Nepal’s Buddhist Art

By Royal Mountain Travel January 7, 2013


Nepali sculpture goes back 2,000 years with the earliest stone sculpture discovered being the headless ‘Yaksha’ of Handigaun, Kathmandu (1st Century A.D). In fact, most of the early sculptures in Nepal were of deities of the Hindu pantheon. It was only in 5th Century A.D that Buddhist sculpture started to be seen in the Valley. Two of the earliest were the ‘Budha Head’ (7th Century A.D.) and ‘Buddha’ (9th Century A.D.).  A Buddhist manuscript written in with golden letters in Tibetan Uchhen script, the ‘Arya Asthasahasrika Prajnaparamite’, dates back to the 13th Century A.D.

Early statues of Hindu and Buddhist deities made of bronze and copper date back to 10th Century A.D. One method used to make such statues was the Lost Wax Method which is still in use today. In this, a wax model is made first which is then coated with clay leaving only a small opening. Once the mold has dried, it is baked in a fire under high heat, melting the wax inside. Then, this wax is poured out through the opening and replaced by molten metal. Once it is cooled, the clay mold is broken to reveal the cast image. Skilled hands then give the finishing touches to the image. Many such images are made only to be kept in temples and monasteries and although there are numerous shops in prevalently tourist areas of Kathmandu Valley displaying fabulously crafted Hindu and Buddhist metal statues on their shelves, it is in many temples and monasteries that you can see some of the finest examples.

Another form of Buddhist art that is popular is the art of paubha or thangka painting. The word paubha—‘pau’ and ‘bha’— is derived from the Newari term Patra Bhattarak, meaning, ‘depiction of god in flat form’. Tibetan religious paintings, similar to paubhas are called thangkas. It is an ancient art form based mostly on Buddhist religion. Reportedly, Los Angeles County Museum has the oldest Buddhist religious painting ever found in its collection—a late 12th Century or early 13th Century Buddhist painting of Ratna Sambhav. Genuinely antique Tibetan thangkas used to be available once upon a time, with many of them being brought to Nepal from Tibet, but such antiques are hard to find nowadays. Yet, antique or not, there are many thangkas around the Valley that are fascinating to look at and as expected, quite expensive. even if not antique, most thangkas/paubhas are a sight for sore eyes. For instance, you might see a 6×4 ft. thangka depicting the Gelungpa Sect Lineage in a shop in Durbar Marg of Kathmandu that is priced at Rs. 4, 00,000 (almost 4000 US dollars). In another shop you might notice a twin set of thangkas depicting Dharmapala Mandala and Amityus Buddha (based on Japanese style) that are similarly priced.


Shakyamuni Buddha and 18 Arhats by Mukti Singh Thapa. Photo by Stephen Starr/Flickr

The starting point of paubha painting is the making of the canvas, called ‘Patbhumibandhan’. A white canvas is first stretched out tight on a wooden frame. It is then rubbed with ‘kamaro’ (white clay) which provides the colour that covers all the pores, and ‘saras’ (buffalo hide glue) which is the binding medium. After these are done, the artist begins sketching free hand on the prepared canvas on themes that are based on Buddhist religious texts. It can be observed that in most Buddhist paintings, the central deity is lodged on a pedestal that has a canopy above it while the cornices at the four corners are adorned with various figures. In sum total, this is the central point of a figurative temple. Next, the artist starts working with permanent ink over the sketch and once this is completed, painting begins. As far as the latter is concerned, five basic colours (red, blue, yellow, white and black) are used. These are made using mineral and vegetable sources. The source of the blue colour is lapis lazuli while yellow colour is produced using orpiment. Similarly, cinnabar is the source of the red colour while conch shell powder provides the pure white colour. Black colour is derived from the soot of burning pine wood. Aside from the basic colours, gold and silver are also used extensively. Gold dust is used to produce gold color while the Indigo plant provides a rich indigo colour.

In conclusion, it must be said that a visit to the National Museum in Chauni of Kathmandu is well worth the visit to see some beautiful works of ancient art, including those related to Buddhism.


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