I have lived in Nepal for more than a decade but it’s only in the last couple of years that I noticed the movement to have cultural objects that were looted over the years returned from museums, galleries and other collections around the world.
It reminded me of the North American campaign by Indigenous peoples to have their ancestors’ remains repatriated from the world’s museums. The Haida people living on the Pacific coast of Canada have been particularly active, and successful.
Just this year, Nepali activists have succeeded in recovering a number of items, most of them gods and goddesses that adorned temples, large and small, in the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. Earlier this month, members of the new Nepal Heritage Recovery Committee (NHRC), and their allies from around the world, gathered in Kathmandu for a ceremony to return a statue of god Laxmi-Narayan to a temple in Patan.
I believe these repatriations are seen as important steps in righting yet more historical wrongs, cases where rich countries used their resources to take advantage of poorer ones.
I devoted an episode of my podcast Nepal Now to the work of the NHRC and other recent efforts in Nepal. And soon after, I turned the focus to India—and beyond—for an episode of Strive podcast, which I host for IPS News.
India, led also by citizen activists as in Nepal — including the organization India Pride Project — has celebrated its own successes in recent years, including the repatriation in October of about 250 objects valued at $15 million.
Why does all this matter? As the activists I spoke with explained, the items stolen were not merely objects adorning temples, they were key components of living cultures and were still worshipped daily—stealing them altered people’s daily lives and religious practices.
As well, I believe that these repatriations are seen as important steps in righting yet more historical wrongs, cases where rich countries used their resources to take advantage of poorer ones. Equipped with the resources of a globalized world, countries like Nepal can now ‘fight’ on a much more equal footing in making their case for the moral imperative to return their stolen gods and goddesses.