Theft of historically significant deity idols sparks concern in Nepal

Published On: September 25, 2023 07:15 PM NPT By: Arun Bam

KATHMANDU, Sept 25: In a distressing incident that has left millions of devotees in dismay, the statue of deity Akash Bhairav, located near the Central Office of the Armed Police Force, was stolen. Vandals desecrated the temple and forcibly removed the idol, even assaulting the priest. Surprisingly, the police appeared oblivious to this grave incident. Yadav Lal Kayastha representing Tha Hiti Kathmandu, is currently spearheading a campaign to recover the stolen idols. He laments the indifference of law enforcement, stating, “The idol held deep spiritual significance for countless people. Our concern extends beyond the loss of a mere statue; it encompasses the loss of faith itself.”

The voices of concern over the disappearance of the idols of these sacred deities resonated in the auditorium of the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) on a recent Sunday. Cultural expert Govinda Tandon voiced the collective sentiment, saying, “Our religion, culture, civilization, and entire history are being stolen alongside these irreplaceable idols. Our collection of statues dates back to at least the 2nd century, reflecting a religious tradition that traces its roots to the Lichhavi period. The theft of such ancient religious artifacts is a profound tragedy.”

While Nepal has a history of idol theft, Tandon highlighted a darker period during the 'hippie' movement between 1965 and 1978 when numerous idols were stolen and trafficked abroad. He explained, “During this period, some individuals resorted to stealing idols to sustain their lives in the Kathmandu Valley. Shockingly, around 80 percent of these stolen idols ended up in foreign countries.”

Efforts have been initiated to repatriate these stolen idols to their rightful place in Nepal. Activist Rabindra Puri expressed his heart-wrenching moment over hearing stories of priceless idols disappearing which are the heritage of Nepali faith.

“Idols have disappeared from holy places including Pashupati, Taleju, Swayambhu. The number of lost idols is in thousands, of which there is no documentation,” he says, "The precious idols of Nepali society's faith have been stolen from here and have become decorative and entertainment tools in the museums of America, Britain, France, Italy, Australia, China and on homes of elite class people. Meanwhile, our God is lost here.”

Cultural expert Ramesh Dhungel bemoaned the sight of Nepali idols stolen from their homeland being traded abroad. He explained, “During the colonial period, powerful nations plundered and collected artifacts and heritage from around the world to showcase their dominance. Our historical artifacts and faith were swept away. To them, these idols have become mere commodities up for negotiation. For us, they were the embodiment of our faith.”

Dhungel recounted his visits to Western museums during his studies, where he witnessed the statues from Nepal. He added, "These are the statues and heritage of our gods, stolen and transported there. However, in some cases, the lack of legal evidence complicates efforts to reclaim them and confirm their theft."

In 1970, the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was established to address illegal trade, theft, and the export of cultural items to other countries, with provisions for appropriate compensation.

Under this agreement, various campaigns are currently underway to repatriate idols stolen from Nepal and found abroad. According to Saubhagya Pradhananga, the Director-General of the Department of Archaeology, out of 237 stolen idols, 59 have been successfully recovered. However, she emphasized that the actual number of stolen idols remains substantial, as there is no comprehensive documentation. Pradhananga also noted the challenges posed by limited manpower.

Nevertheless, there is hope on the horizon, with the emergence of politically conscious youth groups in western countries. Their mindset differs significantly from the colonial era, and with the Nepali diaspora actively engaged in politics and investments abroad, there is an opportunity to rally support for the recovery of Nepal's cultural heritage. Pradhanang added, “It is imperative that the government also takes note of this initiative and actively participates in safeguarding our heritage.”


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