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Experts express serious concern over the theft of the finest pieces of Nepalese cultural heritage. Can they do anything to stop the flow?

Many valuable statues of gods and goddess and fine pieces of artworks have disappeared from the temples of Kathmandu valley. Such artefacts go missing every day, in some cases even without anybody noticing. Whose responsibility is it to preserve Nepal’s cultural heritage?

If this situation continues, the temples of the valley will be shorn of their centuries-old gods and goddesses. Despite administrative vigilance, it is virtually impossible to combat the traffic without the support from community members. Because of poor documentation and record keeping, it is difficult for police and officials even to find out what they have to save.

The good news is that Nepal is getting back some of these missing idols. The country recently got a 14th century image of the Sun God, Surya, which was stolen in 1981. It was returned to Nepal with the cooperation of the Los Angeles Country Museum, California, United States. Likewise, a 12th century image of Shiva and Parvati stolen from Dhulikhel in 1982 was returned by the German authorities from the Museum of Indian Art in Berlin last year.

Experts say Nepal must find a solution that goes beyond the return of missing statues. Unless trafficking is discouraged globally, it would be impossible to preserve our heritage. "The existing acts are not adequate although they empower authorities to curb the illicit traffic," said Sukra Sagar Shrestha, chief archaeological officer of Department of Archaeology. According to the Archaeological Protection Act, offenders can get a maximum punishment of 10 years’ imprisonment.

As Nepal's tourism industry depends heavily on ancient statues and temples, their disappearance would have a lasting effect. According to a study, more than 70 percent of tourists visit Nepal to see historical and ancient places. This statistic reveals how vulnerable Nepalese tourism sector is to idol snatchers. "If we are unable to protect and preserve out artefacts and statues, our tourism industry will suffer badly," says Pradeep Raj Pandey, chief executive officer of Nepal Tourism Board.

Centuries-old artworks are also under threat from absence of regular maintenance. The resources of the Department of Archaeology are insufficient to protect and preserve the temples. The department lacks research and documentation of all the temples and statues in the valley. In many cases, statues and valuable artefacts are recorded only after they are recovered by police.

"I read with dismay the regular reports in the national press describing the disappearance of yet another statue or carving from one of Nepal’s monuments. Such reports are not merely a sad reflection on modern times, or on a society that is losing its respect for the things its forefathers treasured," says Dr. Yoshiaki Kitamura, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Representative in Nepal.

Toran of Patan Durbar Square, the 5th century standing Buddha of Deopatan, an image of Chaturmurti near a village in Sankhu, and a 6th century Buddha idol of Patan are among the thousands of missing statues from the ancient cities of Kathmandu valley. Despite growing awareness in the community about the need to preserve the country’s heritage, missing statues continue make news almost every day.

"Nepal’s tourism will be the first victim if illicit traffic in cultural property continues," says Subash Nirola, director of tourism product and resource development at the Nepal Tourism Board.

The government remains unable to track what has gone missing. Former chancellor of Royal Nepal Academy Lain Singh Bangdel has published a book that has hundreds of photographs of missing statues and artefacts.

Although police regularly arrest suspects along with statues and artefacts, they have hardly made a dent in the illicit traffic. The theft of statues and carvings from streets and historic buildings of Nepal is not a new problem. Over the decades, many of the stolen pieces of art have ended up in the international market where collectors pay high prices.

"The government will support any move to preserve and protect ancient statues. We are also working to develop a mechanism to search for missing Nepalese statues and arts in different parts of the world," says Barun Prasad Shrestha, secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation.

A symposium was held recently to discuss ways of encouraging greater steps to prevent thefts and ensuring stricter action to recover artworks through the official channels once they have left the country. The meeting, a joint initiative of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation's Department of Archaeology and UNESCO\Kathmandu, was supported by Nepal Tourism Board.

As Nepal is a country of 330 millions gods and goddesses, no one knows how many statues and artefacts there are in various parts of Kathmandu valley. One can see temples and idols in every nook and corner. In recent years, the number of temples without their idols has been increasing.

UNESCO has taken the lead in developing legal instruments and conventions to address the problem of illicit trafficking of cultural property. Its network of contacts and access to diplomatic channels has assisted in the recovery of stolen property.

"The country has to take immediate steps to preserve Nepal’s heritage," says Keshav Raj Jha, executive director of Nepal International Center. Peter Laws, cultural heritage specialist at UNESCO’s Kathmandu office, presented a paper on the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the UNIDROIT 1995 Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

Before 1970, there was no restriction on the export and imports of cultural property. With the initiative of UNESCO in 1970, the Convention on the Means of Prohibition and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was passed. This was the first global legal instrument for he protection of cultural heritage from theft and pillaging. Ratified by 91 states, the 1970 convention concerns the protection of property designated by the state parties as important for their archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.

Despite resolutions and legal instruments, the problem of trafficking remain serious. According to Interpol, only a five to ten percent of all stolen cultural property is ever recovered. That figure along provides a clear picture of the cultural treasures Nepal has lost over the decades.

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