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Artistic Resurgence: The 11th-Century Monastery's Remarkable Reclamation Journey and the Unearthed Hoard of Treasures


"Reviving Heritage: The Resurgence of an 11th-Century Monastery's Lost Treasures and the Journey from New York to Nepal"

In the heart of Kathmandu, within the ancient walls of Itumbaha, a venerable vihara that dates back to the 11th century, a hidden trove of religious artifacts has emerged from years of neglect. Gilded crowns once donned by Buddhist priests, halos that graced statues of deities, and mini stupas gifted by the local community have been unearthed from storage rooms, shedding light on a rich cultural legacy.

The story transcends the monastery's architectural marvels, stretching across continents. Until recently, two sculptures, integral to Itumbaha's heritage, resided over 7,500 miles away in New York's Rubin Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The dispersal of such artifacts mirrors a larger trend in Nepal, where up to 80% of religious treasures have fallen victim to theft and the black market since the 1980s.

In response to global calls for repatriation, the Met took a step in 2022 by returning a 13th-century wooden temple carving to Itumbaha. The Rubin Museum also repatriated two Nepalese wooden carvings believed to have been looted. Beyond addressing historical injustices, these actions catalyzed a transformative dialogue for Itumbaha. The result: a new museum within the monastery grounds, realizing a longstanding dream. Opened in late July, the museum showcases 150 artifacts spanning six centuries, narrating the history of antiquities looting in Nepal. A significant portion of the collection remains in storage, a testament to the ongoing efforts to reclaim, preserve, and share the cultural wealth embedded in the monastery's storied past.

"Rescuing Heritage: Unveiling Itumbaha's Hidden Treasures and the Journey from Neglect to Rediscovery"

For years, the historic vihara of Itumbaha cradled priceless artifacts in its quiet corners, their significance obscured by layers of dust and neglect due to financial constraints. Nearly two decades ago, the World Monument Fund, dedicated to cultural heritage preservation, took up the mantle of reconstructing the site. In the process, the vihara members unearthed a trove of objects buried beneath layers of dirt, mud, and sand.

Swosti Rajbhandari Kayastha, a museologist and lecturer at Lumbini Buddhist University, spearheaded the effort to piece together a museum that would showcase these artifacts. The discoveries were both expected and surprising—while some items, like the gold crown worn by the vihara's founder and a ceremonial golden door, were known, others, including gilded crowns, halos, and stupas, emerged as forgotten treasures from the storerooms.

Crucially, documentation played a pivotal role in reclaiming looted items from US museums. Recognizing the importance of safeguarding cultural heritage, the Rubin Museum, following its own research, provided funding and expertise to Itumbaha at the monastery's request. This collaboration not only facilitated the establishment of a new museum but also aimed to raise awareness about the cultural significance of historic collections housed in religious institutions.

Pragya Ji, president of the Ithum Conservation Society overseeing the vihara, emphasized the importance of documenting and protecting such collections. The Rubin Museum's executive director, Jorrit Britschgi, highlighted the significance of preventing future thefts and ongoing efforts to scrutinize the provenance of items in their collection. This joint endeavor symbolizes a transformative journey—from the shadows of neglect to a renewed commitment to preserve and celebrate the cultural legacy housed within Itumbaha's venerable walls.

"Reclaiming Heritage: The Unveiling Struggle of Nepal's Lost Artifacts and the Quest for Restoration"

Roshan Mishra, a key figure in the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC), sheds light on a painful chapter in Nepal's history — the looting of priceless relics that followed the country's opening to overseas visitors in the '60s and '70s. At that time, the global art market began to covet the intricate carvings and statues that adorned Nepal's religious sites. In an era when such representations were viewed as integral to the culture and community, the idea that gods and goddesses could be stolen was unthinkable.

Decades of political upheaval and a protracted civil war further compounded the challenge of protecting heritage. However, with relative stability returning after the war's end in 2006, Nepal is now reevaluating the losses suffered during those turbulent times. Organizations like the NHRC have played a pivotal role in identifying objects taken from religious sites, leveraging platforms like the anonymously run Facebook page, "Lost Arts of Nepal," to crowdsource information and tips.

For the NHRC, repatriating these objects extends beyond rebuilding collections; it's about returning the gods to the people and reviving rituals integral to everyday life. Many ceremonies and festivals centered around the stolen relics were disrupted, putting an end to age-old traditions. Urgency permeates their efforts, considering the passage of several decades since the objects were taken.

