‘How did it come here?’: Nepal seeks to bring home lost treasures

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Heritage workers try to bring home some of the thousands of items that have been extracted from the Himalayan country over the decades.

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When Virginia Tech professor Sweta Gyanu Bania saw an ornate 17th-century Nepalese necklace at the Art Institute of Chicago, she burst into tears, bowed and prayed.

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Now, he has posted a video on social media, making it one of the latest targets for heritage activists trying to bring home some of the thousands of items that have been removed from the Himalayan country over the decades.

The return journey has been visited by only a few relics, but they have come from some of the world’s top cultural institutions and there is increasing pressure for more.

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The then king of Nepal offered a gold-copper necklace, adorned with semi-precious stones, to Taleju Bhavani, the patron goddess of his Malla dynasty, in about 1650.

His Kathmandu temple is only open to the public one day a year, but authorities removed the preserve in the 1970s – after which it disappeared.

Bania told AFP news agency his reaction when he visited the Chicago museum in June was “simply overwhelming”.

“I started crying in front of it,” she said. “I started praying normally like I do in the temple.

“I had a lot of questions. Like why is it here, how did it get here?”

Traces of the color of vermilion used in Hindu worship rituals are still visible on its surface, and Bania’s Twitter video prompted Nepalese officials to contact the museum to return it.

The Art Institute of Chicago did not respond to multiple requests for comment by AFP, but its website states that the necklace was donated by the private Ellsdorf Foundation, which purchased it from a California dealer in 1976.

Uddhav Kamacharya, priest of Taleju Temple, gestures during an interview with AFP in Kathmandu [Prakash Mathema/AFP]

Priest Uddhav Kamacharya has served at the temple for 26 years but the remains were seen for the first time in Bania’s footage.

Seeing it, he said: “I felt that the goddess still resides here.

“We sometimes say that the gods are no longer here, but they are. That is why it was found despite being in a foreign land.”

Nepal is deeply religious, and its Hindu and Buddhist temples along with heritage sites remain an integral part of people’s daily lives.

Many, however, deprived of their centuries-old sculptures, paintings, decorative windows and even doors, were stolen – sometimes with the aid of corrupt officials – in the 1950s to the country United to the outside world. After opening to feed art markets. States, Europe and elsewhere.

“For us our art is not just art, they are God for us,” said heritage expert Ravindra Puri, who campaigns to bring back stolen Nepalese heritage and a collection of reproductions for a planned museum on the issue has gathered.

Puri standing during an interview with AFP at his home in Bhaktapur near Kathmandu [Prakash Mathema/AFP]

In June, the Paris branch of auction house Bonhams was forced to cancel the sale of five gold-copper-bronze statues that were carved out of the entrance of a temple in the 1970s, following pressure from Nepalese officials and activists .

The auction was first spotted by Lost Art of Nepal, an anonymously run Facebook page that has posted hundreds of historical and religious objects, from auction houses to European or American museums marking their new places.

“We have seen empty temples, empty temples, empty seats and torn pylons everywhere in the Kathmandu Valley,” the page’s administrator said in an email.

“In search of answers, I’ve gathered old pictures from here… [all] Possible sources,” he said. “The extent of the damage to our heritage is much greater than is known or published.”

bisexual statues

Campaigners want to make the art of piracy – piracy continues today, mainly from remote monasteries – as a sensitive issue between buyers and collectors of conflict diamonds or elephant ivory.

With heritage repatriation a growing issue for museums around the world – the Ancient Greek Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronze from Nigeria being perhaps the most well-known disputes – sometimes Nepalese recovery is becoming in a tizzy.

Six pieces have been returned this year, and officials are seeking more from France, the US and the United Kingdom.

Nepal is deeply religious and its Hindu and Buddhist temples and heritage sites remain an integral part of people’s daily lives [Prakash Mathema/AFP]

In March, the Dallas Art Museum and the FBI returned a stolen androgynous stone sculpture from the 12th to 15th centuries of the Hindu deities Lakshmi-Narayan to Nepal.

This month, it will be re-established at its original temple location, from where it disappeared in 1984.

The museum had kept the statue for 30 years, but a tweet by art criminology professor Erin L. Thompson prompted an investigation questioning its origins.

“These are objects that people were worshiping until it was taken away from them,” she said.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art handed over a 10th-century stone statue of the Hindu god Shiva in September, the third item to be sent back to Nepal since 2018.

In Bhaktapur, devotees worship another bisexual idol of Lakshmi-Narayan, which is secured behind a closed iron gate.

Expectant mothers continue the ancient tradition of offering oil to predict the gender of their baby.

But it is a replica. The original 15th-century composition disappeared in the early 1980s.

Badri Tuval, 70, remembers how people cried in mourning the day the idol went missing.

“We don’t know where it is,” he said, “but I do hope that someday we can celebrate its return.”

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