When one reason about the pride of being a Nepali, one is immediately reminded of the multifarious cultures that adorn the Nepali cities, the diverse languages and dialects exchanged in various nooks and crannies, and the heritage sites that fill every vicinity of the cities with its rich architecture. All in all, from the sweltering hot plains of Terai to chilly villages under the snow-capped peaks, the vibrancy, and richness of Nepali communities have never failed to amuse us with their idiosyncratic culture and roots. Closely intertwined with this vibrant culture and its religious beliefs are the various forms of art- visual, decorative, religious, or spiritual, which bedeck the country and depict the subtlest nuances of Nepali societies. Our culture is as old as our civilization, and our art is an inseparable part of our culture. Our cultural rituals and festivals integrate a number of arts such as painting, crafts, and sculpture and these have evolved over the years as a set of rich artistic genres.
To understand the earliest art genres of Nepal and the evolution of art into the modern world, it is important to track how different forms of art and means of expression have been preserved, accepted, and diversified over time. This can be done in a number of stages, with shifts from religious to secular, objective to subjective, external to internal, referential to abstract, and so on. With values, artistic practices, and belief systems of the contemporary society bedded in various art forms, they frequently form a common language through which the cultural experiences of different communities can be engaged. From meticulously painted Thankas, colorful Mithilas, and sacred Paubhas to breathtakingly carved buildings and architecture, traditional Nepali art has cultural, religious as well as decorative purposes and they’ve always succeeded in masterfully carving a picturesque depiction of classical Nepali societies.
The most traditional forms of Nepali art began with a religious motif to portray the figures of Hindu and Buddhist deities, embodied on various indigenous and locally available raw materials like paper, cloth, or a wall. Producing art was coupled with the use of various symbols of gods and goddesses in the form of ordinary birds and animals—created to worship and pray, which captured spiritual and some forms of tantric and divine powers. Traditional means of visual arts, back then, had both spiritual as well as pragmatic values and were integral parts of the religious and cultural life of the time.
They represented characters and events in the painting that were mystical and magical in the sense that they did not refer to the external reality but the mythical world. The characters acted unusually and magical events took place. The non-human characters sometimes acted as divinities and mythical creatures possessing divine powers. Despite the fact that the artworks have aesthetic value now, they were created for the purpose of religious and cultural rituals. Thus, they had pragmatic value in the then religious society. The artworks were worshiped and prayed as images of deities. Meditation, enlightenment, and the stories from religious texts were also the subject matters of these paintings. Distinct contours, flat colors, and the absence of shade were the formal features.
Below are some of the first types of artworks produced in Nepal
Developed around the eleventh and twelfth century, the foremost exemplifications of Nepalese art in painting is that of manuscript illustrations found on long and narrow palm leaves; the earliest known example being the “Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita” (meaning Perfection of Wisdom) of 1015 AD, which was created with images of gods and goddesses, regardless of whether they were Buddhist or Hindu in origin. These pages were bound and protected with wooden covers, often embellished with carving and paintings of small pictorial illuminations, often having one or two holes in them through which strings were threaded to keep the manuscript together. Nepali artifacts depicted the characters and events of ancient Sanskrit scriptures like Vedas, Puranas, etc. Artists from the Buddhist community of Newars, one of Nepal’s many ethnic groups, made most of the paintings that illuminated manuscripts and book covers, and also had a tremendous influence on the art of Tibet and China. Both countries also used artists from Nepal to work on important commissions.
The early manuscripts written on palm leaves were brought from India and were written on paper later. The Buddhist manuscript illuminations depicted the life of Buddha, meditating Bodhisattvas (people on the path of Buddhahood), and other Buddhist deities and visual narrative of moral stories. The life of Buddha included his nativity, meditation, nirvana, and so on. Likewise, the Hindu manuscript illuminations depicted Hindu deities like Vishnu and his ten avatars (reincarnations), Shiva-Parvati, etc. The artworks also depicted icons like Shivalinga, symbols, and the images of temples. Some of the images were anthropomorphic and events were paranormal. Some paintings represented the religious harmony between Hinduism and Buddhism. Prajnaparamita, Dharanisamgraha, Gandavyuha, Kaarandavyuha, Pancaraksa and Paramartha Namasangiti are examples of illuminated Buddhist manuscripts. Whereas, Vishnu Dharma, Shivadharma, Devimahatmya, Bhagvata Mahapuran and the Ramayana were some of the illuminated Hindu manuscripts.
