A stone image of Uma-Maheswar, the celestial couple, sat atop a hiti in Nasamana Tole of Bhaktapur for 900 years. It disappeared on 23 May 1984 and is today in possession of the Musee Guimet in Paris, bought off the Sphinx art dealership in London. It is not on display, as this writer confirmed walking through the Himalayan section of the museum earlier this week.
There used to be hundreds of Uma-Maheswars dotting Kathmandu Valley’s lanes and bahas. The image of Shiva-Parvati couple in agreeable companionship atop Mount Kailash was obviously much-liked by the nobility and public centuries ago – also why most have been stolen today to feed the ‘Asian art market’ of private collectors and museums.
The statue kept by the Musee Guimet in storage needs to be restored to its place of origin. Till the time that our society and government are able to mount a campaign for return, the museum should consider itself custodian rather than title-holder. It keeps the Uma-Maheswar as a naaso, held in trust for the people of Nepal.
The idol mafia
The statues that populated our temple sanctums and courtyards were ‘experienced’ exclusively by the locals till the 1950s. The lowering of the national drawbridge allowed the overseas world to finally witness the art and architecture of Nepal. This star-struck gaze of the Western world was gratifying, but a new source of statuary opened for the ‘Asian art market’, and the loot began immediately.
The idol mafia includes the local thug and middleman and extends to dealers, ‘art experts’, private collectors and museums from Tokyo to London to Los Angeles. All modes were used to get the idols out, from stealth to false certification. The Kathmandu elites were involved, as were so many diplomats, development experts and so-called adventurers. The gods travelled as personal baggage, by diplomatic pouch, in false bottoms of international overland buses, and by ship or air cargo.
Amidst the turbulence of modernisation and never-ending political instability, the Valley’s lay population and clergy alike was unable to organise against burgeoning industry. The plunder peaked in the 1970s-80s but continues to this day. On 19 September, this newspaper reported of 10 statues valued at USD 200,000 put up for sale by the Christie’s auction house.
Logic of restitution
The logic of restitution is remarkably simple and, it would seem, irrefutable. These statues are not the excavated remains of a long-lost civilisation, but part of a living, breathing culture. The gods are lifted even as they receive the worship of devotees, the achheta and abir. The psycho-social impact is incalculable when an important cultural anchor is gone from the baha, leaving the plinth or niche empty.
Especially in the case of historical stone sculptures, one can categorically confirm theft, beyond the Nepali law that bans export of ‘antiques’ more than 100 years old. One can be unequivocal because the stone images are invariably found in public spaces, with no private person or entity with the right to sell or ship.
When the statues were carved and consecrated, neither sculptor nor benefactor would have considered that, centuries later, they would be the target of collector-bandits. This is why they were not anchored securely and why they are so dreadfully easy to lift.
Lain Singh Bangdel, the late artist and pioneer against idol theft, told this writer 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 in a communication had this to say: “…the possessor of a stolen cultural object must return it regardless of personal involvement or knowledge of the original theft.”
It is sad and strange that our population has not risen in protest despite the decades of continuous pillage. The scholarship is weak, the cultural activism tepid, and the Department of Archaeology but a passive recipient of the rare statue that is returned.
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 restitution, but the development of a ‘half-way home’ at the Department that will treat the returned gods with dignity, and security for the gods once they are back in their original sanctums.
Fortunately, experience indicates that the logic of restitution is strong enough for individual collectors and museum administrators to readily agree to give back statues when approached. 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, 9th century Buddha, 14th century Surya, and 10th century Vishhnu. In 2000, the Museum fur Indische Kunst of Berlin returned a 12th century Uma-Maheswar taken from Dhulikhel in 1982.
While the loss of idols is felt deeply by the bhaktajan, the communities do not understand the intricacies of the ‘art trade’ to mount a response. The best they can do is to lock the remaining statuary, toranas and mandalas behind ugly iron armatures. Meanwhile, the flame of concern has been kept alive by a handful of individuals, around whose efforts the future campaign will have to be constructed.
Bangdel and the German travel guide Juergen Schick spent much effort, and braved suspicious locals, to photograph hundreds of idols on their pedestals and niches. In 1989 and 1998, respectively, they produced documentation of the deities in situ, in order to protect them 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 just opened a gallery in Bhaktapur that exhibits replicas of stolen idols as a way of highlighting the reality of the divine contraband.
Archaeologist Sukra Sagar Shrestha has 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 has watched horrified as the gods disappeared since he first arrived in 1965, is working on a comprehensive catalogue of 2000 Valley statues. Sharing the truth with those who hold the idols will help in their return, he believes.
A campaign for restitution
The campaign for restitution would include: technological innovations to prevent theft; sensitisation of local communities; tracking of auctions; court cases nationally and internationally; pushing the Department of Archaeology into action; and building on the photography of Bangdel and Schick. Unesco and concerned groups in the idol-recipient societies must be asked to help.
To begin with, we must bring home the gods whose present overseas address we know, including the Uma-Maheswar at the Musee Guimet. And we must follow the trail of the 15th century Laxmi-Narayan from Patko in Patan, sold by the Sotheby’s auction house in 1990.
This article is based on a presentation on 24 September made at the conference “Objects, journeys and transformations” organised by the research organisation CNRS in Paris