By Binu Shrestha & Aashish Mishra
Kathmandu, Feb. 27: On January 23, residents of Sunakothi, Lalitpur Metropolitan City–27, woke up to a distressing news. The idol of their community’s much-revered deity, Balkumari, had been stolen.
The thieves had broken four doors and nine padlocks, leading people to believe it was a premeditated act. Pictures of the stolen statue went viral on social media and the theft gained national magnitude. Minister for Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation Pampha Bhusal, members of the federal parliament and Bagmati Provincial Assembly and Mayor of Lalitpur Chiribabu Maharjan, along with other officials, called on security agencies to mount a prompt investigation.
The widespread attention and intensive police action put pressure on the criminals and, three weeks later, the Lichhavi-era idol was found in a sack in front of Karuna Temple at Khumaltar, Lalitpur.
However, such rediscovery of stolen figurines is an exception rather than the norm. The statue of Aakash Bhairav stolen from Halchowk in December last year has still not been found. Similarly, the busts of Laxmi and Tara stolen from Dharmasthali more than a year ago remain missing. Police are also still looking for the rare eight-faced figure of Lord Narayan that was stolen from Changunarayan eight years ago.
Lack of data
Thousands of antiques and artefacts have been stolen from Nepal since the 1950s; removed from sites of worship and sold into international collections. However, nobody knows for sure exactly how much of Nepal’s cultural property has been plundered.
Ram Bahadur Kunwar, spokesperson for the Department of Archaeology (DoA), told The Rising Nepal that there were no records of artefacts taken from Nepal before the establishment of the DoA in 1952. “Innumerable art objects could have been lifted and removed from the country before the 1950s but we have no records,” he said.
The Department developed an inventory of the cultural properties of 72 districts of the country in the 1980s which was later updated in 2006 and 2007. However, this inventory is far from complete and by the Department’s own admission, needs to be revised.
Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Bishnu Kumar KC, central spokesperson for the Nepal Police, said that the police also did not have the exact data of articles of art and culture stolen in the country. He said that the institution only kept record of cases that it investigated and those that made it to courts.
Despite the lack of concrete statistics, a 2018 investigation by 101 East, a programme presented by the international news outlet Aljazeera, had estimated that about 80 per cent of Nepal’s religious artefacts had been stolen and sold into the US$ 8 billion-a-year illegal black market.
Start of the stealth
According to Roshan Mishra, member of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC), a citizen-led initiative to recover and restore the lost and stolen heritage of Nepal, the stealing started in the 1950s after Nepal opened its doors to foreigners. “Outsiders who came to the country saw statues dating back centuries, even millennia, and instead of seeing them for the cultural icons they were, some saw them as opportunities to make profits.”
Gradually, Nepali nationals started getting involved in the lifting of their own treasures and the pilfering grew to frightening proportions in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. “These were dark decades,” said Subhadra Bhattarai Ghimire, chief officer of DoA’s Curio Checkpass Section. “From the 90s onwards though, thanks to the activeness of our security agencies, customs officials, activists and the general public, cases of theft started declining but, sadly, it has still not come to an end.”
A former thief told The Rising Nepal that the main motive for stealing religious statues was to transport them out of the country to sell for money. “After stealing an item, the larcenists lie low for a few months. Then, after the heat has died down and people have moved on, they sneak it out of the country,” the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being ostracised for his misdeeds, said.
For moving, some thieves receive help from antiquity traders while some do it on their own. “Those who are able to secure or forge papers transport the loot via plane while others use the open border with India.”
This man was caught stealing old utensils from a Guthi building in Bhaktapur in 2013 and served two years in prison. Since then, he claims to have mended his ways and said that he held no knowledge of the newer routes traffickers took. However, before his arrest, he knew of traders who used to smuggle Nepali antiques to various destinations in Europe and Asia via the Gulf.
“The situation is not as bad as it was a few decades ago, but it is far from ideal,” the ex-stealer said. “Because of increased scrutiny in the capital, thieves have now shifted their attention to temples and monasteries outside Kathmandu.”
NHRC member Mishra, who is also the director of the Taragaon Museum, said the same thing and worried that the lack of documentation of artefacts outside Kathmandu Valley would make the recovery of those items harder.
Mishra also said that the looters had started lifting subsidiary ornaments rather than the main idols because their loss is not as easily noticed.
Supporting Mishra’s assertion is the fact that while the alleged thieves let go of Sunakothi’s Balkumari, they kept the rings that were on the idol’s fingers and the police is still looking for them.
Similarly, four years ago, thieves also made off with a sword attached to a statue of Prithvi Narayan Shah in Nuwakot while leaving the main bust intact. Around a decade ago, someone also stole a cobra standing over the Linga of Santaneshwor Mahadev at Maruhiti which has never been recovered.
“The criminals target jewellery, utensils, instruments, minor statues and even decorative materials on the roofs and struts of historic buildings because people do not see them regularly and, hence, do not immediately realise their disappearance,” Mishra said.
Rays of repatriation
While many idols continue making their way out of the country, it is encouraging to note that some are also making their way back home.
As per the data with the National Museum at Chhauni, 48 articles of cultural importance were brought back to Nepal between 1985 and 2021. Of them, 19 were returned from the United Kingdom, 10 from the United States, 14 from India and five from other countries, informed museum officer Sharmila Upreti. “Two more are on their way from the Rubin Museum, America and are expected to arrive on Sunday,” she said.
The DoA has also initiated the process to claim nine more artefacts from France, informed Sarita Subedi, archaeology officer at the DoA’s Curio Section.
Section chief Ghimire shared that the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which has been ratified by over 140 countries, had been immensely helpful in the repatriation and restoration of cultural artefacts.
But while repatriation efforts should continue, the focus should be on preventing our objet d’arts from leaving the country, Mishra stressed. “Once they go out, it gets very hard to trace and locate them. And even when we do find them, proving their origin is another hard job because of a lack of documentation on our part.”
Mishra urged the authorities to introduce comprehensive rules for culture and handicraft trade, monitor art shops and tradespeople and devise a framework to inspect cargo at airports and border points to prevent artefact smuggling. He also suggested a simple technique security personnel could use to foil traffickers: “If a statue has damages, looks old and has stains of worship materials, then intercept it.”
Mishra also requested communities to take stock of the monuments around them and keep an eye out for suspicious people and activities. “Let’s hope the Aakash Bhairav has not left our borders because if it has, we might never see it again,” he said ominously.