Nepal’s gods return from exile

(from left to right) The original 12th-century Laxmi-Narayan stolen in 1984. Photo : LAIN SINGH BANGDEL In Sotheby’s catalogue in 1990. Photo : ERIN L. THOMPSON The deity in the Dallas Art Museum in 2014. Photo : ERIN L. THOMPSON

One day in 1984, the residents of a Patan neighbourhood woke up in the morning to notice that the Laxmi-Narayan they had been worshipping, was missing from the shrine.

The rare, androgynous composite deity of the two deities had been in the temple in Patko Tole for 800 years, where it had been venerated by generations. Having lost all hope of finding it, the community established a poor replica of Laxmi-Narayan and placed it in the shrine in 1993.

Six years after its theft, in 1990, the 12th-century statue, which is also known as Vasudeva-Kamala surfaced briefly at Sotheby’s auction house based in New York. But it vanished again after that.

Two years ago, American artist Joy Lynn Davis, who had documented Kathmandu’s stolen deities through her unique paintings, was doing a Google search of lost idols from Nepal, when she came across a grainy image of the familiar Laxmi-Narayan that she had painted (see interview).

While the Laxmi-Narayan statue is on its way back home, another deity, a 10th century Uma Maheswar, sits at the Denver Art Museum. The Museum has also put out the ‘known’ provenance of the statue that has been in the collection of the museum since the 1980s given by Jane F. Ullman and Edwin F. Ullman.

Patan to Denver

Uma-Maheswar statues usually follow the same iconographic tradition, but the one that was stolen from Gahiti in the 1960s is distinct because of its unique structure.

Babulal Maharjan, 82, looks frail and does not have many memories of his youth, but remembers the deity because of his community’s reverence for this beautiful deity. Fifty years after it was stolen, Gahiti residents still preserve its base below a graffiti-scrawled wall, hoping for its eventual return.

When Nepali Times showed Babulal and his 78-year-old neighbour Babukaji Maharjan a photograph of their Uma-Mahesvar which is now in the Denver Art Museum, both immediately recognised the familiar figure.

“With Patan’s Laxmi-Narayan now making its way back home, and with rising awareness and the pressure, someday the Uma-Maheswar will also find its way back like other gods," says Suresh Lakhey of Patan Museum.

More than 30 stolen gods have been returned to Nepal from various museums and private collections in the past years, and although it is only a small percentage of the stolen images, it does represent a trend. Museums and collectors are now ashamed to exhibit stolen artifacts.

Another activist has been trying to draw attention to Nepal’s stolen gods, but in a slightly different way. In Bhaktapur, architect Rabindra Puri is setting up a museum with replicas of trafficked cultural heritage, including Patan’s Laxmi-Narayan.

Puri’s Museum of Stolen Gods at the Toni Hagen House in Bhaktapur is set to open in 2022, and already has duplicates made of 36 stolen stone statues. He says: “Our gods are merely an art object in the international market to be auctioned for thousands of dollars. But for us, all of these artefacts hold cultural and religious significance that represents our values.”

During the peak of the plunder of Kathmandu Valley’s cultural heritage in the 1980s, many had given up hope of the bronze deities, wooden friezes, and stone carvings ever finding their way home. But moral pressure is growing on Western collectors and museums because of the naming and shaming.

Much of the awareness about the thefts were due to the painstaking work of two art historians Jürgen Schick and Lain Singh Bangdel who in the 1980s and 90s recorded images and information of over 200 missing deities in their books The Gods are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal and Stolen Images of Nepal, respectively.

Pharping’s Saraswati

One of those is the juxtaposed images of Veendharini Saraswati from Pharping. In 1984,  thieves decapitated the Goddess of Learning because the rest of the stone figure was too heavy to transport. It has been replaced by a poor replica that appears as a prosthetic to the beheaded body.

But the Saraswati was located and returned to Nepal in 1999 by an anonymous person from USA, Los Angeles, and is now an exhibit at the National Museum in Chhauni.

The most popular deity for smugglers appears to be figures of Uma Maheswar, which depict Shiva and Parbati in embrace. Since the 1950s, over 26 statues of the conjugal deities have been stolen from Kathmandu Valley, some of them dating back to 11th century. Most are in museums or warehouses abroad, and only a handful have been returned to their original shrines.

Once deities are returned, they are sent to the National Museum which then works with local communities where the gods were stolen from, to determine if it is safe to send them back and there is no danger of them being stolen again.

For example, the exquisite bronze water spout depicting Laxmi-Narayan and Garuda was stolen from Sundari Chok in Patan Darbar Square 50 years ago, but was retrieved by police before it could be smuggled abroad. It has been replaced with the duplicate, while the original is in Chhauni.

“Our Ancient Monument Act requires us to help communities install the gods back to their rightful places,” says Jayaram Shrestha, Director of the National Museum.

Roshan Mishra, curator at Taragaon Museum, has set up a Global Nepali Museum database says that because of public awareness in Nepal, stolen stone statues are easy to locate because they were lifted from public places and some continue to have vermillion marks on them even after continuous polishing.

