Cataloguing Nepal's idols to stop theft
Ulrich von Schroeder first came to Nepal as a student of architecture in the summer of 1965 aged 22, backpacking overland from Switzerland. While other young westerners hung around Freak Street in those days, he would rent a bike and pedal around the Valley, systematically taking pictures of stone sculptures.
Von Schroeder’s lifelong labour of love has now been published in two bulky volumes titled Nepalese Stone Sculptures that is an encyclopaedia with nearly 3,000 illustrations, and 15,000 digital photographs of stone sculptures on an SD card embedded into the inside back cover.
“This is unrestricted love for Nepal, my gift to the country,” says von Schroeder at the Museum of Nepali Art, which invited him to Kathmandu this month for the launch of the books. “The market for Nepali stone figures is dead with this documentation. Auction houses won’t buy them anymore, and museums won’t display them.”
The monumental work is divided into Hindu and Buddhist volumes that contain the result of 55 years of research and over 50 trips to Nepal. The books cost $750, and limited numbers are available at Vajra Books.
Of the 2,960 illustrations of stone sculptures in the books, half of them have been stolen are now in museums and private collections outside Nepal. Of these, 1,150 have never before been catalogued, including those of the Mohan Chok Hiti of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, the Kumari Pati of the Royal Palace at Bhaktapur and the inner courtyard of Pashupatinath temple.
Von Schroeder is the global authority on Buddhist art and culture studies and has six other volumes on Tibetan, Sri Lankan and Indian iconography but it is the Nepal edition he is most emotionally attached to and calls it his “meditation”.
The book is dedicated to Nepali historian the late Sukra Sagar Shrestha, whom von Schroeder regarded as his mentor.
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“Documentation is important because it will render stolen objects unsalable, eventually leading to their return home, so it doesn’t matter where they are at the moment,” says the scholar. “But I’m not for restitution, Nepal is not ready to bring them back and value and protect them.”
This is in direct contrast to the growing activism for the repatriation of stolen figures from museums and galleries around the world. The homecoming of Patan’s Laxmi Narayan from the Dallas Museum of Art last month has raised hopes for the return of thousands of other religious objects.
The documentation of 15,000 Nepali stone images by von Schroeder, however, is a milestone for researchers and institutions to identify stolen images, where they were originally from, and to help in their restoration.
“His lack of support for repatriation doesn’t justify his own work but with his book, we are in the position to go beyond and further in terms of restitution, we now have a comprehensive record of stolen images from the 1960s onward, previously we had to rely on incomplete information,” says Roshan Mishra, director of Taragaon Museum and curator of the Global Nepali Museum, an online database of Nepali objects housed in the museums around the world.
The good news is that there is now a trend of voluntary return of stolen images from the western collectors, galleries and museums as the wave of decolonisation takes root. This means that sooner rather than later, Nepal will be getting back many of its religious objects. Unfortunately, the government and local communities are not prepared for restitution.
“Everything need not come back at once. But at the very least we must get these museums and collectors to hold it in trust for us until such time we are ready to bring them back,” says activist Kanak Mani Dixit.
Currently, most of the repatriated religious objects are housed at the National Museum in Chhauni, poorly-lit and in dusty and dismal condition, much to the dismay of heritage activists—another reason why von Schroeder does not mind if the stolen objects do not return to Nepal right away.
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There is also an ongoing discussion about the fate of objects with damage or cracks, as was the case with Laxmi Narayan. One of its hands was broken during transportation across the world.
According to local belief, deities that are damaged cannot be kept as the central idol in the temple even though they are worshipped. In a country that is prone to disasters ranging from fires to earthquakes, risk assessment of buildings where returned artefacts are housed is also of utmost importance.
Municipalities can also assist the central government in local housing and proactive restoration, say experts like Roshan Mishra
He adds: “The end goal is to restore the objects to their original place but until we can do so with security, we should decentralise them to museums closest to their actual location for the public viewing while also strengthening the community’s sense of ownership.”
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.