Stolen Nepali Statue of Buddha Miraculously Returned

KEY TAKEAWAYS
Theft and Turbulent Period: In 1995, a valuable 16th-century statue of Vajradhara was stolen from the Shrestha household in Dolakha, Nepal, during a period of armed conflict and cultural heritage looting. The theft left the family burdened with blame and ostracism from their community.
Rediscovery and Repatriation: After 28 years, a group called Lost Arts of Nepal discovered a photograph of the stolen deity being sold online by a Hong Kong-based dealer. The current owner agreed to initiate a mediation process and voluntarily returned the statue to Nepal, which was officially handed over to the Hong Kong Consulate of the Government of Nepal in 2023.
Growing Awareness and Attitudes: The case reflects an increasing awareness and changing attitudes towards the illegitimate trade of cultural heritage. More private collectors are willingly returning cultural objects to their countries of origin, driven by demands for repatriation and recognition of the intergenerational harm caused by colonial violence.
Role of the Academic Community: Academics play a crucial role in rectifying past mistakes by utilizing their expertise in discreet mediation to resolve repatriation cases. Academic responsibility can contribute to the transformative journey of restoring cultural heritage to its rightful owners.
Restoration of Dignity: The return of the Vajradhara statue marks the end of the Shrestha family's painful journey and signifies the restoration of their dignity. The statue will be reconsecrated, adorned with its original crown and accessories, and reinstated as the central deity of the Indra Jatra festival in Dolakha.

 

In the dark of the night on August 30, 1995, an invaluable 16th-century statue of Vajradhara was stolen from the Shrestha household in Dolakha, Nepal.

The 37-inch gilded deity, a crucial piece of the family’s heritage, had been safeguarded by them for centuries.

The theft occurred during a turbulent period in Nepal, characterized by armed conflict between Maoist insurgents and government forces, and rampant cultural heritage looting.

The Shrestha family, particularly the 16-year-old Sunil Shrestha, immediately sensed the deity’s absence, marking the beginning of a long, torturous ordeal.

Despite their innocence, both Sunil and his father were subjected to physical torture during police interrogations.

After their release, the police failed to investigate further, leaving the case unresolved and the Shrestha family burdened with blame and ostracism from their community.

Unveiling the Stolen Deity

Fast forward to 28 years later, in September 2022, Lost Arts of Nepal, a group dedicated to the identification and repatriation of foreign-held Nepali cultural objects, discovered a photograph of a statue identical to the missing Vajradhara.

The only difference was a replaced crown. The missing deity had been traced to an online sale by a Hong Kong-based dealer.

Given that the statue was taken after Nepal’s 1956 Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, which bans the trade and export of any cultural object, it was technically stolen property.

However, repatriation, particularly from a global city like Hong Kong known for its art trade, is often a complex and sensitive issue.

The negotiation was successful, and the treasured statue was officially handed over to the Hong Kong Consulate of the Government of Nepal on May 5, 2023, coinciding with the religious holiday Buddha Jayanti.

Repatriation: A Journey to Right the Wrongs

Upon learning about the stolen nature of the statue, the current owner reached out to the dealer to initiate a mediation process.

They agreed to voluntarily return the deity to Nepal, provided their anonymity was maintained. 

The negotiation was successful, and the treasured statue was officially handed over to the Hong Kong Consulate of the Government of Nepal on May 5, 2023, coinciding with the religious holiday Buddha Jayanti.

Cases like these highlight the rising awareness and changing attitudes towards the illegitimate trade of cultural heritage.

The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign has noticed an increase in private collectors willingly returning cultural objects to their countries of origin.

This growing consciousness can be attributed to the escalating voices of source countries demanding the return of their cultural heritage and the recognition of the extensive looting and intergenerational harm caused by colonial violence.

Academic Responsibility and a Hopeful Future

The academic community has a crucial role to play in this transformative journey.

Previously, some academics may have benefited from the trade in looted cultural objects, but now their expertise can be utilized to rectify past mistakes.

Discreet mediation, rather than public pressure through social media campaigns, has proven effective in resolving repatriation cases like the Vajradhara.

A Homecoming of Dignity

The return of the Vajradhara marks the end of the Shrestha family’s painful journey. The statue’s homecoming signifies the restoration of their dignity, which had been unjustly tarnished.

The youngest son, Anup, expressed that it is not just the deity that is being returned, but their dignity too.

Upon its return, the Vajradhara will be reconsecrated, adorned with its original crown and accessories, and reinstated as the central deity of the Indra Jatra festival, ready to be worshipped by the entire Dolakha community once again.

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