The epidemic of idol thefts started soon after the end of the Rana era in the 1950s, as Nepal opened up to the world. Over the next few decades, thousands of deities worshipped in temples and monasteries in Kathmandu Valley were stolen to be sold to collectors and museums in the West. The process accelerated during the 1980s.
When Tej Ratna Tamrakar heard about the stone Buddha being returned to Nepal, he had hoped it was another statue from his clan’s Arya Naam Sangiti guthi that was stolen 30 years ago. After the Buddha was stolen from the Agan Chhen (sacred house housing the clan’s god) in Yatkha Bahal the guthi installed a much smaller stone Buddha.
“When I heard the news, I thought that our God was coming home,” 70-year-old Tamrakar told us this week, “but this one is not ours. Our Buddha was sitting down in bhusparsa position, this is standing.”
The Uma Maheswar was donated to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983 by a collector, and the Standing Buddha was donated in 2015. During the acquisition process of the Standing Buddha, The Met found out from Lain Singh Bangdel’s book Stolen Images of Nepal, published in 1989, that the two figures had been smuggled out of Nepal, and so the process for its return began.
In 2017, the Museum contacted the Nepal government and offered to return the sculptures, after which the Consulate of Nepal in New York contacted the Museum to coordinate and facilitate the process. The nose of the Standing Buddha currently looks different from the picture in Stolen Images of Nepal, (where it looks slightly damaged). John Guy, curator of the Arts of South & South East Asia at The Met believes the nose was repaired when sold to the collector about 30 years ago.
“When the statues were carved and consecrated, no one would have thought that centuries later someone would try to steal them. That is why they were not anchored securely and were easy to lift off, and that is also why the government did not have an inventory,” says heritage activist Kanak Mani Dixit.
Fortunately, the works of Lain Singh Bangdel, Jürgen Schick and later Ramesh Dhungel have sought to fill the gap. Bangdel and Schick separately photographed and documented hundreds of statues in their original place and publishedStolen Images of Nepal and The Gods are Leaving the Country respectively. Dhungel studied the Nepali artefacts in The Met and documented them in The Lost Heritage.
“Ramesh Dhungel studied Nepali art in the same museum from where the two idols have been returned, and his book along with the others’ shows how many more Nepali idols are still out there,” said Bhesh Narayan Dahal, Director General of Department of Archaeology.
Since April 1996, when 19 stolen artefacts were returned from Britain, only a few out of the thousands have been returned to Nepal. And even from those few, many have ended up in museums, rather than the communities where they belong. The two images of the Standing Buddha and Uma Maheswar have also been handed over to the National Museum of Nepal at Chhauni.
“The idols have spiritual, psychological and emotional connotation for the people so they need to be returned to the community. The government should help safeguard it,” says Ramesh Dhungel. “When they end up in museums they merely become items of art, which is unfair to the people who believe that the idols have life.”