Until now, the location of this extraordinary woodcarving was unknown, but I have been able to identify it as one of the ornate, decorative struts from a group of similar lost sculptures on the basis of compelling photographic evidence provided by Jürgen Schick in his book The Gods are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal
Among the many priceless works of art stolen from Nepal in recent decades, several have ended up in one of the most famous and prestigious museums in the world - the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Fifth Avenue. Some of these were gifted to the Met by collector Evelyn Kranes Kossak and have since been repatriated.
One very important wood carving donated to the museum by Kossak in 1991 remains inexplicably in storage. This is particularly astonishing since the sculpture is none other than one of the extremely rare statues of Slabhañjik- (yaksini) that formerly acted as a roof strut in the ancient monastery complex of Itumbahah, one of the oldest and largest mahaviharas in the entire Kathmandu Valley.
Until now, the location of this extraordinary woodcarving was unknown, but I have been able to identify it as one of the ornate, decorative struts from a group of similar lost sculptures on the basis of compelling photographic evidence provided by Jürgen Schick in his book The Gods are Leaving the Country: Art Theft from Nepal, the revised English edition of which (translated from the German by Philip H. Pierce) was published in 1997.
Schick's photograph of October 15,1983, which is reproduced on page 107, provides conclusive proof that the Salabhañjika was once supported by a crouching dwarf (yaksa) to which it was originally connected. In the photograph, the yaksa's right elbow can still be seen attached to the yaksin's left foot. Conversely the yaksin's right foot can just as clearly be seen resting on the yaksa's left shoulder.
The sculpture that is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York is one of only three such caryatids that were photographed in 1969 or 1970 by Mary Shepherd Slusser, which have since disappeared. Slusser includes these photographs in her book The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving: A Reassessment, which was published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 2010. The whereabouts of the other two Salabhañjikas is unknown, but it can reasonably be presumed that they have also survived. Ours is known to have been stolen from Nepal sometime between 1984 and 1985. In all likelihood, the others were taken at the same time.
In the database of the Metropolitan Museum, this beautiful elongated figure is dated to the 13th century.
However, recent carbon-dating of the yaksa has shown definitively that the work must have been produced considerably earlier, this is to say between the calendar years 770 and 970.
Examination of the work by the Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Miami, Florida, has convincingly established the date of its execution somewhere between the end of the Licchavi Period and the beginning of the Transitional Period, which makes it one of the earliest and most significant surviving Nepali wood carvings of its kind.
The sculpture is notable for its outstanding beauty and craftsmanship. It follows what at the time was a typical Nepali pattern for carving figural struts, which normally consisted of a woman, a tree, a dwarf and a rock. The beautiful maiden represents a nature spirit such as a dryad or a tree nymph known in Sanskrit as vrksadevata, meaning tree goddess. She is very often depicted (as here) gathering fruits, flowers or leaves from the branches over her head.
The yaksini in the Met stands in the classic serpentine pose known as tribhanga, cross-legged (padavastika) and supported by the yaksa, who kneels on a rock.
She gently holds the foliage above her. When she is depicted in this particular position she is accorded the special Sanskrit name Salabhañjika, meaning one who breaks the branch of the sala tree. She is almost free standing like the other struts that once accompanied her. Her body is attenuated, with a slim torso, narrow waist, and ample hips and breasts. Her face is square with high cheek bones and very large eyes. She also has full lips, with which she creates an enigmatic smile. Sadly, the nose is damaged. Typically, her hair is drawn into a large chignon similar to the coiffure of an eighth-century bronze of Vajrapani.
She has a full complement of jewellery, including a single-crested diadem, large disc earrings, a short necklace, and bracelets composed of several rings in exactly the same fashion as they are worn to this day.
The diadem is composed of two rows of pearl motifs and a single high crest.
Much of the crest is missing.
Unusually, there are no anklets nor any other foot ornaments.
Her clothing consists of a shoulder scarf and an ankle-length sari. Amazingly, the incised patterns of the textiles can still be seen on her skirts. She also wears a broad girdle.
The image of the yaksini is supported by her counterpart the yaksa. He in turn is located on a wooden base resembling a rock.
The yaksa himself is of some interest. He has a fine muscular physique, a large head with short curly hair, bulging eyes, a big moustache and a short beard.
He is shown kneeling supporting the crosslegged feet of Salabhañjika.
It is from photographs of 1969/1970, 1983 and 2004 that we know that her right foot originally rested on his left shoulder, and her left foot touched his right elbow.
Despite its great age and the ravages of the Nepali climate and natural calamities, it is remarkable for its state of preservation.
Even though the roof which it once supported has long since collapsed, following many years when it is known to have been waterlogged, the figure itself is in magnificent condition.
There are even traces of the whitewash which once covered the statue, though nothing remains to indicate whether the figure was ever painted.
One of my principal objectives in writing this article is to set in train a campaign to have this magnificent Salabhañjika repatriated to Nepal and placed on permanent display in the National Museum in Kathmandu.
Sitaula is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, UK
A version of this article appears in the print on September 2 2021, of The Himalayan Times.