Australian gallery returns stolen strut to Nepal

A 13th-century wooden strut stolen from a Patan temple finally comes home from Australia after almost 50 years

Sulima Ratneshwar Temple. Photos: SUMAN NEPALI.

Near Pimbahal Pokhari in Patan is a vast courtyard lined with historic Newa houses. At the centre is the two-tiered pagoda of Ratneswar Mahadev. 

The original carvings on the windows, doors, cornices date back at least to the 14th century. However, radio-carbon analysis of a sample taken from the western doorframe of the temple suggests a date somewhere between 1020 and 1210 CE, making the 8m-tall temple one of the oldest tiered structures in Kathmandu Valley.

Sixteen beautifully carved wooden struts support the temple roofs, and most of these were stolen in the 1970s and 1980s, along with the other wooden carvings of the temple.

The struts depicted the distinctively stylised and elongated figures of Salabhanjika: standing full breasted slender figures, with wide hips and crossed legs, holding a tree branch with one hand. They stood above the yaksas, their male counterparts, who are by contrast stout and unrefined.

Australian galley returns stolen strut to Nepal

By the 1980s, the temple had further deteriorated, the roof had collapsed and all but two of the temple’s original primary struts had been stolen. Those only survived because one was buried in debris inside and another was taken by a sympathetic neighbour for safekeeping, and both are currently on display at the Patan Museum.

One of the stolen struts was finally returned to Patan this week from Australia’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) where it was located in 2001, almost 50 years after it was stolen.

Australian galley returns stolen strut to Nepal

AGNSW Director Michael Brand formally handed over the strut to Heramba Raj Rajopadhyay, the head priest of the Ratneswar Temple on 16 May 2023. In attendance were Australia’s Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts (see interview, below) and Mayor of Lalitpur Metropolitan City Chiri Babu Maharjan.

Watts said at the ceremony: “In 1975, thieves took it, illegally removed it. A collector acquired it, treasured it. When he died, he donated it. It sat in an Australian art gallery, which exhibited it, honoured it. People came to see it, were moved by its elegance and craft. But it didn’t belong there either – that wasn’t its home.”

Australian galley returns stolen strut to Nepal

Thousands of stone, metal and wooden heritage have been stolen from the Kathmandu Valley since the 1970s and, as with many of these artefacts, how this particular strut was smuggled out of the country remains a mystery. 

What is known is that in the intervening years, the strut changed hands until it reached Alex Biancardi, an Australian-British collector of Asian art. Coming from an old family from Alexandria in Egypt, Biancardi arrived in Australia in 1947 after a stint in the air force, where he became a textile trader.

He returned to France in 1962 but would frequently revisited Australia. He died in November 1998, bequeathing much of his collections to the AGNSW, including the Ratneswar strut in 2000.

In 2001, scholar Mary Slusser informed the gallery that she had taken photographs of the struts in 1969 before they were stolen. The gallery began its own research to find out more about where it came from, but because of the turmoil in Nepal after the royal massacre could not return it. 

Brand first visited Nepal with his brother in 1973 when he was only 15 and met architectural conservator John Sanday who was then leading restoration work on the Hanuman Dhoka. 

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

He told Nepali Times: “Nepal changed my life, and ultimately led to me studying the art of South Asia before becoming a curator, and then an art museum director.” 

Brand would then later join the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2005 as its director. In 2010, the Getty was under extreme pressure from the Italian and Greek governments to return Italian, Greek and Etruscan antiquities. 

Getty returned 45 artefacts to Italy, signing an agreement for cultural exchange, which allowed for the museum to borrow on long-term loan other objects. 

So, when heard about the Ratneswar strut at the AGNSW, Brand was already experienced in working through these issues and realising what the best approach would be.

“The number one goal for me to protect artefacts from looting no matter where it stays,” he says. 

Back in Nepal, restoration of the temple began in earnest in 1992 by the KVPT and World Monuments Fund (WMF). Replicas of the stolen struts were designed based on Slusser's photographs and the caretaker's memories by Indra Kaji Shilpakar in 1998.

Australian galley returns stolen strut to Nepal

But immediately after the first restoration, one of the strut reproductions and the toran were stolen, with the most recent theft 10 years ago. Slusser then wrote: ‘Attempts to steal the modern reproductions from the temple made it clear that the (AGNSW) strut had best be left on loan to Australia.’ 

Between 2001 and 2006, the Gallery and the KVPT investigated options for returning the sculpture and agreed that, for safekeeping, the Gallery would retain custody of the strut. Roshan Mishra of Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign notes that Slusser however did not have the authority on where the strut should stay, that say belonged to the community of Sulima.

On a visit to the AGNSW in 2019, Mishra found that the gallery displayed the strut, specifying that it was originally from the Ratneswar temple in Patan, which he says was unusual for galleries and museums to do. 

The discussions between the gallery and Nepal government were once again hampered by the 2015. But the strut was formally deaccessioned by the gallery in 2022, and the governor of New South Wales signed off on the return. 

Australian galley returns stolen strut to Nepal

Brand adds that the return and his trip to Nepal are important to build a relation with curators, scholars, the Department of Archaeology, the ministries, the community in Nepal and Australia.

