Journey of a Buddha to Europe

Features Issue 173 Apr, 2016
Text by Anutara Shakya

The Kwayampaju of Nagbahal was displayed in last month’s Ilhan Samyak; this particular Buddha has a tale to tell like no other Buddha. 

The Kwayampaju is about five feet tall, when assembled. He is brought out of the house for Ilhan Samyek, and carefully decorated with the best robes, his crown glittering with big jewels, and his face smiling peacefully. The people of Nagbahal watch as he is prepared for the evening, when he will be paraded around Patan and brought back to rest in front of his house for two days of the festival. The 17th century gilded Buddha fits in well with the other Dipankar Buddhas that are aligned together during the Samyek. All the Buddhas share similar images, and yet like ordinary people, they have unique faces. They seem to be modeled after faces of our ancestors. Every five years, the Buddha gets to stay out in Nagbahal’s courtyard, worshipped and admired by throngs of devotees. Looking at the numerous Buddhas, it seems to be just one out of the hundreds, but back in January 2002 as it made its way to Germany, all of this had seemed almost impossible to ever happen again for the Kwayampaju,. 

One fine day in April, Christian Schickelgruber, art curator at Museum of Social Anthropology, Vienna (currently the Wien Museum), gets a call from Peter, an art dealer in Germany, who wants to know whether he is interested in buying a big Buddha mask for the museum. Christian is not sure and replies that he would like to see a photo first, but the art dealer insists it to be too unique a piece of art to be referred through just a photograph. He suddenly decides to take the artifact to Vienna all the way from Germany. When the art dealer arrives, Christian is amazed by the Buddha. It is Kwayampaju, and it was taken from Nagbahal, but Christian does not know the details yet. The Buddha mask is a meter high, with its jewels all in place, a crown, a necklace, and earrings, all studded with enormous precious stones. He has never seen anything so beautiful. 

He asks Peter how he got his hands on such a magnificent piece of art, and Peter goes on to weave a story. “Well, the roof of a monastery in Kathmandu collapsed, and the monks needed the money to fix it, so they sold the Buddha,” he says. But this story just does not sound right with Christian. He knows too well that no monk would sell an item of such religious importance, even if the monastery itself had collapsed. Christian is still not sure about buying the art, now he has doubts that the art is stolen. So he decides to keep the Buddha for a week. Peter seems impatient, but agrees to leave it with him. He seems almost
too eager. 

But as soon as Peter leaves, Christian follows his intuition and calls up Alexander Von Rospatt, a good friend and a professor of Buddhist and Asian studies. He tells him about the Buddha head, and voices his suspicion that the art piece may have been stolen. Immediately, Alexander contacts colleagues in Nepal to find out about the Buddha, and sure enough, it had been stolen. The Kwayampaju belonged to Nagbahal, and it was definitely not sold by a monastery with a fallen roof. Then the ordeal started. Christian called the police about the case; they suggested that the Buddha be confined in the museum until further notice. He called Peter several times, but couldn’t contact him. The Buddha was now sitting in the basement of the museum, and Christian and Alexander, along with Alexander’s friend Christian Luczeritz, now had to decide how to get the stolen artifact back to Nepal.  

The process took two years. The first year, the Buddha stayed in the basement of the museum, patiently waiting to be returned back home. Christian allowed a few Nepali and Tibetan friends to make offerings to the Buddha inside the museum. He was touched to see their devotion. He knew religious items carried a lot of value for the Nepalis, and this precious item was so far away from home. Every day, butter lamps were lighted in front of the Buddha; it was the only time butter lamps were lit inside the museum. During this time, Christian kept calling the court to get an update on the case, but every time it was the same answer, “We are working on it.” In the end, it turned out that the Austrian court could not do anything on the case. There were no laws regarding stolen artifacts from Nepal. So, the case had to be moved to the German court, after all, the stolen Buddha had originally surfaced in Germany. Peter faced charges for theft, but he played the role of a victim well, stating that even he did not know that the item was stolen. He was pardoned. 

Now the Kwayampaju moved to Kolm, Germany, where again, he waited patiently for a year, as Christian and the others tried to find a way to get the Buddha back to Nepal. Getting the Buddha back meant a lot of costs that someone had to bear. Then, Christian had an idea; he would publish the story in the Sunday paper of Kronen Zeitong, an Austrian newspaper. An art cargo company and Austrian Airlines would be in the highlight, but they had to agree to sponsor the trip of the Buddha. So, in 2004, the Buddha was finally back in its home in Nagbahal. The Kwayampaju received a big welcome right from the airport to his home in Nagbahal. 

No one knows who stole the artifact, or how it was able to pass the eyes of the Department of Archeology. All the pieces had the approval marks from the DoA for export, a sign that the Buddha had been bought in separate pieces. The Buddha had been stolen in January, and re-emerged in April. It was priced at 200,000 euros, about 175,000 dollars then. Last week’s Samyak saw the Kwayampaju emerge out of its guthi house once again. But, this time, everyone remembers his journey to Europe, and the miracle that got him back to Nepal, and for those who didn’t, they witnessed Christian being honored for his efforts in front of hundreds on the second day of the festival. 

Ever since the incident, Christian and Alexander have become local heroes. People of Patan still talk about the miracle that the men brought about in returning the lost artifact. One time, when Christian was in Nepal, he was approached by an elderly man who thanked him. A humble man, Christian exclaimed, “But thanks for what? I was only fulfilling my duty,” and the old man replied, “Thank you for being good.”