Nepal’s diaspora helps return stolen gods

Nepalis in New York set a precedent by helping repatriate trafficked sacred objects to Nepal

PHOTO: Consular office of Nepal in New York

The Nepali diaspora is getting increasingly involved in returning the country’s stolen sacred objects from museums and collectors in the United States, supplementing the role of agencies of the two governments.

This month four stolen deities were returned to Nepal from the US. Among them were two Bhairav masks stolen in mid-90s from Dolakha, an Uma Maheswar from Patan, and a Durga idol uncovered during investigation into New York-based art trafficker Subhash Kapoor.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office officially handed over the sacred objects to Nepal’s consulate in New York in December, but what set this repatriation apart from previous ones was the involvement of the Nepali community in the United States.

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

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Overseas Nepali organisations, notably the Newa Guthi New York, coordinated with the consulate and the Department of Archaeology in Kathmandu to cover the transport of the objects back to Nepal.

“When the consulate reached out to us and other Nepali organisations we worked on the return because we also want to promote solidarity among Nepali expatriates to return our country’s lost heritage and feel a sense of ownership,” explains Bijay Shrestha of Newa Guthi New York. 

Shrestha and Pujan Maharjan from the Guthi accompanied the Bhairav masks, which was earlier traced to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Rubin Museum, back to Nepal. The Uma Maheswar, which was reclaimed from the Brooklyn Museum and the Durga statue were also transported as cargo.

Read also: Itumbaha's living museum, Sahina Shrestha

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Uma Maheshwor from Chyasalhiti, Patan.

Although the initial shipping estimate was Rs3,000,000 for shipment, the final cost came to only Rs700,000, which was borne by the Guthi. Shrestha has been living in New York for 16 years, and worked closely with Anil Chandra Shrestha from Dolakha district for the return.  

"We hope to see the masks in their original shrine in Dolakha,” Anil Chandra Shrestha says. “We will wait for an auspicious date to hold a special ceremony to welcome our gods back and place them exactly where they were when they were stolen.” Earlier a 16th century gilded Vajradhara which was returned from Hong Kong in 2022 was also consecrated in the shrine.

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For now the plan is to hand over the masks to the National Museum in Kathmandu for safekeeping while the reconstruction of the Agam Che shrine which was damaged in the 2015 earthquake is completed.

Both Bijay Shrestha and Anil Chandra Chrestha credit the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign and Lost Arts of Nepal for tracking down the stolen artifacts, and for bridging  the local community and the government to safely return the deities.

Heritage Activists say that the return, though significant, is just one step and the work will not be finished until the stolen objects are tracked down and find their rightful places in the shrines belonging to the communities. They also emphasise the need for the government to establish robust policies and guidelines to ensure the long-term safekeeping of these cultural treasures.

Sarita Subedi of the Department of Archaeology says the National Museum will be temporary custodians of the repatriated objects until the communities fulfill the necessary requirements for taking them back.

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Durga idol uncovered during investigation into New York-based art trafficker Subhash Kapoor.

While there are in situ photographs of the two bronze Bhairav masks and Uma Maheswar showing them in Dolakha and Chyasalhiti of Patan respectively, there is no concrete evidence about where the Durga statue was stolen from.

"While the communities claim that the statue is from Bhaktapur's Hanuman Ghat, we do not know if the claim is legit," says Subedi. 

The intricacies of collecting funds and managing resources behind the scenes pose persistent hurdles, causing delays as what happened with the most recent repatriation of the four deities. But the latest initiative by Nepalis in New York now sets a precedent for overseas Nepalis to also be involved.

Anil Chandra Shrestha says, “While the government may have allocated funds for repatriation, this private initiative serves as a motivating example for the public. It not only raises awareness but also encourages active participation of the diaspora in reclaiming our lost heritage. The allocated government funds can now be utilised for other future repatriations.”

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.