Faith Stolen: Lost in Nepal, found in America
One of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in Patan is I-Baha Bahi. Official records date it to 1418 CE, but its history goes back millennia.
The two-storey structure with a finial on top is located along the holy route of the annual Machindranath chariot procession, and is also known also as Rajashri Mahavihar or Singha Varna Mahavihar.
Guarded by two large stone lions at the entrance, the vihar retains much of its original mud, brick and wood structure, which was renovated in 1995 with support from the Nippon Institute of Technology of Japan.
Daily rituals are performed in the mornings and evenings by initiated members of the sangha who take turns every month. Rajashri Mahavihar also used to host the grand Bahidyo Bwoyego festival every year when sacred paintings, artefacts and statues of the gods used to be brought out for display during the holy month of Gunla in August.
The whole community, and devotees from further afield, used to attend this parade of the gods, making offerings, chanting stotra and singing hymns.
But one day in 1970 when sangha members were busy preparing for the ritual, they discovered that the sacred treasury above the main shrine had been broken into the night before, and the gods had been stolen. No written record existed of what was lost: there were only the memories of elders and caretakers.
The Jesuit scholar John K Locke in his 1985 book Buddhist Monasteries of Nepal: Survey of Bahas and Bahis of Kathmandu Valley writes: ‘The bahi originally had quite a collection of old wood and terracotta images but most of these have disappeared in the last ten years and what remains is thrown in a corner near the entrance, damaged and unattended.’
Then in 2015, almost as though the gods themselves ordained it, a colour photograph was discovered. It was taken in 1969 by scholar Mary Slusser and published in her article Conservation Notes on Some Nepalese Paintings published in 2003.
In the picture, five large wooden sculptures can be seen, along with four empty pedestals. Two other pedestals that had small miniature sculptures which did not belong there originally were also in the photo.
This image was the starting point in our long saga of tracking down the sacred objects stolen from the Rajashri Mahavihar in 1970: three Nrityadevi images, one Chintamani Lokeswar, and one standing Tara.
We showed Slusser’s photo to 84-year-old Saraswati Tamrakar who lives just behind the vihar in Patan (pictured above). She told us: “The deities used to be displayed on the ground floor during Gunla and the corridors would be filled with different gods. It was a sight to see.”
Using Slusser’s in situ photograph, we at Lost Arts of Nepal began our investigation, scouring auction sales, private collections and museums across the globe.
Eventually, the Chintamani Lokeswar (No4) was traced to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), but the picture in the database of the collection did not match the one in Slusser's photograph. The Lokeswar in her picture held a tree branch with the proper-left hand while the deity in the museum's catalogue held it in its proper-right hand. The statue had been donated to LACMA by Anna Bing Arnold in 1984.
We thought the Lokeswar in the photograph in Slusser’s book and LACMA could have been part of a pair. We posted the photograph online, titled 'Lost Twins' in March 2018 to get some response from the museum.
Photographs from the University of Michigan Archives taken in 1988 of the LACMA collection were then discovered. Among these was another picture of the same Lokeswar which matched perfectly with Slusser's picture. The photograph on the museum website turned out to be a mirror image, and LACMA later corrected it on its website.
Meanwhile, the search for the three Nrityadevi took us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York. This is a rare and unique subject in Nepal’s religious iconography, so it was easy to identify. One of the three from Slusser's photo was a perfect match for an image in The Met catalogue, complete with a broken proper-left hand (No5). The statue came to The Met collection from the Zimmerman family in 2016.
Another Nrityadevi (No3) was discovered in 2019 when it was announced as an item for sale at the Bonham's Auction in New York. It had been acquired in New York in 1982 and was part of a private collection in Florida of an individual who had once served as a diplomat to Nepal. Their identity has been kept anonymous as they are willing to repatriate the statue to Nepal.
The standing Tara (No1) was then located at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was a tough one to match, since in Slusser’s photograph it was wrapped in ceremonial garb with only its head and unique facial expression visible. The statue was gifted by the prominent collector of Himalayan art, Marilynn B Alsdorf, to the Institute in 2014.
The Alsdorf collection had other stolen Nepali artefacts, and many of them still remain at the Art Institute, including the Taleju necklace dating back to the 17th century CE from Hanuman Dhoka, stolen 46 years ago.
The last remaining Nrityadevi (No2) was tracked to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It had been purchased by the museum with the Stella Kramrisch Fund – named after another prominent scholar of Nepali art – in 2000.
Ever since the deities were stolen 52 years ago, Gunla at the I-Baha Bahi has been a forlorn affair, and sangha members feel orphaned. Chaturatna Shakya of Patan remembers another instance in the 1980s when a large gilt copper image of the main deity of the vihar, Ashobhya, was stolen from the sanctum sanctorum at midnight.
Another witness, Kanchha Shakya remembers, “There must have been more than 10 people. It was a heavy object, and the thieves had to drag it across the floor and down the steps to a waiting vehicle, leaving behind marks all along the way.”
A police report was filed in the morning, but the culprits were never found. Instead, police interrogated sangha members, suspecting them of foul play, and to deter them from pursuing the matter. Many first-hand witnesses from the time have now died. Only stories and rumours remain, but a new generation is eager to know the whereabouts of the gods of their ancestors, and want them returned.
Besides the photograph of the five statues from I-Baha Bahi, Slusser took two more photographs around the same period, wrongly attributing them to Yampi Mahavihar near the northern Ashok Stupa in Patan. The wooden fragments, multiple wooden pedestals and broken limbs in the photos are actually from I-Baha Bahi.
When Nepal opened up to the outside world, and the first visitors started arriving, observation and curiosity about Kathmandu’s ‘exotic’ culture eventually led to the objectification of spirituality. Statues of deities and sacred items that were still being actively worshipped, were reduced to objets d’art on their shopping lists.
It signified a sense of superiority, a status symbol for Western museums and individuals to hold stolen cultural relics from the far ends of the world.
In those days, people in Kathmandu Valley neighbourhoods would often wake up to the news of yet another god which had vanished in the night. They would go to temples for morning worship, and the deity would be gone. The gods that were supposed to protect communities, needed protection themselves.
Over three decades, Kathmandu Valley was plundered, often with the connivance of local authorities, to meet the demand of art connoisseurs in the West. The gods that remain are still being stolen to this day. But unlike Grecian or Roman antiquities, these were not museum pieces, but represented the faith, identity and way of life of a vibrant culture that lives today.
Many of the stolen objects were too big to be smuggled out in a suitcase. How could they have crossed borders, passed through customs and ended up in museums in America, Europe or Australia? It would not have been possible without the involvement of an organised art trafficking ring.
It was pure luck that Mary Slusser's photograph was found. All five artefacts in it have been now identified and tracked to museums in America. According to the Department of Archaeology, 93 stolen gods have been returned so far, but the work does not end there: the gods need to be returned to Nepal and reinstated to their original shrines and purpose.
Many stolen deities have been replaced with replicas, but for the communities it is not the same. They were a consecrated part of a much larger culture that lives and breathes, and their return can help us understand the legacy left by our ancestors.
One day, at I-Baha Bahi the gods will all be on display again for the Bahidyo Bwoyego during the holy month of Gunla.
Lost Arts of Nepal is an anonymously-run social media campaign dedicated to locating and assisting in repatriation of stolen gods of Nepal from museums and collection abroad. Begun formally in August 2015 as an awareness initiative, Lost Arts have succeeded in locating over 50 stolen artefacts.