Returned to Nepal by the FBI, a Sculpture Becomes a God Again

A woman completes repair work on the temple to prepare for reinstallation (all images by and courtesy the author)

A small temple in Patan, a town just south of Kathmandu, held the god Lakshmi-Narayan in the form of a stone sculpture carved in the 10th century. The Hindu deity, composed of a cojoined avatar of Vishnu and his consort, spent centuries draped in garlands of marigolds and adorned with the vermilion powder dabbed onto its forehead by worshipers. But in 1984, the god was kidnapped, and ended up at auction at Sotheby’s New York in 1990. Stripped of marigolds and scrubbed of color, the god had transformed into a sculpture. 

Last week, I flew to Nepal to see the statue become a god again. Kanak Mani Dixit, a Nepali journalist, has been advocating for the repatriation of the country’s stolen art since the late 1990s. He had traced the Lakshmi-Narayan to Sotheby’s, but only after it was sold to a buyer whose identity the auction house would not disclose. The trail went cold until an American artist, Joy Lynn Davis, spotted the Lakshmi-Narayan in the Dallas Museum of Art. The figure, divided into female and male halves, with one breast on one side and a pectoral muscle on the other, was unmistakable.

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I heard Davis mention the sculpture in Dallas at a conference, and then wrote an article for Hyperallergic breaking the news to the general public. In March of 2021, the museum surrendered the sculpture to the FBI. Agents wearing white gloves, with their handguns still strapped to their sides, lifted Lakshmi-Narayan into a shipping crate and delivered it to Nepal’s embassy in Washington, DC.

Bhairaja Shreshta, a long-time neighborhood resident, stands next to the reinstalled shrine.
The Lakshmi-Narayan reinstalled in Nepal

Back in Nepal, the sculpture remained in storage in a museum in Patan while its fate was debated. A hand had broken off the sculpture, probably during the theft decades ago, and it had crossed an ocean. This type of breakage and travel would normally cause worshippers to decide that a deity had left a statue permanently. But Dixit and fellow members of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, which had formed to bring the Lakshmi-Narayan home, persuaded their community that “even after being 36 years in America,” the god “didn’t get citizenship,” as Dilendra Shrestha, the Campaign’s Treasurer, put it.

The temple, a single room with a stack of tiled roofs ending in snub-nosed curving beams, was outfitted with a new door and a CCTV system to prevent another looting. A replacement Lakshmi-Narayan sculpture the community had been worshipping after the theft was moved to one side of the shrine, and the sculpture’s original base, which had split in two when it was stolen, was repaired. Earlier this month, on December 4, a day chosen for its auspiciousness, Lakshmi-Narayan was loaded into a palanquin carried on long bamboo poles.

The procession, led by musicians playing drums and cymbals, wove around the scaffolding set up around the temples under restoration in Patan’s Durbar Square. Across the Kathmandu Valley, similar projects continue to repair the damage done during the 2015 earthquake. Although the Lakshmi-Narayan’s current temple had survived this natural disaster intact, its brickwork is far younger than the sculpture and some of its carved wooden roof supports and windows. The Kathmandu Valley suffers a major earthquake nearly every century. Its temples are designed to collapse lightly, making it possible to dig out the stone and wood elements and begin again. Davis, who was in Kathmandu in 2015, told me that she saw her neighbors retrieving beams from a collapsed historical building within hours of the earthquake — just as soon as they finished digging out the human survivors.

A priest begins to prepare for puja in front of temple.

 Once the Lakshmi-Narayan reached its temple, the bearers circumambulated it three times, shouting “Lakshmi-Narayan jai!” — “Hail to Lakshmi-Narayan.” The chant was led by Sanjay Adhikari, the young human rights attorney who had advised the Recovery Campaign. The palanquin was set down next to the priest who had been preparing for hours, drawing diagrams in colored powders and arranging ritual utensils and offerings outside the temple door. He was there to conduct a ceremony of chhama puja to ask Lakshmi-Narayan to forgive the community and reinhabit its statue.

Members of the crowd reached out to touch the sculpture, now halfway between artwork and god. They brought their fingers back to their own foreheads, communicating a blessing. Finally, Lakshmi-Narayan was unloaded and slotted back into its pedestal as a cheer went up. Men from the nearby temple that had loaned the palanquin for the ceremony came to reclaim it. It was no longer needed — the god would not move again. 

Garlands of flowers went back around Lakshmi-Narayan’s neck and vermillion on the god’s forehead. Money and grains of rice were thrown around its feet. Worshippers lit small butter lamps and rang the bells hanging over the god’s head to offer Lakshmi-Narayan the pleasures of light and sound.c

After the ritual, the members of the family responsible for the care of the temple invited everyone into the courtyard of their house a few steps away. There, they offered gifts from Lakshmi-Narayan: bowls made of sal-tree leaves, filled with fruit and sweets. Members of the Recovery Campaign, neighbors, and the American Ambassador and his staff sat in red plastic chairs in the courtyard and ate together, marigold petals sprinkled in their hair.

