Two 1,000-year-old stone deities return to Nepal, but hundreds of other stolen objects are still out there
In Yatkha Tole, Krishna Bahadur Tuladhar, 62 shows Nepali Times a brass crown belonging to the Standing Buddha that was stolen from a shrine in his neighbourhood in 1986. His family has worshipped the crown every day ever since the Buddha went missing.
On Wednesday, the 10th century Standing Buddha of Yatkha Tole was one of two holy stone sculptures returned to Nepal by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other was a 12th century stele of Uma Maheswar stolen from Tangal Hiti in Patan in 1980.
“This looks like the same statue missing from our temple,” says Tuladhar looking at the photograph of the Standing Buddha being returned. “If it is the same, the crown should fit it,” he adds.
Since the sculpture went missing 30 years ago, the community has installed another statue in its place. But the open space the bahi once occupied has shrunk because of the private houses that tower all around.
Shyam Dangol remembers playing in the bahi and praying to the deity when he was a child. “It is the same one that went missing from here,” he says looking at the photograph. “When the idol was stolen, the authorities came with big dogs and even the locals were accused of assisting in the crime. We never found out who did it.”
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.”
The communities also want the Gods to be returned to them and not housed in museums. Clutching an old photograph of an idol of Balabhadra stolen from their community 40 years ago, Tirtha Raj Bajracharya, Bishwa Bhakta Malla and Shree Ram Tamrakar of Tangal Hiti want their God back too.
“They stole it in the past but now we as a community will look after it now,” says Bajracharya.
In Yatkha Tole, Tuladhar told Nepali Times, “It is our God. We should be able to pray to it daily and it should be returned to us.”
The Department of Archaeology is positive, “As per the Ancient Monument Preservation Act 1956, the communities can send in an application through the district administration and if we are convinced about the monument’s safety, it will be returned,” Dahal said.
As for Tej Ratna Tamrakar he still hopes that his God will also be returned one day. He says: “I am hopeful but not too confident it will happen in my lifetime.”
3 April, 1996
19 artefacts returned from Britain. Currently in the National Museum, Chhauni.
10 September, 1999
4 artefacts returned from US. Currently in the National Museum, Chhauni.
24 October 2003
The Kanakmuni Dipanker Buddha stolen from Nagbahal, Lalitpur was brought to the Department of Archaeology. The idol was handed over to the Guthi in Nagbahal.
25 June, 2007
China returned 28 artefacts stolen from Dolpa. On 15 August, 2007 the idols were returned to Dolpa.
16 June, 2017
Four idols from the private collection of Leroy Allen Ehrenreich returned to Nepal. Currently in the National Museum, Chhauni.