There were two Bhairav sculptures at the temple in Halchok near Kathmandu, one of which was 300 years old. The second one was made in 2013 and installed over the original. Both were stolen on 7 December — a nightmare come true for Narayan Putuwar who has served as a priest of the temple for 13 years.
The robbery made it to the media on the week that Nepal was celebrating the restitution of the 800-year-old Laxmi-Narayan statue in PatkoTole of Lalitpur, stolen in 1984 and repatriated by the Dallas Museum of Art in 2021.
Even as Nepal’s stolen religious antiquities are being returned by collectors and museums in the West, there has been a slew of thefts of other religious objects from in and around Kathmandu.
A Basundhara statue was stolen from the Siddheshwar Mahadev Temple in Godavari on 6 December, but was discovered later lying in a nearby forest. Meanwhile, two suspects were arrested on 2 January from Lalitpur with a stone Buddha they had stolen, also from Godavari, on 30 December.
Nepal Police has registered at least 10 thefts of various religious, historical and cultural objects in the past year from Kathmandu Valley.
“Perhaps the reason we are now hearing more about these thefts is that there is increasing awareness among the public and media of the loss of cultural heritage and identities these thefts signify,” says public litigator and cultural activist Sanjay Adhikari.
Subhadra Bhattarai at the Department of Archaeology says there are reports of thefts of cultural and historical artefacts every year, but this alone does not mean that there has been an increase.
The first historical account of a religious object stolen from Nepal was as far back as 1765, when the statue of Narayan disappeared from the Bhagwati temple in Hanuman Dhoka. Plunder peaked in the 1960s, as Nepal started to open its borders to the outside world.
Limited security and sculptures lying unguarded in temple premises and community squares lured art smugglers to Nepal. Further, Nepal Police says it does not at present have the manpower to guard each temple and cultural site in the country.
“We have increased security in the Valley and mobilised our force to conduct night-time patrols in civilian clothes,” says Dinesh Raj Mainali of Nepal Police. “But our personnel is limited.”
Some temples have installed CCTV cameras. Yet, on 13 December, a statue of Narayan was wrenched out of the Bangalamukhi Temple in Lalitpur, just under the noses of policemen in a nearby post.
The thief was caught on 2 January and the statue has since been recovered, but it proved that police need to improve intelligence and get local communities involved in protecting their sacred objects.