Kanak Mani Dixit inspects copper garments.

Earlier in the day, the family had brought a plastic shopping basket to the priest, filled with objects wrapped in newspaper. They were copper garments, made to fit over parts of Lakshmi-Narayan during the deity’s annual festival. For decades, they had remained wrapped up in the house, without a deity to adorn. Now, Lakshmi-Narayan shone in them once more. The god was home and dressed, once again.

The Lakshmi-Narayan is the first stolen sacred artwork to be reinstalled in its original location in Nepal, but the members of the Recovery Campaign hope it will not be the last. They have located dozens of other sculptures in foreign museums and private collections. Negotiations for these returns are currently ongoing, and I spent most of the remainder of my week in Nepal visiting the sites from which they were taken, including public wells, palaces, and shrines.

At Itumbaha, a Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu, I met with Pragya Ratna Shakya, the secretary of the monastery’s Conservation Society, who owned a jewelry shop that closed during the pandemic. He used his newly free time to fight for the return of the many objects stolen from the monastery to feed collectors’ desire for Nepali art. Five of these artworks have been traced to New York City alone.

A palanquin in Patar Durbar Square moving past a temple being repaired after 2015 earthquake.
The Lakshmi-Narayan reinstalled in Nepal

Shakya showed me the wooden canisters that once held three 17th-century paintings on cloth. These containers were sealed with inscribed metal bands that identified the paintings and served as hooks to hang the canisters from the rafters, keeping the paintings away from insects and the damp when they were not on display. In 1979, thieves tunneled through the wall from a neighboring building and stole the paintings. A 2004 publication noted that the paintings were then in the collection of a New York art dealer, but their current location is uncertain.

More promising is the case of a semi-circular wooden carving of a winged flying spirit who once supported a window in the monastery’s courtyard. In September 2021, “Lost Arts of Nepal,” the nom de guerre of an anonymous Nepali activist, spotted this panel in the collections database of Manhattan’s Rubin Museum. Shakya told me that representatives of the museum have been in contact to discuss both returning the panel and helping finish the small museum the monastery has created to house objects that cannot be returned to their original locations, if they are too fragile or, like the window panel, have been replaced with replicas.

This museum, upstairs from the monastery’s free clinic, currently holds a large, elaborate wooden panel that spent centuries hanging above the complex’s main doorway. Such panels, known as toranas, are characteristic features of historical Nepali buildings; their popularity with collectors, who display them either whole or divided up into their constituent figures, means that many have disappeared. The monastery decided to relocate this torana after it was ripped out of the wall by thieves for a third time. Each time, the community had been woken by the noise and given chase. The third time, several figures broke off when the would-be thieves dropped the torana. Shakya showed me the broken heads and bodies, taking them one by one from a copper bowl kept nearby.

Pragya Ratna Shakya points to where a roof strut, now replaced by an uncarved beam, was located before it ended up in Metropolitan Museum.

This summer, Shakya spent nearly a month searching through the monastery’s storerooms for another, larger fragment. Lost Arts of Nepal had also located a roof strut carved in the shape of a sinuous tree goddess stolen from Itumbaha in the mid-1980s in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unlike the previous matches, which relied on archival photographs of the pieces in place before they were stolen, this match had an additional piece of evidence. In the photographs, the goddess balanced on the back of a small grotesque figure, but the strut had broken during the theft. The museum has the goddess, but Shakya had found the grotesque. He brought it out into the sun so I could photograph it. He offered to let me hold it, but I was too afraid I would drop something that dates to at least the 13th century, possibly centuries earlier.  

Before I left Nepal, I paid one last visit to Lakshmi-Narayan. Its copper garments had been removed until its next festival, but it was still covered in other offerings. It was impossible to tell that it had ever left.

In a cab driving through the Queens–Midtown Tunnel back to Manhattan, I realized I might be passing along the same route Lakshmi-Narayan traveled in exile, on its way to be auctioned at Sotheby’s. I don’t usually chat with cab drivers, especially not after taking a trip that lasted more than 25 hours, but when my driver asked where I was coming from, I told him in detail. “I was just praying to Lakshmi-Narayan while waiting for a fare at JFK!” he responded.

He showed me pictures of the gods in his temple in Queens and asked me if I knew much about Hinduism. “Not much,” I admitted. “I don’t even know the reasons to pray to Lakshmi-Narayan.”

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“Lakshmi for wealth,” the driver explained. “And Narayan — Lord Vishnu — for calm. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t know. We all have good and bad inside us. It only matters what we do with it.”

I texted a friend back in Nepal about the coincidence. It was no accident, she insisted. Lakshmi-Narayan had sent the driver to greet me upon my arrival. We were both back home.


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