24-30 July 2015 #768

Protecting the ruins

The earthquake has raised fresh fears of a surge in theft of Kathmandu’s religious objects
Sarthak Mani Sharma


Looters prowl as Nepal’s treasures spill into view’ reads the headline of a recent wire service dispatch from Kathmandu. Photographs accompanying other stories in the international press show stone sculptures and carved wooden beams scattered amidst the ruins of temples.

Nepal’s religious objects started disappearing decades ago, with the peak of thefts happening in the 1980s. However, the April earthquake which brought down many temples in the historical towns of Kathmandu Valley has raised fresh fears of theft.

Some experts have estimated that up to 90 per cent of the antiquities from Kathmandu Valley may have been stolen over the past 50 years. The only reason there were fewer reports of thefts, they said, was that there was very little left to steal.

Yet, just weeks before the earthquake a New York art dealer sold three ancient sculptures stolen from temples in India and Nepal to a dealer in Beijing. One of the sculptures was a 13th century gilt bronze sculpture of a Buddhist deity Samvara stolen from a temple in Itumbaha in 1983. The image was sold for $370,000.

“Although there hasn’t been any major theft or disappearance of our artifacts, the situation is serious,” said Shriju Pradhan who is Chief of Heritage Conservation of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC). “We are facing difficulties in salvaging and storing artifacts from the ruins of temples.”

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, local volunteers, guthis and youth groups salvaged what they could of the fallen carved beams, bronze figures of kings that had toppled off pedestals, and stone deities and stored them for safe-keeping. However, some of the objects were either stolen or destroyed during salvage operations.

“The best way to ensure that our sacred idols are safe is to instill a sense of awareness and belonging in local people,” said Pradhan who hopes that as people recover from the aftermath of the earthquake, their attention will turn to heritage conservation.

Donna Yates of the University of Glasgow who was in Kathmandu to discuss the smuggling of antiquities offers examples of how the media tends to distort the plunder of historical objects. From the coverage of the destruction of ancient sites in Iraq and Syria by ISIS, Yates said, it would seem that the loot of antiquities occurs only in times of upheaval.

“But it is a long-standing problem everywhere, and it is crucial that everybody understands that sacred art needs to be seen as ‘sacred’ or ‘ancient’ rather than just ‘art’,” she said at a recent talk co-organised by KMC.

Countries from which antiquities are trafficked, or ‘source countries’ as they are known, are often developing nations like Nepal. Heavy paperwork is needed for rare antiquities to pass legally through international borders, and this is possible because of corrupt officials as well as collusion of international art dealers and museums abroad. Bishnu Raj Karki, former Director General of the Department of Archaeology, said even members of the diplomatic community have been known to be involved.

Unique to Nepal probably is the problem of documentation. The Department of Archaeology does not have a reliable inventory of religious artifacts which means repatriation of stolen idols is difficult because there is often no proof of where the objects used to be.

Except for books by Jurgen Schick, a researcher of stolen Nepali idols and Lain Singh Bangdel, an art historian, there is very little documentation of our artifacts. Photography is banned inside many temples in Nepal, which makes documentation even more difficult.

“One click of a smartphone’s camera can go a long way in ensuring that an idol is repatriated should it be stolen,” said Alok Tuladhar, a heritage documentarian. “Smartphones also come with a geo-location system which can tell where the photograph was taken.”

Saving our cultural and religious treasures will be most challenging in the historical towns on the city’s outskirts like Sankhu and Bungamati that were heavily damaged. But it doesn’t have to be an impossible task, as the salvage work at Patan Durbar Square showed.

Rohit Ranjitkar of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust along with local volunteers helped rescue many of the fallen items from the ruins after the earthquake. He said: “Because all of us in the community sprang to action we’ve been able to salvage and store all the important artifacts.”

Read also:

Monumental loss, by Stéphane Huët

Documenting loss, by Stéphane Huët

Carving out a niche, by Sonia Awale

In the land of gods, thieves have a field day, by Ramayata Limbu

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