Maintaining a similar religious essence of Nepali culture, Thangka paintings like the “Mandala of Vishnu” which dates back to 1420 AD, incorporated symbols of gods and goddesses in the form of ordinary birds and animals to capture spiritual and some forms of tantric and divine powers, resonating with the cultural aspect of how societies, back then, functioned. The word thangka translates to “recorded message.” These paintings were an ancient Tibetan Buddhist art form that combined deities and symbolism in sacred geometrical alignments. Because they were very technical to paint due to its meticulous geometric rules, most thangkas were intended for personal meditation or instructions for monastic students. They served as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, influential Lamas (Tibetan spiritual leaders), deities, and Bodhisattvas. Both making a thangka and gazing at one were regarded as forms of meditation. The idea was to merely lose oneself in thangka and not express it. Traditionally, they were not bought or sold.
There were four main kinds of thangka: embroidered thangka, lacquered tangka, applique thangka; and precious bead tangka. The latter were decorated with pearls, coral, turquoise, gold and silver. Thangka images could further be divided into these categories: mandalas, Tsokshing (Assembly Trees), Tathagata Buddhas, Patriarchs, Avoliteshvara, Buddha-Mother and female Bodhisattvas, tutelary deities, dharma-protecting deities, Arhats, wrathful deities; and Bodhisattvas.
Mandalas, a type of thangka painting, which stressed on the geometric configuration of symbols as a spiritual guidance tool for establishing a sacred space, also served as an aid to meditation and trance induction. In the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, it was used as a map representing deities. They were also used as a ‘Yantra’ (instrument) to meditate for uniting the individual self to the cosmic being. Regarded as a powerful center of psychic energy, it symbolized the macrocosm of the universe, the miniature universe of the practitioner and the platform on which the Buddha addressed his followers.
A typical mandala measures five feet across and contains a pictorial diagram of Buddhist deities in circular concentric geometric shapes. Many are shaped like a lotus flower with a round center and eight petals, with a central deity surrounded by four to eight other deities who were manifestations of the central figure. The deities were often accompanied by consorts. In large mandalas there may be several dozen circles of intricate patterns, with hundreds of deities within.
Mandalas were also painted, constructed of stone, embroidered, sculptured or even served as the layout plan for entire monasteries. The most common support (the underlying material) was cloth stretched on a wooden frame. The cloth was seized by an application of gelatin to coat and stiffen it. Applied over the support was a ground, a top layer, of gesso (white earth pigment, either chalk or white clay). The gesso was polished to create a perfectly smooth surface. Many compositions were fixed by Buddhist iconography and artistic tradition. The preliminary sketch was made with charcoal crayon. The final drawing reinforced the sketch in brush and black ink and the last pigment laid down was gold.
Book Painting (Ganthra Chitra)
These were the paintings found in various religious books. The oldest book painting of Nepal to date, Pragyaparmita is 900 years old. The painting consists of a picture of the Pancha Buddha (five Buddhas) and the pictures of Prajnaparamita, Bajrasawta and other goddesses with four stars on one side and Pragyaparamita, Brajasatwa and Goddess Durga on the other side on a wooden leaf. Such paintings were made on Tamrapatra (copper plate ), Bhojpatra (bark of trees), palm leaves, wood, etc.
Mithila art is a form of folk art traditionally practiced by women in the Mithila region of the Southern plains of Nepal. Painted traditionally on mud walls, mithila paintings used natural color pigments, often derived from leaves and flowers and raw everyday objects like twigs, cotton, leaves, cloth, etc. with various imprint techniques to make imprints of certain line and geometrical shapes using these objects.
Peculiar perspectives of parted legs, distinctive torso, bold exaggerated lips and brightly-colored figures were typical of Mithila paintings of ancient Mithila. It also used basic still-lifes like pot, chairs and animals composed in two dimensional using multiple perspectives and side views to make the forms more recognizable and appreciable in the same way as they were seen incorporated in daily life. Thus, they provided a glimpse of the mundane every day and reflected on the simplicity of modest lifestyle of the people of the Mithila region, most of which were usually female characters drawn as an embodiment of beauty and a reflection of the picturesque rural ambience of Mithila.
Paubha (Scroll painting)
Paubha paintings, developed in the sixteenth century, were originally made by the Newars, the Natives of Kathmandu. All Paubhas were painted on coarse cotton which was primed with conch shells to provide a smooth surface. The outlines were carefully drawn either in red or black and filled in with colors. The pigments were derived both from minerals, and vegetable extracts, and the principal binding materials were gum and resin, readily soluble in water.
