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How Nepal is bringing smuggled artefacts back home

Hundreds of sacred statues, which were stolen and smuggled abroad, are being repatriated to Nepal

Devotees gather around an ancient Uma-Maheswara statue that was stolen four decades ago from Nepal, and finally returned by the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
Devotees gather around an ancient Uma-Maheswara statue that was stolen four decades ago from Nepal, and finally returned by the Brooklyn Museum in New York. (AP)

Nepal's gods and goddess are returning home. An unknown number of sacred statues of Hindu deities, which were stolen and smuggled abroad, are now being repatriated as part of a growing global effort to return such items to countries in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

Last month, four idols and masks of Hindu gods were returned to Nepal from the US by museums and a private collector. Among them was a 16th century statue of Uma-Maheswara, an avatar of Shiva and Parvati, which was stolen four decades ago. The Brooklyn Museum in New York finally handed it over to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, which began the process to send it home.

Devotees celebrated its return in Patan, south of the capital, Kathmandu. The stone-paved alleys were crowded with devotees offering money and flowers. “I cannot say how happy I am right now,” said Ram Maya Benjankar, 52, who said the statue had been stolen when she was a child. The statue had simply disappeared from their neighbourhood, she said.

For smugglers, the idols can be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars to museums and private collectors in the West. For years, there was little attention given to the thefts or any effort made at recovery. That has changed in recent years as the government, art lovers and campaigners pursue stolen heritage items. 

A group representing Nepal's Newar community in the US heard about the Uma-Maheswara statue at the Brooklyn Museum and took the initiative to bring it home. “We were very sad to see that our gods were locked in the basement. We were determined that we need to take back the heritage," said Bijaya Man Singh, a member of the group that carried the four idols and masks back to Nepal.

Now the temple in Patan is being prepared to reinstate the Uma-Maheswara statue. Following the welcome ceremony, it was placed on a chariot carried by devotees and taken to a museum, where it will be kept under security until its final move.

More than 20 other stolen artifacts are in the pipeline to be repatriated to Nepal in the near future, according to Jayaram Shrestha, director at the National Museum in Kathmandu. Most will return from the US and Europe. Shrestha has created a special room to exhibit repatriated items. There are currently 62 statues on display. “As we expect many more, we are expanding the section of the museum,” Shrestha said. “The Nepal government has been taking initiative to get them back with recovery campaigns and using diplomatic channels, embassies in foreign countries,” he said.

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