The stolen linga cover at Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum (photo courtesy Min Chong)

In a few days’ time, the Nepali town of Pharping will celebrate Hari Shankar Jatra (Hari Shankar festival). Pharping is located in Dakshinkali Municipality, Bagmati Province, on the edge of the Kathmandu Valley. Every year, the Pharping community comes together to celebrate a centuries-old holy festival dedicated to Hari Shankar. During these celebrations, seven metal linga covers are carried around the inner city on chariots, while worshippers offer food and other items to the gods. Each linga represents a shrine for a different mother goddess. 

Four of the original pieces have been replaced by replicas after being stolen due to the ever-present demand for Asian, and particularly Nepali, cultural objects. One of the stolen lingas has now been traced to the Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM), Singapore’s national museum of Asian antiquities and decorative art. This particular sculpture, representing Aghoreswora (Nil Barahi) and dating from 1636 CE, was stolen on the night of June 16, 1999, from the house of its caretaker in Thalkhu Tole. The community was heartbroken: “When it was lost, we felt as if we lost our history, we lost everything”, Ward Chairman Sailesh Man Manandhar told me on my recent visit to Pharping. 

The theft was registered with the municipality and central authority (Guthi Sansthan) at the time, and although Nepali police investigated the theft and tried to find the stolen sculpture, it became clear that the statue would not return. A replica of the linga was provided by the Guthi Sansthan to facilitate the continuation of Hari Shankar festival celebrations — an important quest, as according to old sayings, the king and country would face the wrath of the deities if the festival would ever discontinue.  

The group Lost Arts of Nepal first identified the current location of the linga on social media on August 14. The Asian Civilizations Museum has since stated that the sculpture was acquired according to “established procedures”, including “rigorous provenance checks”. However, they have not provided further information on this provenance or these procedures. Provenance is not a state secret. Transparency should be paramount for governmentally funded museums like the ACM. The museum also noted that the object is not listed in the Art Loss Register — a particularly weak justification given the numerous loopholes involved in searching such a private database of looted and stolen objects of art. 

The 2021 Hari Shankar Jatra celebrated with a replica of the stolen sculpture (courtesy Surendra Manandhar) 

The Pharping community first became aware that the linga currently resides in Singapore through a Facebook post by the Lost Arts of Nepal. The community immediately came together to identify what steps should be taken to bring the linga back home. Unfortunately, the burden of proof still lies on the claimant in repatriation claims, even when an object is clearly stolen such as in this case. Community representatives therefore first needed to ensure that the linga was the same linga that was taken from their community, which proved easy as there are very distinct marks on the sculpture, including a missing hand

In an interview last Friday, Surendra Manandhar, leader of the committee that organizes the yearly Hari Shankar festival, described how he grew up around the statues as his father organized the festival before him. He felt elated when he saw that the statue had been “found” in Singapore. While explaining the festival route and proceedings to me, Manandhar said: “We are not accusing them of stealing the idol, but as it is ours, our religion, our history, we need to bring it back as soon as possible.”

“We are not asking them for payments,” Manandhar continued. “But it’s part of history, part of our culture, so now we know where it is we need to bring it back as quickly as possible. The faster the better — it’s ours.” 

The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, an organization tasked with documenting the theft of tangible heritage from the country, is currently collaborating with local Pharping community members, the Department of Archaeology, and other stakeholders, to effectuate a repatriation claim for the stolen linga. Mayor Mohan Basnet described how invaluable the linga is to Pharping’s living heritage: “An idol may not be a big thing in its weight or even price. But it cannot be bought with money. It is a central point for our faith.” In recent years, Mayor Basnet has allocated funds for the protection of the cultural objects within Dakshinkali Municipality, including CCTV and security guards. He is deeply committed to heritage protection: “CCTV was not present in those days. In Nepal, our poverty may have limited our reach. But now, we have the funds and plans to keep all the seven statues together and keep them safe.” As a result, a special committee is currently completing a museum to display the lingas throughout the year and educate the public about the importance of the surrounding festival. 

The chariot in which the linga is carried around Pharping during the festival is stored in Thalkhu Thole. (photo Emiline Smith/Hyperallergic)

Crucially, Mayor Basnet sees this as an opportunity to establish a diplomatic relationship with Singapore and welcomes all Singaporeans to visit Pharping and explore its rich cultural heritage: “Due to the god Nil Barahi, this is an opportunity to grow a positive relationship with Singapore. […] We would never say the buyer is at fault here. Whoever stole the statue is at fault. The ones operating the network through which the god was sold are at fault. But we are not looking for the culprits, we are looking for our gods.” Instead, he is “extremely grateful” for the museum’s preservation of the idol. “When a lost child is fostered and taken care of by the one who has found it, we should extend our heartfelt gratitude to the caretaker,” he said. That is an incredibly generous position to take, given that continued (intergenerational) harm is perpetrated by any private and public collection when they prevent agency, access, and ownership to origin communities over their own cultural objects. The theft of cultural objects is a violent act. Collecting, retaining, displaying, and handling such stolen cultural objects is a continuation of this violence. 

It is surprising that the Asia Civilizations Museum has not engaged more proactively with Nepali authorities in this case, especially in light of their past involvement in cases of looted cultural objects. When I ask what it would be like if the god were to be repatriated to Pharping, Mayor Basnet says that it would be “like welcoming a loved one back from the dead. It would be a miracle.” He is deeply committed to bringing back the linga to Pharping so it can be actively worshipped again. Let’s hope the Asian Civilizations Museum soon realizes that this is an opportunity for equitable and sustainable collaboration, and does the only right thing by repatriating this god to its rightful owners. 

Emiline Smith is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland (UK). Her research concerns the trafficking, protection and repatriation of cultural and natural resources in Asia. Follow...