The principal deity was created at the center of the Paubha, and subsidiary deities around the central figure. These traditional religious paintings were painted on a rectangular piece of canvas made either of paper or cloth. These canvases were prepared by applying buffalo glue. The paint was made from minerals and plants. Gold and silver paints were also used. The paintings were created mainly to record an event, worship a deity in a temple, or a guthi (a socio-cultural group of the Newars), for meditative purposes and to obtain blessing after completion of a certain action. The paintings were done according to the rules and dimensions handed down by tradition, and artists couldn’t exercise their creativity. Artists did not use shades in the Paubha because the divine image is considered full of light. The earliest dated Paubha discovered so far is Vasudhara Mandala, which was painted in 1365 AD.
Devotees worshiped and prayed in front of the represented image at their houses and temples. Since the medium was flexible, it could be easily carried around while traveling and stored by rolling it up. Some of the Paubhas were in the form of mandalas created in a tightly structured geometric form that represented the subconsciousness. They attempted to resolve the dualities between religious and secular ideas, and individual self and cosmic being.
Pata (narrative scroll painting) depicted the mythological stories in visual forms. The subject matters of manuscript illumination, Pata and Paubha were also used in wall painting. Decorative motifs along the border and the use of flat colors to create images were other significant features of these religious paintings. In comparison to early religious paintings, the latter ones incorporated more worldly and secular images like landscapes and the portraits of the donors and patrons.
Bhitte Chitra (Wall painting)
Developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Bhitte chitras were sketches or pictures drawn on the walls of temples, monasteries, houses, shrines, inns, and caves etc. Normally made to drive away the evil spirits, misfortunes, ghosts, witches, and bad omen using drawings or pasting pictures of dieties and animals, such religious-themed paintings also helped to enrich the environment with heavenly feelings. King Jitamitra Malla and Bhupitindra Malla kept many wall paintings in their decorative chowks (squares).
Huge wall paintings can in the present day, still be found in Pashupati and Jayabageshwori temples. Hindus pasting a painting/picture of a Naag (snake) every year on the door on Naag Panchami day is an example of Bhitte Chitra. Mithila Chitrakala widely practiced in the Terai is also an excellent example of Bhitte Chitra. In India, it is called the Madhuwani Chitrakala because of its widespread popularity in Madhubani region of India.
Newa Arts were done by the Chitrakars, the drawers or illustrator castes of the Newar community (“Chitr” in Sanskrit means an image, and “aakar” means the maker) are considered original artisans of the valley. (The Newar caste system is divided based on professions), Chitrakars, therefore, are the Newari painters and mask makers. Stone sculpture, wood carving, repoussé art, and metal statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities made by the lost-wax casting process are specimens of Newar artistry. Building elements like the carved Ankhi-Jhyal (lattice window ), roof struts on temples, and the tympanum of temples and shrine houses exhibit traditional Newa creativity. Traces of Newar artistry and craftsmanship could also be found spread all over Tibet and China. Preserved till the present, Newa Art has been passed down to a long line of heritage to skilled craftsmen and artisans. One can still buy various wooden artifacts, pottery, metal-carvings, ceramic work, stone-carved masks, etc. around places such as Bhaktapur, Lalitpur, and Basantapur.
The Kathmandu Valley is also noted for its Newa style architecture, an indigenous style that has long been used by the Newars in building everything from residential housing to chaitya monastery buildings. It is marked by impressive brickwork and wooden carvings, with the architect Arniko influential in its export across Asia. Traditional Newari houses were generally three-storied, with pitched roofs and a small courtyard or chowk. They normally featured narrow windows exhibiting fine wooden trelliswork and entrance doors barred with large wooden planks.
Architecture of Nepal
A variety of sculptures and wood carvings, that boomed during the Lichchhavi period (5-8 CE) although not always in ornamental form, also served a decorative purpose in ancient Nepal. Spread all across the diversified civilization of the Kathmandu valley and many other major cities of Nepal, Pagoda temple, Shikhara style temple, stupas and monasteries serve as exquisite examples of Nepali architecture.
The Pagoda Style
The pagoda style of architecture was featured prominently in the structures of ancient Nepalese shrines and temples and consisted of multiple tiers of roofs arranged in ascending order from top to bottom supported by intricately carved wooden struts. The protruding windows were characterized by latticed architecture, which had a criss-cross pattern. Originally made of gold and alloys such as brass and bronze, this style is believed to have originated somewhere around the beginning of the 13th century.
The pagoda style is the oldest in Asia and derives its shape from Himalayan fir trees. The ground floor is the place to worship the deity and the upper floors can be used as storage of God’s property. There is gajura (pinnacle) at the top which is the combination of a lotus base, an upside-down vase, a triangle, and a kalasha (a traditional pot). In the 13th century, the young Nepali architect Araniko led a delegation to China at the invitation of Emperor Kublai Khan, spreading the pagoda architectural style across the region.
