Who looted Nepal's gods?

The Taleju Bhawani Temple in Kathmandu Hanuman Dhoka Darbar Square. Photo: MANISH PAUDEL.

Narayan Putuwar was awakened by the sound of stones hitting the tin roof over his head. He turned, half-asleep, and checked the time: 12:30AM. He pulled himself up from bed, and slowly opened the door.

It was chilly out and the night was pitch dark. Suddenly, two figures materialised before him, their faces fully covered. One of them clutched Putuwar’s throat and pushed him against the wall.

“Not a word, or we will kill you,” he said in a whisper.

Putuwar was shaking with fear as he huddled in the corner, trying not to make a sound. Minutes turned into what seemed like hours. There were hushed voices outside with the sounds of feet shuffling and chains breaking. Then silence.

About half-an-hour later, Putuwar slowly walked out to the temple yard. The men had left, but the grilled gate of the shrine was open. He peered inside: the Akash Bhairav was gone.

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.

“It starts with inventory," says Sanjay Adhikari: "We cannot protect our heritage when we don’t even know what we have.”

Nepal’s Ancient Monument Preservation Act, in 1956 calls for an inventory (see below). Similarly, the Monuments Preservation Rules, 1989 provides a format for recording, but no such list has been prepared yet. The Local Government Operation Act, 2017 and the Local Administration Act, 1971 handed the legal responsibility of making detailed inventory and making provisions for the promotion of local history and culture, including tangible and intangible heritages, to the local governments and Chief District Officers, but no action was taken.

This means statues are easily stolen and lost, without people even knowing that they are gone. There is also no strong legal provenance to claim an artefact when it is rediscovered at an auction house or museum.

Subhadra Bhattarai agrees that a national registry of Nepal’s cultural and historical artefacts is needed, and the department had begun drawing up a list in 2015. “But there are just too many smaller shrines, details and objects all over the country, and the department alone cannot complete the task with limited resources,” she adds.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which Nepal ratified in 1976, calls for the up-to-date national inventory and educational awareness measures for the public about the value of cultural properties in their country.

Despite law and regulations that have been in place for six decades, the inability of local governments to come up with a list till today fosters an environment where theft and illicit trade of Nepal's cultural assets thrive. The National Penal Code 2017 defines offence as ‘an act punishable by Act or law’, while act itself encompasses a series of acts, as well as the ‘omission to do an act required by law to be done or commission of an act prohibited by law’— designating both the thief and those responsible for protecting the artefacts culpable when a religious object is stolen.

Explains Adhikari: “The law makes it clear that both the act and omission are crimes. The officers who have failed to work according to the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act and Rule are in fact equally liable as the thief who wrenches a statue from its shrine.”

While much of the focus in the media lately has been on the auction houses, collectors and museums in the West where Nepal’s stolen objects end up, there is not as much attention on Nepalis involved in the theft and smuggling of these artefacts.

A stolen statue changes hands many times before it ends up in a museum display shelf: the thieves on the ground, the smugglers who hired them, the security personnel and political figures who provide protection and facilitate the transport out of Nepal, and finally the collector and museum curators.

During peak smuggling periods in the 1960-70s, Nepal was an absolute monarchy. Heritage conservationists doubt if such heavy objects could be smuggled out of the country through Kathmandu airport without the knowledge of the security forces, the palace and the government.

Accomplices on the ground in Nepal must also have worked in tandem with international art dealers, criminal networks and collectors. For example, a 400-year-old gilt-copper necklace once worn by the Taleju Bhawani goddess in Kathmandu that is now at the Art Institute of Chicago in a museum was stolen in 1976.

The necklace had been moved with other treasures in 1970 from the Taleju Temple to the nearby Hanuman Dhoka Museum which was guarded by the Royal Nepal Army.

“The government wanted to move the treasures for safe-keeping, but it got stolen anyway. How was it possible that such a sacred item could be stolen from such a highly secure place?” Uddhab Karmacharya, the eighth generation high priest of the Taleju Temple told Nepali Times in June last year, after the necklace was located.

Work of groups like the Lost Arts of Nepal, international  activists, local communities and citizen groups like the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, have helped raise awareness about past thefts, and for the restitution of some of them to where the figures were stolen from.

At present, the Department of Archaeology has used diplomatic channels to write to Western museums and collectors for the return of 55 artifacts. Some of these have actually been stolen from the same shrine: like the five 600-year-old gilded copper-bronze images of Nrityanath, Mahalaxmi, Chamunda, Shiva Gana (Bhairab) and Panchmukhi Hanuman (Hanu Bhairab) that were wrenched out of a 16th century torana of the Taleju Bhavani Temple in Lalitpur.

Among other artefacts being selected for return are a statue of Tara from the Yale University Art Gallery, the idols of Uma Maheshwar and Shridhar Vishnu from the Musée Guimet in France, and 18 different artefacts from the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK. Even as these sacred objects are returned to Nepal, activists stress that the country must strengthen its own surveillance and law enforcement to prevent further thefts. Better resources for law enforcement, inventory and information could make it more difficult for thieves.

Back in Halchok, Narayan Putuwar is hopeful: “We pray that the Bahirav comes back. Perhaps it will be the person who stole the god who will return it.”

Bhairav sculptures stolen on 7 December 2021 from Halchok. Photo: NATENDRA LAL SHESTHA. The empty altar after the theft. Photo: ASHISH DHAKAL.

The word and the spirit

The Ancient Monument Preservation Act was first promulgated in 1956 — 14 years before the 1970 UNESCO Convention —by the Government of Nepal to 'maintain peace and order by preserving the ancient monument and by controlling the trade in archaeological objects as well as the excavation of the place of ancient monuments and by acquiring and preserving ancient monument and archaeological, historical or artistic objects.'

Section 6 of this Act, most recently amended in 1995, specifies the Chiefs of local government offices in the districts and wards of Nepal to investigate the archaeological objects, which includes temples, monuments and artefacts with historical, cultural and religious significance, located within their jurisdictional area, and forward their details of to the chief archaeology officer in the Department of Archaeology for the preservation of such objects.

The government then enacted the Ancient Monuments Preservation Rules in 1989 to aid the Act, of which Sections 4.3.1 and 4.3.2 are pursuant to the description of archaeological objects:

4.3.1. The Local Officer, within the last day of Ashad (mid-June) month of each year, shall have to send the description of all the archaeological object in his working District upon filling the form provided in Schedule-3, and if possible, the photographs also of those object, to the Chief Archaeology Officer.

4.3.2. If the Local Officer found any information on finding of any archaeological object in his working District he shall have to fill the description of such object in the form as prescribed in Schedule -4 within 35 days from the date of finding of such object, and, if possible, the photograph of such project also shall have to be sent to the Chief Archaeology Officer.

Ashish Dhakal