“International museums and auction houses have started becoming aware about the trafficking of cultural heritage items which makes it more difficult for thieves to steal and sell them,” Mishra explains. However, the market for stolen antiquities has shifted from the West to museums and private collectors in West Asia, China and Hong Kong.

Mishra gives full credit to Jürgen Schick and Lain Singh Bangdel for their early effort in documenting stolen gods: “If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think we would have had the community awareness we have now.”

Another 12th-century statue of Uma-Maheswar which was stolen from Dhulikhel’s Wo Tole in 1982 was retrieved from the Museum für Indische Kunst in Berlin in 2000, and is now placed in its temporary home at Patan Museum. Twenty years later, the youth of Wo Tole and the Dhulikhel mayor are preparing to restore the statue to its original location, and a shrine has been reconstructed to house it.

Sun Prasad Shrestha, 70, who lives on the street from where the figure was stolen, says “It’ll be an exciting moment to have the familiar gods back again.  But what will happen if the thieves steal it again? How will we protect it?"

Holy homecomings

American artist Joy Lynn Davis talks about her famous 2015 exhibition, ‘Remembering the Lost Sculptures of Kathmandu’ and her unique method of commemorating Nepal’s stolen idols through paintings. She spoke to Kanak Mani Dixit on the Saglo Samaj tv magazine program. Excerpts: 

Kanak Mani Dixit: You painted Patan’s stolen Laxmi-Narayan idol. Why that particular idol and how did you ultimately locate it at the Dallas Art Museum? 

Joy Lynn Davis: I painted the Laxmi Narayan murti based on its replica in 2013 when I was living in Patan as an artist resident at Kathmandu Contemporary Art Centre. At that time, we knew that the idol had been stolen in 1984 and sold by Sotheby’s in New York in 1989. After that, no one knew its whereabouts as the sale information was private.

I was looking at a Google image, and came across a blurry image of a Laxmi-Narayan and my heart just jumped. I knew immediately that it was the same murti from PatanThe image was on a blog operated by a Nepali in Dallas, who didn't know that the idol in the Dallas Museum was stolen.

Had you not painted it, would you have recognised it?

It was particularly extraordinary to have found the image online. The other co-incidence is my parents live right outside of Dallas. I was so close to it without even realising it.

Where are we on the return of the Laxmi-Narayan statue to Nepal?

It’s been a great privilege to be able to collaborate with the FBI and share the information I had collected. The Dallas Museum was not immediately open to returning the murti and the FBI was able to make a very strong case against them. It has now been seized and will soon be returned to Nepal. The day it arrives in Nepal, I will be the happiest person—so many people and organisations have worked on this.

But if we put out information about the theft, wouldn’t museums and collectors hide the statues, making their return even more difficult?

I absolutely agree. There are many sculptures around the world from Nepal. They are now housed in museum storage facilities. It is unfortunate. We need to get the word out there that Nepal is ready to accept them back. It would be ideal if the museums worked on it voluntarily, and we could help facilitate that. We can make replicas for them, document stories of the sculptures returned and their cultural significance. Museum visitors would find that much more interesting.

Why did you paint the stolen idols the way you did?

The goal of the project was to increase public awareness of the problem of illicit trafficking of Nepal’s cultural heritage. The other goal was to re-contextualise the stolen sculptures. As a Westerner visiting a museum, if I had not worked on the project, I would glare at the art knowing little about it, besides reading the information on the label. Visitors believe these sculptures were dug out of the ground and have no idea about their religious, cultural and spiritual significance. Through my paintings, I wanted to put back the stolen gods in their rightful places.

Why did you choose to use gold in your work?

First, gold becomes an easy visual language for viewers when they look at the painting and they understand that they are from these sacred sites. One painting of gold that I worked on was of Saraswati. The thieves had chopped off the head, and just the head was painted in gold—the collector returned it in 1990. Gold represents the commodification of the sacred. We are used to seeing gold in art and temples. Gold also symbolises wealth. Gold has the value of spirituality, and when sold, it turns to cold hard cash. 

The original Laxmi-Narayan statue is covered in tika, but under the museum spotlight, it is a shiny black rock.

To see the sculptures in places where they were touched and conversed with, has more significance. For Nepalis, these aren’t just statues, they embody religious and cultural sentiments. In the West, these values are transformed. This murti will always have more value in its original place.

The reason statues are stolen is their market value. What should we do to ensure they cannot be stolen?

Nepalis should not feel bad that they were not able to protect their gods. These problems come from bidesi foreigners. The gods were saved for hundreds of years in their shrines, and then outsiders wanted to own them. I think the only way to protect them is to increase the awareness about their significance. We have a lot of work to do, Laxmi-Narayan is just the beginning.

(This interview with Joy Lynn Davis is based on the fifth episode of Saglo Samaj, a tv magazine program produced by Himalmedia which is broadcast every Monday, at 8:30 pm on Dish Home Channel 130. Go online to watch a trailer of the program.)

  • Most read