Australia returns to Nepal a 13th-century sacred wooden ‘tunala’ stolen from Hindu temple

Australia has been working with Nepal on climate change, disaster preparedness, good governance, and also looking forward to introducing direct flights between the two nations.

Tim Wattas MP, Australia’s Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, on his recent visit, returned a 13-century wooden ‘tunala’ (strut) stolen from Ratneshwar temple in Nepal.

Mr Watts said in a statement:


This beautifully carved wooden ‘tunala’ depicts Queen Maya giving birth to Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be. Queen Maya is depicted like a shalabhanjika (tree-goddess) who is shown grasping an overhanging flowering branch with her right hand. Prince Siddhartha is depicted on her right side in the likeness of the adult Buddha with ‘ushnisha’ and snail shell curls apparently wearing priestly robes. 

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Image: Tunala (Source: The Art Gallery of NSW – Website)

This ‘tunala’ is considered a wonderful example of one of the Eight Great Events of Buddhist legend.

Mr Watts added:

“We have returned a 700-year-old goddess to her home. We can only hope to receive 700 more years of her blessings.”

In 1975, thieves took the ‘tunala’ from Ratneshwar temple in Lalitpur, a city southeast of Kathmandu, and sold it to Australian-British art collector Alex Biancardi.

Image: The 13th-century Ratneshwar Temple (Source: The Art Gallery of NSW)

The collector’s family, after his death, bequeathed 79 sculptures and textiles to the Australian Art Gallery of NSW for display in an exhibition entitled “Walking with Gods.”

Mr Watts added in his moving speech:

“People came to see it, were moved by its elegance and craft. But it didn’t belong there – that wasn’t its home.”

In 2001, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was notified about the 13-century Hindu temple origin of the ‘tunala’ by Mary Shepherd Slusser, a scholar of architectural studies and Nepalese cultural history.

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It was irrefutably confirmed through research and evidence that this ‘tunala’ was illegally taken from Ratneshwar temple.

Since then the Art Gallery held the ‘tunala’ in accordance with Australian law as a “repository of last resort” until it was not safe in its country of origin.

Mr Watts observed:

“Thanks to our art gallery friends, I am proud to be able to witness the return this precious item of your living culture – this sacred yakshi – to Nepal, and to all Nepali people. It’s back. It’s home. It never should have left.” 

Image: Tunala (Source: Tim Watts MP – LinkedIn)

Praising the return as “a noble and significant gesture” by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Mr Watts said:

“Today, we have shown ourselves to be absolutely committed to the highest standards of ethical practice and international obligations. That is what the Australian people expect of us, and what the world expects of Australia. We know that in order to show moral leadership abroad, we must show moral leadership at home.”

Mr Watts stressed that this was an opportunity to deepen collaboration between the cultural institutions in Australia and Nepal.

Australia has been working with Nepal on climate change, disaster preparedness, good governance, and also looking forward to introducing direct flights between the two nations.

He further added that more than 50,000 Nepali international students are enrolled in Australian schools and universities thus helping create awareness about Nepal in Australia.

“You’ll see our Nepali-Australian communities are some of our fastest growing, with over 130,000 people of Nepali ancestry living in Australia already. … Australians love Nepal – the tens of thousands of Aussie tourists who travel here every year make that plain.”

Image source: Tim Watts MP – LinkedIn.

The Tupala was returned to Patan Museum in Kathmandu by Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Dr Michael Brand, in the presence of Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Mr Ghimire; Mayor of Lalitpur, Mr Maharjan; Head Priest of the Ratneshwar Temple, Mr Rajopadhyay; and members of the Temple Trust and Nepal’s heritage conservation community.