Itumbaha's new museum aligns with this restorative mission, offering a departure from conventional museum practices. Serving as a community space, the museum integrates historical artifacts into everyday life. Here, religious rites and rituals unfold regularly, with relics actively used during ceremonies. The "open" museum concept encourages direct interaction, a departure from the conventional practice of securing valuable objects in climate-controlled cases under tight security. It's a powerful testament to the living heritage embedded in Nepal's religious artifacts, emphasizing their significance beyond mere display — a symbolic step towards reclaiming and preserving the essence of Nepal's cultural legacy.

"Preserving Heritage: Itumbaha's Unique Approach to Artifacts and the Controversies of Restoration"

Itumbaha, nestled in the heart of Nepal, is rewriting the rules of museum conservation. The vihara's philosophy, guided by Roshan Mishra and the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC), challenges conventional notions of conservation and preservation. Mishra emphasizes the need to allow artifacts to live and age with dignity, embodying the belief that these objects are not static entities but integral components of a living tradition.

In stark contrast to the meticulous preservation standards of most museums, Itumbaha encourages direct interaction with artifacts within the monastery and temple spaces. These objects, central to rituals and prayers, are actively touched and utilized in daily life. For the community, the decision on how to treat these artifacts is entirely theirs, often resulting in the objects being returned to temples and shrines for worship.

The recent collaboration with the Met and the Rubin Museum, which returned looted artifacts to Itumbaha, marked a significant step in the vihara's restoration efforts. The restored artifacts have reclaimed their original positions, becoming once again integral to Itumbaha's architecture. The project ignited a cross-generational effort to decipher the functions of rediscovered items, reviving memories and kindling interest in the history and traditions of Itumbaha and its Newar Buddhist devotees.

However, this restoration journey has not been without controversy. Nepali heritage activists protested the museum's opening, accusing the Rubin Museum of using the collaboration to enhance its public image and divert attention from scrutinizing the provenance of other items in its collection. Despite these challenges, Itumbaha's museum remains an ongoing project—a dynamic research center to share knowledge, revive lost traditions, and challenge the norms of cultural preservation. As Kayastha aptly notes, "Nothing is final, nothing is the whole truth, there’s more to be appended over time."

"Championing Cultural Integrity: NHRC Advocates for Ethical Curatorial Practices and Artistic Replication"

Riddhi Baba Pradhan, chairperson of the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC), has urged the Rubin Museum to actively contribute to eradicating the market for stolen cultural objects. In her call to action, Pradhan emphasized the need for committed curators to investigate, report, and repatriate looted artifacts, underscoring the responsibility that museums bear in ensuring the ethical sourcing of their collections.

NHRC member Roshan Mishra proposed a pragmatic solution to address the prevalence of stolen objects in Western museums. He suggested that these institutions commission local artisans in Nepal and other affected regions to create authentic replicas of looted artifacts. Displaying these replicas would not only "clean" museum collections but also support living artists and preserve cultural heritage. Mishra further advocated for a collaborative dialogue between museums, emphasizing the importance of establishing processes to identify and repatriate objects.

Mishra's approach advocates for a constructive conversation rather than resorting to naming and shaming institutions on social media. The goal is to foster cooperation and find viable solutions to rectify the historical injustice of looted artifacts. As the cultural heritage conversation evolves, the NHRC's proposals encourage a more ethical and sustainable future for the global art community.

"In conclusion, the unfolding narrative surrounding Itumbaha's reclaimed artifacts offers a compelling glimpse into the complexities of cultural heritage restoration. As the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC) spearheads efforts to revive lost traditions and repatriate looted objects, the collaboration with institutions like the Met and the Rubin Museum has sparked both triumphs and controversies.

The vihara's unconventional approach to museum curation, emphasizing the living nature of artifacts within daily rituals, challenges traditional preservation norms. Roshan Mishra's suggestion of commissioning authentic replicas to replace looted objects serves as a pragmatic solution, promoting ethical practices while supporting local artisans.

Yet, the call for the Rubin Museum to actively engage in quashing the market for stolen cultural objects reflects broader concerns within the NHRC. The need for committed curators to investigate, report, and repatriate looted artifacts resonates as a shared responsibility among museums worldwide.

The ongoing conversation around cultural heritage preservation encourages a collaborative and constructive dialogue. The NHRC's stance on fostering partnerships and establishing transparent processes for repatriation serves as a guiding light for the global art community. As museums navigate the complexities of their collections' provenance, this journey toward ethical curation and restitution stands as a testament to the enduring importance of preserving cultural legacies with dignity and respect."