Three weeks after its return to Cambodia was promised by a Californian museum, a pre-Angkorian statue depicting an ancient warrior touched down in Phnom Penh on Wednesday ahead of an official unveiling next week.
The Bhima statue is one of several that were hacked from their plinths and looted from the Koh Ker temple complex in the 1970s, ending up in private collections or on display in U.S. museums.
On May 3, the Norton Simon Museum announced that it had decided to arrange for the repatriation of the Bhima statue, which it acquired from a New York art dealer in 1976 and displayed for 30 years. The Bhima had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple within the complex.
“The statue’s name is Bhima—it is a gift from the Norton Simon Museum and they covered the costs of everything to send the statue back to Cambodia,” said Chuch Phoeun, a secretary of state for the Ministry of Culture. He declined to comment further.
Packed in a crate within a crate, the imposing sandstone statue, which is missing its hands, was carefully unloaded from the plane along with a smaller crate, within which its base was held.
Together, the crates, which weighed a combined 1,600 kg, were fork-lifted to the covered area of Phnom Penh International Airport’s VIP terminal, where seven Buddhist monks conducted a blessing ceremony attended by about 30 government officials.
Chan Tani, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, lit three sticks of incense and appeared to say a prayer as he peered into the crate.
In the coming days, the Bhima is to be joined by two other statues from Prasat Chen temple, known as the Duryodhana and the Balarama, which have been given back to Cambodia by the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses, respectively. All three are to be officially presented at a ceremony at the Council of Ministers on Tuesday, officials said.
The statues represent key figures in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, in which a wrestling match is described.
Duryodhana battled Bhima and four other brothers, who are known together as the Pandavas. Watching over the fight were the god Krishna and his brother, Balarama, along with another warrior. Together, the statues were part of a group of nine stolen from the temple.
The whereabouts of the Krishna statue and another Pandava have not been confirmed.
The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired a Hanuman statue in 1982, which was believed to have been looted from Koh Ker, though the museum’s curator said an investigation proved otherwise.
A torso of Rama was acquired by the Denver Art Museum in 1986.
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