Kathmandu: On March 5, 2021, Nepal took custody of the statue of Laxmi-Narayan at the Nepali Embassy in Washington, DC after a joint investigation by the US Embassy in Nepal, Diplomatic Security Services Overseas Criminal Investigations, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Dallas Museum of Art, and Nepal Police. The statue was stolen from Patko Tole, Lalitpur in 1984.
Stolen sculptures like this particular statue make their rounds to dealers, auction houses, collectors, museums, and if lucky, come back to their native countries. The lack of comprehensive documentation of these sculptures is one of the main reasons why they never find their way back home or even get smuggled in the first place.
This is where Ulrich von Schroeder and his work ‘Nepalese Stone Sculptures’ enter the conversation. Although he came to Nepal for the first time much earlier, in 1965, as a 22-year-old on a cement truck, his contribution marks a momentous milestone in the documentation of Nepali stone sculptures.
In a serene setting in Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel, which incidentally houses the Museum of Nepali Art, he talked about his book with childlike enthusiasm.
His work ‘Nepalese Stone Sculptures’ is a “monograph on the stylistic and iconographic development of Nepali stone sculptures” including “maps, glossary, bibliography, and index”. The work consists of two volumes. Volume I has illustrations of 1,670 Hindu sculptures, while Volume II has pictures of 1,228 Buddhist sculptures. It also contains an SD card with 15,000 photographs of Nepalese sculptures and other subjects available in the public domain.
Published in Switzerland and printed in Germany, Ulrich said that they have a shelf life of 300 years while stressing that they weren’t business investments. Apparently, the work took 56 years to publish, which he is proud of. “This is my gift to Nepal. The culmination of my life’s work,” he said.
This is the first time such comprehensive documentation of Nepali stone sculptures has been published
The work is dedicated to the late Sukra Sagar Shrestha, a prominent Nepali art scholar. He was encouraging to researchers, albeit being media-shy. It was him who introduced Ulrich to Sunil Dongol, a fervent art photographer. Without Dongol, the books wouldn’t have been what they are today.
This is the first time such comprehensive documentation of Nepali stone sculptures has been published. Previous works by other scholars on the subject include Jürgen Schick’s “The Gods are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal” and Lain Singh Bangdel’s “Stolen Images of Nepal.” Art historian and daughter of Lain Singh Bangdel, Dr Dina Bangdel also made available several unpublished photographs her father took, Ulrich said.
A zealous man for art, he shared an amusing anecdote where he warmed up to monks in Tibet with gifts including prescription glasses and Swiss Army socks every time he went for expeditions there. The effort didn’t go astray as he was able to photograph all of the five temples of the Potala Palace, a rare feat.
Conservation situation at home
This is indeed a cause for celebration but celebration alone would be inadequate if we didn’t ask further questions.
The obvious question would be: Is Nepal taking conservation seriously?
In terms of legislation, the current Ancient Monument Preservation Act 1956 doesn’t address some fundamental concerns related to ancient structures.
Sanjay Adhikari, an advocate working specifically in environmental and cultural conservation, identifies two major concerns regarding the preservation of stone sculptures. One, the present legislation is insufficient to address legitimate needs, and second, the Department of Archaeology lacks the necessary human resources to do proper conservation work.
“The present Ancient Monument Preservation Act 1956 doesn’t address the process of bringing back stolen statues to Nepal. It is a long process that requires the facilitation of the diplomatic channel and security agencies of the countries involved. Yet again, the law doesn’t specify any special procedure to enable that.”
Ulrich, in this context, is pragmatic. He opines that these statues are better off in terms of their conservation in foreign museums and collector homes rather than dusty aisles in the National Museum once they’re back in Nepal. But he is confident that stealing, buying, and selling of these sculptures will significantly decrease because museums and dealers will hesitate to buy them, owing to their documentation which hitherto wasn’t comprehensive enough.
Adhikari added, “Our problem has always been inventory. The institutional practice of the Department of Archaeology hasn’t focused on systematic documentation of these monuments. Without documentation, there is no tangible proof for further research. It also leads to added insensitivity of people toward the plight of these monuments and artifacts.”
He stressed that stakeholders especially need a paradigm shift when approaching the issue, and legislation should facilitate that.
It is apt to mention here the contribution historian Dhan Bajra Bajracharya made to Nepali history through comprehensive documentation of records from the different stages of Nepali history. He enabled further research for interested people. Anthropologist Prayag Raj Sharma wrote the pivotal book “The State And Society In Nepal” based largely on Bajracharya’s documentation.
Comparative mythological and religious studies of a culture is made possible if there has been substantial documentation of cultural property and further elaboration of what they symbolize. If not anything, they inspire people to look for meanings in these sculptures beyond what meets the eye and weave them into informed narratives. For most of the stakeholders, including the Archaeological Department, the praxis is inconsistent and problematic.
In a passing note before leaving Kathmandu for Zurich, Ulrich said, “The book is never finished, nor is the interview. You just stop.” In proper spirit, conservationists, communities, and the Department of Archaeology shouldn’t stop undergoing paradigm shifts in conserving Nepali heritage because conservation is never finished, nor should we stop.