Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign
The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign as its primary task proposes an international effort to document theft of statuary and other tangible heritage from Nepal; develop and maintain a comprehensive database; maintain required communication internationally; work to ensure the restitution of the goddesses and gods, as far as possible, back to the niches, plinths and portals from where they were lifted; to work to place the returned objects in a dedicated museum or gallery where local restitution is not possible; and to alert individuals and institutions that hold looted tangible heritage of Nepal about the true ownership of the artefacts.
Statues of goddesses and gods that have received puja of Soniga (Kathmandu Valley) residents for centuries were suddenly more vulnerable to theft starting in the 1960s, when Nepal opened to the world after the fall of the Rana regime. The international art world was astonished to discover the finely carved statues of the Valley, and the value ascribed to these statues soon generated a market, which in turn led to their theft. Gods and goddesses in stone, brass and wood suddenly got converted to ‘art’ and entered ‘collections’. Over the decades, the loot of Valley statuary escalated, and, while it continues to this day, the loot peaked right after the plebiscite of 1980 during half a decade of political anarchy. Even as the Valley lost its goddesses and gods, the museums and art collectors in the West were enriched by accessioning these statues, which no longer received the obeisance of devotees in the form of jal, abir, axeta, pushpa, sitting clean and shiny under spotlights in overseas locales, or were put away in storage.
The difference between the theft of tangible heritage from Nepal and that from so many other parts of the world including Cambodia, Greece, Egypt and Afghanistan, is that the gods and goddesses stolen from Nepal are part of a vibrant, continuous living culture. When a statue is stolen from its plinth or niche in a tole or bahal the sense of loss to the spiritual beliefs and ritual life of the community is immense. The reality of idol theft happening to a living culture makes it all the more important to ensure the deities’ return to the home society, and if possible to the original temples, courtyards or stupas whence they were wrested.
Before they were taken from us, the curator Dina Bangdel and archaeologist Sukra Sagar Shrestha were working with some friends and colleagues to launch an ‘international campaign for the restitution of stolen statuary of Nepal’. A room was identified in the Patan Museum’s Mul Chowk for which permission would be sought to serve as the secretariat office, and Sukra Sagar Ji had been persuaded to lead the campaign as a whole. Dina Ji would provide her expertise in iconography and international reputation as curator in helping to design the campaign. The plans for the campaign entered a period of hiatus when the April 2015 earthquake devastated the urbanscape and templescape of the Valley, diverting focus to reconstruction. Over this period, the passing of both Dina Ji and Sukra Sagar Ji was a blow to the incipient campaign. However, there remain many individuals and institutions in Nepal and internationally who are keen to continue the work and to get the campaign off the ground. Indeed, even if not organised as a campaign, there has been continuous activism by many individuals over the decades, against idol theft and for restitution. These individuals have received continuous support of the Government of Nepal’s Department of Archaeology and its constituent museums, as well as other organisations and entities, including the Nepal Police, the Ministry or Foreign Affairs as well as local municipalities and ward offices. The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign seeks the continued support of these Government entities.
Institutions and Individuals
The Department of Archaeology of the Government of Nepal is the designated authority for protection of tangible heritage, including statuary, and is also the main office that works for their restitution. The National Museum at Chhauni, under the Department, has played the important role as repository of returned statuary, and the mandate of the Department as well as the expertise of its officers is of great importance for the success of the international Campaign. Under the umbrella of the Department, the National Museum at Chhauni as well as the Patan Museum have made their contribution for the return of statuary and their security.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Lain Singh Bangdel and the German citizen Jurgen Schick expended much effort, and even braved danger, to photograph hundreds of idols on their pedestals and niches as an effort at protection. In 1989 and 1998 respectively, they produced documentation of the deities in situ, in order to provide proof of provenance and help retrieve those that might get stolen. In early 2011, historian Ramesh Dhungel published a survey on Nepal’s ‘lost heritage’ kept by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The conservation architect Ravindra Puri has opened a gallery in Bhaktapur that exhibits replicas of stolen idols as a way of highlighting the reality of the trade in what may be termed divine contraband. Roshan Mishra of Taragaon Museum has set up the online Global Nepali Museum in order to provide database that helps track stolen tangible heritage.
Archaeologist Sukra Sagar Shrestha had started the Nepal Art Register on the web, as a means to “disrupt the market for stolen Nepali sculptures and facilitate the return of those now in exile.” Ulrich von Schroeder, who had watched the gods disappear since he first arrived in 1965, in 2021 published two volumes providing photographs and details of more than 2000 Hindu and Buddhist statues of the Valley, as a documentation project meant to enhance appreciation of Valley iconography as well as prevent their theft. Anthropologist Ted Riccardi was deeply concerned about the idol theft which he witnessed while on assignment in Nepal in the 1970s and after, and expressed his anger in fictionalised form. The artist Joy Lynn Davis has created a database of stolen statuary, which evolved out of her vocation painting a series of canvases showing the absent statues in their original spaces, painted in gold to indicate their great value to local communities.
