Centuries-old relic stolen from Nepalese temple at centre of diplomatic dilemma with Australia


An 800-year-old carved goddess that was stolen from one of Nepal’s sacred temples and has been a prized exhibit in Australia for more than 20 years is at the centre of a diplomatic dilemma between the two countries, as a social media campaign in Nepal ramps up efforts to bring the relic back home.

The 128-centimeter long wooden statue once supported the roof of the Ratneswar temple in Sulima Square of Patan.  The 13th-century goddess has been on display in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney since 2000.

“I was surprised to see how the wooden strut is now kept as a prized exhibit at one of the galleries in Australia,” said Naresh Chitrakar, one of the locals in Patan. He first knew about this when a Facebook page “Lost Arts of Nepal” had posted about the medieval-era strut on their page. “How it was smuggled out of the country is a mystery but many say that it was looted in around 1980s.”

Patan’s Sulima Square first got international attention when Dr. Mary Shepherd Slusser documented the carved woodwork that supported the pagoda’s roof. Slusser arrived in Kathmandu in the 1960s – no precise year. Slusser came as the spouse of an American diplomat in the 1960s with a doctorate in South American archaeology.

She photographed several many ‘tunalas’ – which are known as the temple’s supports. The looters took all of the supports within two months of her visit. Her photographs later helped in the restoration of the temple.

Nepal banned the export of historic statues through the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1956, but tens of thousands of Nepalese antiquities have been stolen –link unknown but in many records and reports and sold in many countries across the world since the country opened its borders to foreigners.

The hippy movement fired up in the 1960s, when sandaled beatniks, disdaining Western trappings for a life of self-reflection, made their way to Nepal. As more foreigners were interested in Nepal, many foreign art collectors were attracted to the country as they heard about numerous priceless sculptures, carved goddesses in many temples. It encouraged and spiked the black marketing on the artifacts. After that, many religious artifacts are believed to have been stolen and sold abroad, with plundered ancient statues.  

It is still a mystery how the wooden strut of Ratneshwor – correct spelling, temple was smuggled out of the country but it was donated to the art gallery in New South Wales by the estate of Alex Biancardi, a renowned collector of Asian art, in 2000.

The fight by activists to have the statue returned to Nepal has also led to calls for other stolen treasures returned back to the country. “Hindu Goddess Taleju Bhawani’s necklace at Art Institute of Chicago. It is a continuation of Tweet* My heart decided to bow down and pray. While we can only visit Nepal’s Taleju temple once a year but here in Chicago it is accessible to all the visitors.” Says Sweta Gyanu Baniya, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech University, in her tweet. 

 Two months after the Art Institute of Chicago returned a stolen 800-year-old stone sculpture of Laxmi-Narayan in 2021, which had been stolen from Patan in the early 1980s, many other antiquities were found there.  

Recently the US also repatriated the Laxmi Narayan idol, which was stolen in 1984, to Nepal. The idol was first spotted at the Sotheby’s auction in New York in 1990. After that, it disappeared until American artist Joy Lynn Davis found the Dallas Museum of Art. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) handed it to the Nepal Embassy on 5 March this year, in Washington for repatriation.

As calls continue to grow for the Art Gallery of New South Wales to return the 800-year-old carved goddess, the gallery told The Globe and Mail in a statement it had been in talks to determine the return of the sculpture. “The Art Gallery has been working with colleagues in Nepal to determine the most appropriate approach to returning the sculpture,” said Simone Bird, Head of Public Affairs of the gallery. “More recently, at the request of our colleagues in Nepal, discussions were temporarily put on hold due to the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak in Nepal. This is a very important negotiation and one the Art Gallery will continue to work on actively: we are committed to returning this significant carving to Nepal,” he added.

“It seems the talk for repatriation will be delayed as Nepal hasn’t started the talks yet,” said one official from Nepal’s archaeological department. “Comparatively, it’s easier to repatriate artifacts from the US than other countries as they think that keeping them will defame their organizations. .” He added

“The return of the idol could be a good start of returning several images stolen from Nepal. The government and local authorities must be prepared for restitution” said Naresh Chitrakar.


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