Nepal’s deities in transit

Sacred objects stolen from shrines are being returned from museums in the West only to be stored away in museums in Nepal

The ancient stone sculpture of Uma Maheswar stolen from Dhulikhel 40 years ago, was one of the first sacred objects to be returned to Nepal after it was traced to Berlin’s Museum für Indische Kunst in 2000.

But the 900-year-old Shiva-Parvati that had been worshipped for nearly a millennium by devotees in Dhulikhel’s Wa: Tole still languishes in the Patan Museum, waiting to be returned to the community.

After futile attempts to restore the divinity back to its original shrine, Dhulikhel Municipality made a replica three years ago and consecrated it to the temple. Ward chair of Dhulikhel-7 Romi Prasad Shrestha says the council does not want to risk bringing the original statue back because it might be stolen again. 

"How can you just leave a precious thing like that by the side of the road?” he asked. 

In 1976, a statue of Tara was stolen from Birbhadreswar Temple in Bhaktapur. Nearly 40 years later, it was tracked down to the Yale University Art Gallery and subsequently returned to Nepal in 2022. The statue weighing 83 kg had been worshipped daily for centuries by residents of the Golmadi neighbourhood before it was stolen.

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The Tara was returned after years of investigation by the Department of Archaeology (DoA) and heritage conservation activists. The DoA says it is waiting for the local government in Bhaktapur to guarantee security before restoring it to the original temple. Ward 7’s Ukesh Kawan says the process has begun for bringing the Tara home. 

"After an idol is returned, it should be reinstated in the community but many do not want to risk it being stolen again,” explains Sarita Subedi at the DoA.  

Kathmandu Valley used to be known as a place with more gods than people and more temples than houses. Antiquities and sacred objects just lay by the roadside, worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. No one, not even the government has an inventory of what was stolen over the past decades to be sold to galleries, museums and private collectors by art traffickers. 

However, there is an exact figure of how many sacred objects have been returned: 143 so far. Of these, only 33 have been restored to their original shrines, the rest are either on exhibit or in storage at the National Museum Chhauni or Patan Museum.

National museum 2

Some have been consigned to museums because their provenance is not known, or they have not been claimed by the communities from where they were stolen. 

Jayram Shrestha of the National Museum says it is important to bring the deities back to where they belonged. But there is little interest at the local level to restore the artifacts, he says, adding: “Their lack of confidence in ensuring security is setting a negative precedent.” 

According to the Local Government Operations Act 2017 municipal and provincial governments are responsible for protecting their archaeological sites and antiquities. 

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“The chances of the same idol being stolen again after it has been restored is very low because the figure will be so well documented internationally that no one will risk buying it,” says Sanjay Adhikari, a heritage activist. “It is actually the ones that have not yet been stolen that are in greater danger.”

There are communities that have not only restored stolen deities to their original shrines but also ensured that they are not stolen again. An 800-year-old androgynous Laxmi Narayan stele was stolen from Patko Courtyard in Patan in 1984 and was returned after being finally traced to the Dallas Museum of Art in the United States. It is now back at the Patko shrine (pic, below), and there are alarms at the temple gate and five CCTV cameras to protect it. 

laxmi narayan

Similarly, a 16th-century Vajradhar statue that was stolen from Dolakha and traced to an art dealer in Hong Kong was reinstated within days after being repatriated. Activist Anil Chandra Shrestha says this was only possible because the local community and guthi were proactive. 

The Vajradhar was on display during the recent Indra Jatra festival and is kept in the storehouse of the Bhimeswar Temple in Dolakha. Says Shrestha: “The statue is secure because the police station is nearby and there are CCTV cameras. Locals are also more aware now.”

Suresh Lakhe of Patan Museum says western collectors and museums regard the stone and bronze deities from Nepal as ‘art’, while for local communities these are sacred objects to be worshipped as part of a living culture. “It makes no sense to keep these figures as museum exhibits,” he says.

The DoA’s Saubhagya Pradhananga agrees: “Our ancestors created these objects to be worshipped, we should not use security as an excuse to confine them to museums. Otherwise, many other stolen deities will not be returned to Nepal. What is the point transferring them from a museum in the West to a museum in Nepal?”