Rationale of the Campaign
The logic of restitution derives from the fact that the statuary on the Valley’s lanes and baha courtyards are not even the excavated relics of a long-lost civilisation, but a member of living, breathing contemporary culture. The gods are lifted even as they receive the worship of devotees, and the psycho-social impact on society of the looting – when the plinth is left empty – has been incalculable. In the case of stone sculptures, one can categorically confirm the fact of theft ab initio, beyond the fact that Nepali law that bans export of ‘antiques’ more than 100 years old. One can be unequivocal because the stone images tend to be large and are invariably found in public spaces, with no private person or entity having the right to transfer ownership, sell, or ship.
When the statues were carved and consecrated, some of them more than a thousand years ago, neither sculptor nor benefactor would have considered that, some day, they would be the target of collector-bandits. This is why the statues were never securely anchored and why they are so easy to lift from the pedestals. Lain Singh Bangdel, the pioneer scholar-artist, had this to say in 1999: “The collectors in the West should know that almost all Nepali art that came into the market over the last 30-35 years was procured through theft. Almost all the idols in the Western collections are definitely stolen.” A Unesco official said: “…the possessor of a stolen cultural object must return it regardless of personal involvement or knowledge of the original theft.”
Fortunately, the logic of restitution of items stolen from a vibrant, living culture is so strong that collectors and museum administrators, when confronted with proof of theft of the items they hold, tend to respond positively. In August 1994, an American collector voluntarily returned four gods after he was shown Bangdel’s photographs proving their public ownership: a 12th century Saraswati, a 9th century Buddha, a 14th century Surya, and a 10th century Vishnu. In 2000, the Museum fur Indische Kunst of Berlin returned the 12th century Uma-Maheswar stolen from Wo Tole in Dhulikhel in 1982. In the latest instance of restitution, in 2021 the Dallas Museum of Art returned the 15th century Laxmi-Narayan of Patko Tole in Patan, which had been lifted in 1984 and auctioned by the Sotheby’s auction house in 1990, and the Denver Art Museum returned the 10th century Uma-Maheswar that had been stolen fifty years ago from Ga Hiti of Patan.
To begin, we must bring home the gods whose present overseas location we know. This includes a temple strut from the Ratneshwor Temple at Sulima Square of Patan, presently in Australia.
Meanwhile two stolen statues discovered in the Musee Guimet by Lain Singh Bangdel, and thereafter kept in basement storage, too, need to be restored to their places of origin. The 12th century stone statue of Vishnu standing between Laxmi and Garuda was stolen from Chyasalhiti, Patan in the 1970s, while the 13th century statue of Uma-Maheshwar was stolen from Nasamna Tole, Bhaktapur in 1984.
Till the time that our society and government are able to mount a campaign for return, the Musee Guimet (as well as other institutions holding stolen statuary) should consider itself custodian rather than title-holder. Those holding stolen idols keep them as naaso, that is, ‘held in trust’ for the people of Nepal until such time that they are returned. Definitely, the holding museum or collector must in writing concede the fact of ownership of the held item as belonging to the home country and society.
The statues identified as stolen in foreign collections are just a fraction of the thousands of statues overseas. It will require years of dedicated work to discover the gods and goddesses, particularly those that are not exhibited. It is equally important for the international campaign to develop such credibility that foreign collectors allow access to investigate their holdings, and not just the pieces that are in exhibition.
It is important to have a well-organised campaign for return of statuary so that there is proper documentation, communication, follow-up, and planning to ensure that statues are brought back to Nepal, either to be returned to the places of origin, or to a museum or museum wing/gallery dedicated to the returned deities. While all kinds of tangible heritage including statuary in bronze and wood will also be the focus of the Campaign, it is suggested that the original work of stone statuary be concentrated for the return, as these tend to be the focus of community-wide veneration.
The rationale of the international campaign also includes the fact that the more success there is in identifying and returning the idols of Nepal, less likely will theft be in the future. The importance of publicity of statuary – in situ, of their theft and of their restitution – is important to drive down the ‘market value’ of Nepali statues so that there is less incentive for theft. Besides demanding restitution, the Campaign should also get involved in encouraging criminal prosecution against idol theft, and to pursue the ‘spectrum of crime’ from the local thug to international middlemen, collectors and collections. Accountability for idol theft is an important way to prevent future loot.
The Campaign’s Work-Plan
The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign will consist broadly of the following elements: documentation, database-building, communication, forensic archaeology, legal recourse, public information, community support, transport, and restitution.
