The 400-year-old manuscript stolen from the Patan Museum last week was probably 'ordered' by an international art trader for a private collector and the theft carried out by local burglars, experts say.
The manuscript was hand-drawn in ink and watercolours in Bhaktapur in the 17th or 18th century and is made up of 21 accordion-like folios containing tantric depictions of the energy centres of the human body (see picture). The diagrams have detailed listings of the chakras and the lotuses which tantricism regards resides in the physical human body. There are seven chakras from the spine to the head arranged in an ascending order of consciousness.
The manuscript, together with two smaller ones which are on exhibit in other galleries in Patan Museum, had been for sale in the antiquity market in Nepal and was bought with Austrian funds for Rs 90,000 and donated to the Patan Museum in 1997. Ironically, the Patan Museum Project thought the museum would be the best place to keep it, not just for its historic and educational value, but also so that it would not be exported.
"Since the manuscript has been well documented and published, no reputable museum in the world will buy and display it," said one expert in Nepali religious artifacts. However, once an object like this goes into a private collection, it is usually very difficult to track down. What Nepali and foreign heritage conservationists are worried about is that the manuscript will just drop out of sight since the Nepali government hasn't shown much interest in even bringing back stolen objects which have been identified in Europe and the United States.
A 200-year-old Dipankar Buddha stolen from Patan last year surfaced in Austria five months later after a German art dealer tried to sell it to the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna for $180,000 (See, 'Lost-and-found Buddha', #94) The gilded cast-copper Buddha mask is on display at the museum where it is worshipped by Vienna-based Buddhists, while efforts are underway to try to repatriate it.
The Royal Nepal Embassy in Berlin is working with the museum and the German courts to expedite the process, but the object is now evidence in a theft case against the art dealer in a German court and cannot be sent back to Nepal until it is decided. The Ethnographic Museum in Vienna has already raised money from donations to pay for flying back the Buddha. But nearly one year later, the Dipankara is still in Vienna and the German legal process is taking much longer than anyone expected.
"Even if the stolen manuscript is found, it will be difficult to get it back," a Nepali historian told us on condition of anonymity. "The reason is that there are very high-up people here who are up to their necks in idol smuggling." If stolen objects start being returned to Nepal, he added, it would send the price of Nepali artifacts crashing down.
Back at the Patan Museum, the special room that housed the manuscript has been closed off with a sign that says it is off limits for 'technical reasons'. The museum is planning to display an actual-size digital print copy of the chakra illustration in the original showcase. There will also be additional information about when it was stolen, and about other stolen Nepali art objects.
An emergency meeting of the Patan Museum board set up a committee to investigate the matter and recommend security measures to prevent future thefts as well as to find ways to retrieve the manuscript. In 90 percent of art thefts around the world, it is an inside job, and part of the committee's job will be to explore this. It will also look at the installation of surveillance cameras, alarm systems and even hiring private guards.
Art historians reckon that the only reason art thefts are less common in Nepal these days is because there is not much left to steal. "The only things still left are those that are too heavy to cart away, or those protected in museums," says one connoisseur of Nepali art. The late Nepali art historian, Lain Singh Bangdel's book Stolen Images of Nepal and Jurgen Shick's The Gods are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal present the only evidence of the seriousness of the plunder of 2,000 years of Kathmandu's cultural history.
Based on details from the two books some private western art collectors have started getting pangs of conscience. In 1999, an American collector decided to returned four idols stolen from Nepal in the 1970s: a 9th century Buddha image from Patan, a 10th century Vishnu from Kathmandu, a beheaded 12th century Saraswati from Pharping and a 14th century Surya image from Panauti. All are now in safe-keeping at the National Museum in Chhauni.
An image of Uma Maheswor which disappeared from Dhulikhel in 1982 was returned to Nepal by Berlin Museum and is now at the Patan Museum since it was believed it would be safer there than at its original site in Dhulikhel. But with last week's theft from Patan Museum, there may have to be a re-evaluation of this.
The locked door of the room where the artifact was housed.