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Hunting for Nepal's stolen idols

Global awareness of widespread theft is leading to recoveries

Nepalese artifacts that were repatriated after being stolen. From left: the head of a 12th-century statue of the Hindu goddess Saraswati, a 10th-century Uma Maheshwar-themed stone carving, and a stone statue of Buddha. (Courtesy of the National Museum of Nepal)

KATHMANDU -- The dilapidated two-story Narayan Temple sits amid a jumble of four-story buildings near Kathmandu's historic Patan Durbar Square. For generations of Hindu devotees, the shrine's deity -- a half-male and half-female figure of Lakshmi Narayan -- was the focus of their worship, particularly for pregnant women seeking its blessings to ease their labor pains.

But the androgynous 12th-century stone statue was stolen in 1984, shocking worshippers. Few efforts were made to search for the idol, amid rumors that powerful people had been involved in the systematic theft of precious idols. "We were shocked, but there wasn't much we could do," said local conservationist Dilendra Raj Shrestha. Almost a decade later, the locals installed a replica of the statue on the vacant pedestal.

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