At the outset, the Campaign will concentrate on documentation at both ends: creating a database of lost statuary in Nepal, building on work that has been done earlier, as well as conducting a worldwide search for stolen statuary. The key requirement is to alert the museums and collectors to the original act of theft from a vibrant and living culture, which has brought the gods and goddesses into their holdings. Going through museum brochures, collection websites, and scholarly writings as part of the investigation exercise is important, and the challenge of gaining access to the storage rooms and vaults of museums, collectors, and dealers must be overcome.
Once the stolen idols in foreign collections are identified, the Campaign office will initiate communication, alerting the museums and collectors to the proof of provenance and proof of theft as well as the relevant national laws and international conventions. The national and international media will be alerted as required. The collectors will be requested to concede the ownership, emphasising also the fact that the theft was from a living culture of two millennia’s continuity, and that the gods and goddesses were receiving propitiation of devotees till the point of departure.
An entire field of ‘archaeological forensics’ needs to be developed to correlate statues with their plinths and platform, to make up for the loss of memory of local communities, and to provide incontrovertible proof, where required, of the fact of theft. This would include, for example, correlating the pegs of the stele statuary with the holes in the plinths or platforms to which they are fitted at the time of consecration.
One cannot deny the possibility that, amidst the raging impunity, the statues will once again be lifted when they are returned. Which is why the campaign for restitution must involve not only return of the gods, but a ‘half-way home’ at the museums of the Department of Archaeology that will hold the returned gods with dignity, and using all means of modern technology to ensure security of the deities once they are back in their original sanctums. The return of the goddesses and gods to their original site will require a lot of community outreach, which would be an important aspect of the Campaign’s work. It is expected that many pieces may not find their original home, in which case they must be kept and displayed in a dedicated museum or gallery.
The campaign for restitution would include: technological innovations to prevent theft; sensitisation of local communities; tracking of auctions; pursuing of court cases nationally and internationally; working with the Department of Archaeology and the Nepal Police (especially its Interpol Cell) throughout. The documentation work would build on that already done by Bangdel and Schick, as well as the subsequent work of work of Shrestha, Dhungel, Davis, Shroeder, Mishra, and others.
The Campaign would rely on the laws of Nepal and the countries where stolen idols are found, as well as international treaties in relation to stolen art and restitution of cultural property. These international instruments include the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Institutionally, the Campaign will seek continuous assistance from the Department of Archaeology, the Nepal Police, UNESCO as well as other organisations, institutions and individuals working in-country and internationally to prevent theft of tangible heritage. The Campaign also hopes to promote collaboration on the matter of heritage restitution with like-minded individuals and institutions in idol-recipient societies, as well as the ‘sending’ countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia. There may also be interactions with organisations further afield, from Polynesia to Mexico, Greece, Egypt, and Mali.
Much of the Campaign’s work will revolve around information and communication, from creating the database to establishing contact with museums and collectors. The Campaign will therefore develop its capacities in public information, and be able to reach out to media, both locally and internationally.
In order to encourage the return of statuary (with required security) to the original sites, the Campaign will also have extensive outreach activity to work with local communities. This work will focus on reviving local interest in the departed (and returned) deities, and also seeking the revitalisation of intangible heritage linked to the statuary, including pujas, jatras, and festivals.
In terms of staffing, the Campaign will have a small, competent core Secretariat team, to be supplemented by volunteers and interns. The Campaign would seek to create a community of committed individuals across disciplines, nationally and internationally, including scholars and activists. A particular focus would be to reach out to students to sensitise the next generation of citizens to value Nepal’s historic cultural outpouring, also as a way to enhance and strengthen present-day culture, life, and living.
Institutional Details and Organisational Structure
The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign was registered as a not-for-profit company under Nepali law in July 2021, with founding members who have long worked individually as well as collaboratively to combat idol theft. These seven individuals represent a spectrum of activities, from community leadership to conservation architecture, journalism, museum curation, and cultural activism. The first Chairperson of the Campaign is Riddhi Baba Pradhan, former Director General of the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal. Satya Mohan Joshi, the eminent cultural historian, has agreed to serve as the Patron of the Campaign.
The work of the Campaign is conducted by the Secretariat, which is run by an Executive Director. There is also an Advisory Board of committed individuals from Nepal and internationally to support the Campaign in its work. All members of the Board as well as members of the Advisory Board serve pro bono.
While, informally, the Board members have been working in concert over the past few years, the formal work of the Campaign began in July 2021 with the registration of the organisation. The work started with initial funds contributed by the founding members. For the future, to support Secretariat’s work, the Campaign seeks financial support from national and international institutions (including governmental and municipalities), and individuals.