“Nepal is fortunate to have such fantastic culture that people are interested in,” he says. Two other struts from the Ratneswar Temple have since been located by Lost Arts of Nepal: one in the collection of Chino Roncoroni, and other with Theresa McCullough in London.

The return of the strut is among the many stolen cultural heritage returned in recent years from museums, galleries and collections abroad. On 11 May 2023, the American Homeland Security Investigations handed over to the Embassy of Nepal in DC 40 artefacts, including 39 engraved and painted wooden panels and a carved wooden shrine dated to the 19th-20th century.

Earlier, stone statues of Uma Mahesvara, Chaturmukh Shivlinga, Nagaraja, Padmanpani and Shakyamuni Buddha were repatriated and wooden statues of Nritya Devi and standing stone statue of Lord Buddha.     

Read on: Faith Stolen: Lost in Nepal, found in America

"The joy of returning it to the place it belongs"

Australia’s Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts attended the historic handing over of the stolen strut from Patan’s Sulima Ratneswar temple on 16 May. He spoke to Nepali Times after the ceremony. Excerpts:

Australian galley returns stolen strut to Nepal
The Australian Assistant Minister for Foreign Affiars Hon Tim Watts, MP, in conversation with Mayor of Lalitpur Chiri Babu Maharjan at the handing over ceremony for the Ratneshwar Mahadev strut on Tuesday. Photo: TIM WATTS MP/FACEBOOK

Nepali Times: How did you come to find out about the strut and why did you want to visit Nepal for its return? 

Tim Watts: As the Australian Assistant Minister for Foreign affairs, we often say that Australia’s foreign policy begins with our identity. Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world: half of Australians are either born overseas or have a parent born overseas. This connects us with every corner of the world which can look at Australia and see it reflected. We can look into ourselves and understand the world better.

The Nepali Australian community is the fastest growing in Australia, with about 130,000 Australians having Nepali ancestry. I was interested in the Australia-Nepal relations in that context. I understand the deep importance of faith and culture for our diaspora community, and maintaining that connection with their country of origin.

I became aware through the Embassy of Nepal of the discussions between the AGNSW, the Department of Archaeology in Nepal (DoA), and the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation about the investigation into the provenance of this tudal (strut) from the Ratneswar temple, and its potential repatriation. And I thought this was enormously praiseworthy of the gallery and this was a model of the ethical practice in international obligations and wanted to show my support.

The credit here goes to the AGNSW because they were the ones, when made aware of the potential problematic provenance of the tudal, engaged in the investigation, worked with the authorities in Nepal, and arranged for the repatriation. And my presence here is to throw the spotlight on [the repatriation] as the best practice and saying that the Australian government supports and endorses it.

What can be the process for this best practice?

Each artefact will have its own cultural context, its own history and present-day circumstance that will impact what the best practice is for it. Its safety is an important consideration, the changing cultural contexts of governments on both sides matter as well. There is not only one appropriate response.

The momentum we have been seeing around the world for governments recognising where it is best to repatriate is a really positive thing that we want to show our support for.

Australian galley returns stolen strut to Nepal

Like Australia, Nepal is also a multilingual and multicultural country. How does it feel to witness the handing over?

I found it to be enormously meaningful and a moving celebration, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, being there on the ground, it was really clear how much this tudal meant to the local community, to see the joy of returning it to the place it belongs to them. It was not just a historical artefact but a living expression of culture.

It was also meaningful to me as a representative of the Australian government that puts our identity at the heart of our foreign policy.

I know how meaningful acts like this are to our Australian Nepalis. I had a number of meetings with the Nepali communities in Australia before I came here. The word that this happening had gone around, and people were really proud that Australia was the kind of country that returned cultural artefacts and didn’t unjustly hold on to them.

Obviously, there are many cultural contexts of removal, et cetera, and it’s difficult to generalise. But in this particular instance, the best practice was to return it and I was proud to have been part of that.

I was aware of an increasing number of artefacts returning to Nepal in particular, largely from the US, and I think that the momentum behind the returns is a really positive thing. That is part of why we were very keen on holding a public celebration of this repatriation, to draw attention to this as a model of the best ethical practice and international cooperation. It is important to us Australians to see that we not just repatriate the artefact but we model to the world on how we do this. A reason behind this is that many Australian cultural artefacts are held in institutions away from Australia, and more egregiously the remains of Indigenous Australians held in academic and cultural institutions. We have often sought the return of these to Australia because they are incredibly meaningful to Indigenous Australians who have a profound connection with the place and country they come from and it is enormously distressing for them when they are removed from the country.

What does the repatriation of this strut from Ratneswar mean to the Australia-Nepal relations?

There was intense cooperation between the Nepali and Australian governments, the embassy, and the DoA. I think that as a multicultural country, Australia has a lot of experience in the importance of cultural heritage to our diaspora communities. There is this phenomenon where the further you are from your mother country, the more intensely you value, celebrate and want to preserve that culture.

As such, this is doubly meaningful for the Nepali-Australian community because it validates and supports their cultural practices and connects them to Nepal, and also gives them pride in their Australian identity – that they are a member of the country that does the right thing with respect to cultural artefacts. There is nothing more Australian than celebrating our multicultural identity.

Read more: How Nepali antiquities got to Chicago museum, Alisha Sijapati

Ashish Dhakal


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