PHNOM PENH • A French museum has returned the head of a statue of a Hindu god that was taken from a Cambodian temple 130 years ago.
The 47kg head was attached to the life-size statue and exhibited to the public at the National Museum in Phnom Penh on Thursday, Xinhua news agency said.
The head of the Harihara statue, a combined representation of the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva, was returned by France's Guimet museum last Saturday, according to Mr Thai Noraksathya, a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture.
"The head and the body of the statue had been separated for 130 years," Mr Noraksathya told Agence France-Presse. "When the head is reattached to its body, it is like we are reconnecting the soul of our national heritage."
It was returned after a decade of negotiations between French and Cambodian officials.
The pre-Angkorian statue's disembodied head was found in the early 1880s by French official Etienne Aymonier at Phnom Da temple in Takeo province, according to Mr Pierre Baptiste, curator of the South-east Asian collection at the Musee Guimet in Paris.
"This head was among the artefacts sent to France - with King Norodom's authorisation - to show the importance of Khmer art, and from 1889 on, it was exhibited at the Musee Guimet," he was quoted as saying in the Cambodia Times.
He said that during the 20th century, excavations at Phnom Da unearthed numerous statues plus a headless torso broken into several pieces. They were taken to the National Museum, where experts put the pieces together, never knowing for certain if the head in France was the match.
"It's only recently that we were able to make a cast of the upper part of the statue in Phnom Penh and bring it to France to check whether our head actually matched that body," he said.
Once the match was confirmed, the diplomatic process began, leading eventually to the public exhibition in the Cambodian capital of the full enjoined statue.
"It was a perfect fit," the National Museum's deputy director of conservation Chea Socheat was quoted as saying.
Cambodia is hunting down its lost artworks and statues, many of them looted, in a bid to retrieve valued historical artefacts. Museums in the United States have returned several ancient statues in recent years, following negotiations and some legal battles.
In the future, the Harihara statue could also be displayed in France, where there are still a number of other pieces of ancient Cambodian artwork, AFP has reported.
A 1993 Cambodian law prohibits the removal of cultural artefacts without government permission.