Temple theft in Nepal: scratching the surface of a complex problem

15th December 2014

As I am in Nepal at the moment, literally tripping over sacred sites (which can’t be great for my ‘culturally sensitive’ image), a quick post on temple looting here. Consider this the surface being scratched. The problem is complex. I’ll be looking more into it in the future.

Monkeys in Kathmandu

Monkeys on the Swayambunath Stupa or “Monkey Temple”, Kathmandu. By Donna Yates 2014

The sacred art of Nepal is beautiful.

I am in no way an expert on the art and iconography of Nepal. I am an outside observer who is completely entranced. I am spending 22 days of December 2014 in Nepal and, although I expected it to be beautiful, the scale of majesty is indescribable. I am typing from Bhaktapur watching rain fall on temples. From the stone idols on the roadside smeared with red, to the gods draped in bright cloth and strings of marigolds (and not forgetting the erotic woodcarvings under temple eaves), this is some of the richest and most stimulating art I have seen. Everything is so bright.

The sacred art of Nepal is in demand.

Why? See above. Western interest in Nepali sacred art is centuries old and hit pop status in the 1960s and 1970s. There is a booming market for Asian art in general and both Nepali Buddhist art and Nepali Hindu art plays to a certain Western desire for the Eastern. It is common to see replica Nepali art in Western decor so it stands to reason that wealthier individuals would be willing to pay to decorate with the real thing.

The sacred art of Nepal is often poorly protected.

Durbar Square, Bhaktapur. by Donna Yates 2014

Durbar Square, Bhaktapur. by Donna Yates 2014

The situation here is much like that of church theft in the Andes, which I have written about. Nepali villages are usually poor, often remote, and contain very old temples each containing sacred art. There is no money to protect these sites with guards or expensive alarm systems, besides the power is out in Nepal for around 8 daylight hours every day (assuming the temple or village has electricity anyway). Many of these temples are open so that the devout can access them. The nearest police outpost is often several hours and many kilometers away. Many of the sacred items have not been inventoried in any way. Short of removing this sacred art from all remote temples, which would both require space in a museum and would mean communities have no access to their gods, there is little more that can be done. Well, except inventory it all. That really should happen and quickly.

The sacred art of Nepal is looted.

Jugen Schick’s hauntingly-titled “The Gods are Leaving the Country” documents 10 years of Nepali idol theft. Since it came out, there has been 10 more years filled with robberies. A simple online news search turns up more recent examples than even I expected. Indeed, I’ve talked about remote, unguarded locations but that paints an incomplete picture. Nepal experiences sacred art theft from some of its most well known, most sacred, and (one would assume) best guarded sites. To grab just a few articles (my internet is slow, there are certainly more):

March 2010: Idol of Ardhanarayan stolen from Bhaktapur (where I am now, a World Heritage Site).
February 2014: Idol of Lord Ganesh stolen from Bhaktapur district.
July 2014: Theft of a Tara Devi from Kathmandu.

What can be done?

At the moment, I can think of two things: people need to demand to know the history of Nepali objects outside of Nepal and Nepal MUST inventory the contents of its temples. The first is everyone’s obligation: you have the power to shame the people and institutions that buy looted sacred art so use your power. The second is expensive, but the least expensive of all protection options, and the most effective at allowing for return of stolen goods later. I am sure we can think of a way to incentivise recording and everyone has a cellphone with a camera these days so equipment needs are minimal. Recording is totally possible but also hard to get off the ground.

Again, these are just some random thoughts on site. Now for another day in Nepal.

Durbar Sq Bhaktapur by Donna Yates 2014

Durbar Sq Bhaktapur by Donna Yates 2014