The godhead of Pharping

This Saraswati Puja, visit the National Museum to pay respects to the decapitated head of the stolen goddess


Saraswati Puja on 14 February also marks the first day of spring on Nepal’s lunar calendar. Schools hold special functions, students sing hymns, and children go to temples of the goddess of knowledge to write their first letters in chalk on the walls.

The belief that goddess Saraswati resides in books, musical instruments, even laptops and other devices for intellectual pursuit prevails to this day. 

The most exquisitely carved figure of Saraswati in all of Nepal was in a temple in Pharping, 20km south of Kathmandu. On 11 November 1984 devotees were shocked to see that their goddess had been beheaded.

This was in the 1980s when idol theft in Kathmandu Valley was rampant. International traffickers in collusion with Nepal’s high and mighty were smuggling out sacred objects to sell to collectors and museums abroad. 

Read also: Nepal’s diaspora helps return stolen gods, Alisha Sijapati

Since the 1.2m high Saraswati carved out of black granite was so large and heavy, the thieves hacked off just the head and took it away under cover of night. Black granite is not found locally, and is similar to the stone used in the sleeping Vishnu at Budhanilkantha and the Bhagwati at Kavrepalanchok — all believed to date back to the Lichhavi period 1,000 years ago.

German historian Jürgen Schick was living in Kathmandu at the time, and was deeply troubled by the plunder of Nepal’s religious treasures, and the emotional toll it was taking on local communities.

He started his own photographic documentation of missing sacred objects and published the book, Die Götter verlassen das Land, in 1989. It was updated and translated in 1997 into English as The Gods are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal. 

Read also: Faith Stolen: Lost in Nepal, found in America, Lost Arts of Nepal

The godhead of Patan
THE REAL FACE: German historian Jürgen Schick's photographs of the Pharping Saraswati (above) taken before and after it was decapitated by thieves in 1984. The head was sold to an art collector in the United States, who returned it to Nepal in 1999. Since then it has been stored at the National Museum, and for the past two years has been on display with other repatriated stolen deities (below).
The godhead of Patan

On 8 May 1984, Jürgen had photographed the intact Pharping Saraswati. He went again on 10 December 1984 and took a picture of the decapitated goddess which also had its right foot missing. 

Residents of the area, Mohan Narayan Balami and Sapta Balami, told Schick that when they arrived for morning prayers, the Saraswati was tilted, with her head missing. There was a huge nationwide outcry as word of the theft spread.  

"The fate of the Saraswati statue is special because it clearly shows that the art robbers do not shy away from even decapitating a beautiful statue of a deity that has been worshipped for centuries," Schick said. "There could be no clearer evidence of their brutality, the same brutality that they also use against the human protectors of the sacred images, as was clearly shown during the theft of the Halchok Akash Bhairav image in 2021 when they threatened the temple priest with a knife to his throat." 

Eventually, Pharping's devotees replaced the head with a replica that was so ugly that many found it an insult to the deity, and a reminder of the crime. It was replaced with a more accurate carved head, which is there to this day but still does not match the artistry and beauty of the original.

Read also: Remembering Nepal's lost and the found, Ashish Dhakal

In 1999, Riddhi Baba Pradhan, then Director-General of the Department of Archaeology, received a letter from the Nepal Embassy in Washington DC that a US-based art curator Pratapaditya Pal had located the Sarswati head and four other sacred objects from Nepal with a private collector.  

Pratapaditya Pal checked Lain Singh Bangdel’s seminal book, The Lost Art of Nepal, and brought this to the notice of the collector, who promptly agreed to return the objects.

The Saraswati head was then returned to Nepal in 1999 along with three other sacred objects and have been in the National Museum at Chhauni ever since. 

“When the boxes arrived from the airport customs, it was a very emotional moment for all of us," recalls Pradhan, who is now chair of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign. 

Read also: Itumbaha's living museum, Sahina Shrestha

The godhead of Patan
TWO HEADS: The Saraswati figure (above) at the shrine in Pharping (below) where thieves hacked off the head in 1984 and took it away to be sold to international art traffickers. The head was replaced with an ugly replica, and later by a more accurate version which has been worshipped now for 40 years. The real head, which was returned from a collector in the United States in 1999, is now in the National Museum in Chhauni. Photos: SAURAV THAPA SHRESTHA
The godhead of Patan

She adds, "It was the first indication that our gods would be returning to their rightful places.” 

Bal Ram Balami in Pharping still remembers the first time he heard on tv news that the Saraswati head was coming back: “I had this deep sense of happiness, I was overwhelmed with joy and relief.”   

Many in Pharping wanted the retrieved head to be reinstated on the Saraswati and were looking forward to its true homecoming. But 25 years later, the head is still in the museum. It was in storage till two years ago when it went on public display with other repatriated stolen objects.

The National Museum and the Pharping community have been in constant communication, but no tangible progress has been made. 

Pharping’s Ward Chair Shailesh Man Manandhar says the locals want the Saraswati returned, but security concerns persist. 

Read also: The homecoming of Nepal's gods, Alisha Sijapati

National Museum director Jayaram Shrestha agrees that worries about it being stolen again persist, and the community also does not want to take responsibility for its safekeeping.

“For now, it is important for the head to remain where it is until a final decision is reached,” says Manandhar, who has plans to establish a museum in Pharping itself with other religious objects. 

By now, the local community has become attached to the replica head since it is being worshipped and already embodies the essence of Saraswati’s wisdom and knowledge. 

He says, “It may be wise to let the original head remain where it is under protection of the National Museum until we are ready to take it back.”

Read also: Nepal’s deities in transit, Anita Bhetwal

Alisha Sijapati


Alisha Sijapati is a correspondent at Nepali Times. With over a decade of experience she specialises in cultural heritage reporting with insights into socio and geo-politics. She holds an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies from Central European University. Alisha has made significant contributions to various newsrooms in Kathmandu. Beyond her journalistic endeavors, she is deeply engaged in discussions about the theft of Nepal's stolen heritage.

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