US returns another antiquity to Nepal

Nepal Embassy in Washington receives the 10th century Uma Maheswar statue from Denver Museum on Monday. The figure was stolen from Patan neighbourhood fifty years ago. Photos: NEPAL EMBASSY WASHINGTON

Earlier this year, a 10th century stone figure of Uma Maheswar, which had been stolen from Patan’s Gahiti 50 years ago was traced to the Denver Art Museum. This week, the museum handed over the antiquity to the Nepal Embassy in Washington DC.

In an exclusive, the Nepali Times reported in January that the statue that was an object of daily worship by the local community had been torn out of a shrine in Patan in the 1960s, and had found its way through a private collector to the museum in Denver as ‘art’.

Nine months later, in the latest in a slew of stolen artefacts being returned to Nepal from the United States, the Denver Art Museum handed over the statue to Nepal’s Ambassador Yuvaraj Khatiwada in Washington DC on Sunday.

The statue had been in the collection of the museum since the 1980s, given by Jane F Ullman and Edwin F Ullman.

In an interview with Nepali Times earlier this year, Babulal Maharjan, 82, remembered the deity that had been stolen from the shrine in his neighbourhood. For the past half a century later, Gahiti residents have continued to preserve the base of the structure below a graffiti-scrawled wall, hoping for its eventual return.

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

The thieves had failed to steal Uma-Maheswar in the first attempt, and the community managed to restore it to its base. But one morning when devotees came to the shrine to pray they found that their god had vanished.

Since Uma-Maheswar was stolen more than half a century ago, youth in the community grew up hearing about the theft and knew that the preserved base held an importance, but they learned of its true significance only after the media reports this year that it had been tracked down to the museum in Colorado.

The base of the Uma Maheswar statue in Patan's Gahiti that residents have preserved hoping for its eventual return.

Babukaji Maharjan had lost all hopes that he would ever see the homecoming of the lost deity Uma-Maheswar again. Even with the recent development, he has a hard time grasping its return.

“Due to our economic condition we did not know how to file a complaint with the police, and nobody during the Panchayat era would have taken the theft seriously anyway,” he told Nepali Times. “But I am glad that the statue will now be returned to our shrine. We will celebrate its homecoming.”

The Uma-Maheswar is just the latest in a series of objects of worship that have been stolen from Kathmandu Valley and are in private collections or museums in Europe and the United States.

In the past nine months, six stolen gods have been successfully handed over to the Nepal authorities. A 12th-century Laxmi-Narayan statue from Dallas Museum of Arts, a 13th century carved temple eave depicting an Apsara, a 14th-century gold seated Buddha in Bhumisparsa Mudra, and a 15th century seated Ganesh repatriated by the Manhattan’s District Attorney’s Office are already in Patan Museum and National Museum in Chhauni, respectively.

A 13th-century Chaturmukhi Shivalinga was also handed over by the Art Institute of Chicago in April to the Nepal Embassy in Washington DC.

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