmandu.

Two wooden struts dating back to the 12th or 13th century made their way to Nepal in early July after their collector returned the antiquities to the Nepali Consulate in New York. These precious artefacts were looted in the 1980s from the Narayan Temple in the Teku neighbourhood of Kathmandu. The struts, adorned with beautiful cravings of two male figures, were handed over to officials of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation by American Embassy representatives in Kathmandu on July 12, 2022.

A month earlier, the Yale University Art Gallery had returned the Buddhist Goddess Tara, a stone sculpture dating back to the late 9th or early 10th century. The Tara/Parbati idol was stolen from the Bir Bhadreshwar Mahadev Temple at Golmadi Tole of Bhaktapur district in the late 1970s. According to a press statement from Yale University, locals had worshipped the idol as the Hindu goddess Parbati.

This was the latest in a series of repatriation of ‘Gods’ and ‘Goddesses’ from the museums, collectors’ homes or art galleries of the West.

Western museums have long resisted attempts to have the artefacts repatriated, saying either they were donated or their provenances were not certain. But in the last few years, community members, heritage activists, journalists, diplomats, academics and governments have come together to return the stolen cultural heritage.

It’s part of a global campaign that has helped repatriate centuries-old sculptures of deities, antiquities and cultural property from Western countries. It ranges from artefacts looted during the colonial period to more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Countries such as Cambodia, India have had hundreds of artefacts returned from the West. 

How were they smuggled out of Nepal?

A view of Patan Darbar Square.

Nepal opened up to foreigners in the early 1950s following the end of the Rana regime. Tourism flourished, and so did the number of art lovers and thieves who wanted a pie of Nepal’s vast cultural heritage. Thousands of sculptures were stolen from temples, monasteries and other places of worship. Experts say trafficking became rampant in the 1970s and 80s when the country was under a party-less Panchayat monarchy.

“The process of idol theft started soon after Nepal shed the Rana era and opened up to the world in the late 1950s. Western connoisseurs of Oriental art came upon a Valley which hosted a treasure trove of iconography in stone, bronze and wood–the artistic outpouring of the Valley’s prosperous and accomplished urban culture going back beyond the 5th century,” Kanak Mani Dixit wrote in a reportage titled “Gods in Exile,” published in the Himal magazine in October, 1999. Dixit’s article appeared a few months after what is often considered the first repatriation of stolen heritage: three stolen idols and a fragment. The lawlessness and lack of accountability following the 1980 plebiscite (a referendum between partyless Panchayat and multi-party democracy) contributed to art trafficking from Nepal, according to Dixit.

Towards the end of the 1980s, celebrated author and artist Lain Singh Bangdel published the book Stolen Images of Nepal, documenting the disappearance of the deities. German scholar Juergen Schick also recorded the heritage of the Kathmandu Valley in his book Gods Are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal. Together, these two books helped identify stolen artefacts of Nepal.

How are they being returned?

A woman offers garlands to Laxmi Narayan in Patko Tole of Patan after it was reinstalled amid a ceremony in December, 2021.

Over the last few years, Lost Arts of Nepal, a social media campaign, has played a crucial role in repatriating stolen idols. The admin of the campaign uses Facebook and Twitter to identify stolen idols in international museums and posts on these platforms. The campaign has helped garner worldwide attention and even put pressure on museums and art collectors to return the stolen artefacts. “What Lost Arts of Nepal is doing is digital investigation. After it posts details about an artefact, we search for a before and after image,” said Roshan Mishra, a member of the non-profit Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC).

Heritage activists of the NHRC gather as much information and record as possible about the potentially stolen item to compare it with the original photos to gauge its authenticity. “We gather data from the museum’s website and collect old photos of the said artefact,” he said. They also determine the exact date of the theft. Volunteers look for records of police complaints immediately after the theft. These form solid documentary evidence, apart from a letter to the Department of Archaeology (DoA) requesting restitution of the heritage.

After reviewing the documents from the NHRC, the DoA sends them to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has a Europe America division. The division forwards the letter to the Nepali Embassy in the country where the artefact is found. Then, the Nepali Embassy negotiates with the institutions (museums or art galleries) that hold Nepal’s cultural property. “If the object was stolen or being auctioned, then the US’s Federal Investigation Bureau also gets involved,” said Mishra of the NHRC. In some cases, Interpol, the multilateral agency for cross-border police cooperation, is also roped in for investigation.

The base of the statue of Uma Maheshwar, one of the most stolen deities, in the neighborhood of Gahati in Patan. The idol was stolen over 50 years ago.

After identifying the artefact and proving its provenance, repatriation begins. According to experts, it requires enormous logistics, a process where the Nepal government has room for improvement. While some museums bear the cost of repatriation, others do not, delaying the return of the artefacts as the worshipers eagerly wait for their arrival. Suresh Saras Shrestha, an official of the Ministry of Culture, Civil Aviation and Tourism, said the government recently allocated funds for the repatriation. “I don’t have the numbers with me, but we were able to persuade the Finance Ministry to allocate a budget for this campaign,” he said. “We cannot rely on others to return our cultural heritage. We can manage the cost for the repatriation of a few, but if there are dozens, the cost, which includes insurance, is huge.”

Mishra said a 13th-century wooden goddess is stuck in an Australian museum because Nepali embassy officials cite budget constraints for repatriation. “The government must allocate a budget for that because it is our heritage,” Mishra said.

What happens after they are returned to Nepal?

After they return home, the artefacts and idols are kept at the National Museum. Communities can reach out to the museum for the reinstallation of their deities. But again, they need to prove their provenance. Mishra said local communities are actively involved in providing evidence and reinstalling the idols in their neighbourhoods. In December last year, an idol of Laxmi Narayan, stolen from the temple in Patko Tole of Patan, was placed back on its original plinth amid traditional music, prayers and worship. The Dallas Museum of Arts had returned the idol nearly 40 years after it was stolen.

But there are also concerns that they may be stolen again. Local communities have applied measures from installing CCTV cameras to locking the temple door to keep the deities safe. But it also contradicts the very purpose of the living heritage. While in the past, people and their deities were like family members, the safety measures create a barrier. “In a country like ours, there’s always the fear of the idols being lost or stolen,” said Mishra. “But we (heritage activists) and community members have derived immense satisfaction from the campaign. Punya kamaune kaam gare jasto mahasus bhaa chha (I feel I have earned virtue through this work).”

Watch The God Thieves, a documentary produced by Newsy on the trafficking of antiquities from Nepal and other countries.

First photograph courtesy of the US Embassy in Kathmandu. The rest by Deepak Adhikari/Nepal Check