The Kasthamandap wooden pagoda, for which Kathmandu is named, is one of the most impressive examples of the pagoda style, built during the Malla period. The temples; Pashupatinath, Changunarayan, and Chandeshwori are other excellent examples of ancient architecture constructed in pagoda style. The Malla period was specifically very famous for the construction of pagoda-style temples and palaces and produced pagoda-style artifacts (temples) such as Nayatapola, Dattatraya, Kasthamandap, Taleju, Vajrabarahi, and Vajrayogini.
Monuments based on this style of architecture in Nepal have a typical hemispherical dome shape with a pyramid-like structure on top and a square base. The shape of a stupa is representative of Buddha, with the top of the spire symbolizing his crown, while his head is the square at the spire’s base and his body the hemispherical dome shape. His legs are represented by the four steps on the lower terrace at the base of his throne, while the four sides of the square base (harmika) were often painted with pairs of “all-seeing” eyes. The design is also believed to represent the five Buddhist elements – Earth (the square base), Water (the hemispherical dome), Fire (the conical spire), Air (the upper lotus parasol), Space (the sun and the dissolving point).
Some Stupas have Buddhist chanting or theologies carved beautifully on them, while some are built to preserve the relics of Buddha and his disciples. Believed to have been introduced by Emperor Ashoka in Nepal, Boudhanath and Swayambhunath are two of Nepal’s most famous stupas which are listed as two of the ten World Heritage sites of Nepal by UNESCO.
Another testimony of the brilliance of the Nepalese architects of ancient times, Shikhara means ‘mountain peak’ in Sanskrit, hence the shape of a Shikhara Style monument resembles a mountain peak or a tall curvilinear pyramidal shape. Shikhara were designed over the sanctum sanctorum where the presiding deities were enshrined and topped by a bell-shaped “alasha”, or sacred brass receptacle usually exhibiting a highly ornate exterior. They have highly elaborated and intricate artworks adorning the exteriors.
The most impressive example of the Shikhara style architecture in the Kathmandu Valley is Patan’s Krishna Temple, built by Siddhi Narsimha Malla in 1637. It merges a Gupta Shikhara style with an open, multi-storied Mughal architectural style. It was built as a copy of a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Krishna in Mathura, India, with marvelous stone carvings of gods and goddesses. Other examples of the Shikhara style are Bhaktapur’s Kedarnath and Batsala Devi temples.
How has the shift from traditionalism to modernism in Nepalese art taken place?
Both artworks, the traditional and modern have their own features and their relationship are interrelated. Various factors including Nepali history, culture, tradition, societal, family structure, and morals values have significant parts to play in defining the shift from traditional to modern and their interdependencies.
The proclamation of a new constitution and formation of democracy after the fall of the Rana regime drastically changed the political, as well as creative landscape of Nepal, making it liberal in the way that the state allowed the general public to join the arts and painting, causing Nepali painting to be more modern and relevant. As the modern art movement began around the 1860s during the period of the Industrial Revolution with the advent of photography, artists no longer saw the necessity to make art for the sake of portraying the exact reality. Artists, therefore, began experimenting with color, form, shape, abstraction, different mediums, and individual expression started becoming the epitome of art in Nepal; thus, replacing religious themes, symbolism, and traditionally made colors, dominant in the earlier periods, with secular themes, realism, and oil color.
This liberation in art expression brings us to a stage that is way more advanced than art forms of western postmodernism—shaped both by expeditious technological advancement, economic power, and further globalization; and by the logic of identity politics following the last decades. With the cultural heritage of Nepal having been evolved over the centuries, this multi-dimensional Nepali heritage encompasses the diversities of Nepal’s ethnic, tribal, and social groups, and manifests itself in music and dance; art and craft; folklore and folktales; languages and literature; philosophy and religion; festivals and celebration; foods and drinks.
With modernist tendencies of Nepali societies – ranging from an advanced education system, diplomatic set of mindset to the liberal outlook we have towards family structures, lifestyle, and career, the credo of Nepali art itself is starting to be defined by modern ideologies through the lens of a technologically advanced society. It has shifted from realism to abstractionism, public to personal, and objective to subjective, exploring the depth of their profound inner self rather than representing external objects and events.
Motifs of Traditional Art in Modern Artworks
However, to cater to the new, ever-changing, and experimentative creative artistic styles demanded by the artist’s personal career as well as the typically rich art buyers, collectors, and curators, modernism couples with the influence of Nepal’s long-lived traditional art. And although many other aspects of Nepali societies have changed along with rapid gentrification, the presence of ethnic spirituality and religious iconography in Nepali art has never come to a halt. While still holding true to this quaint, religious aesthetic, representative of the country’s rich cultural heritage, art in Nepal today, however, also veers towards socio-political issues with new aestheticism. Art today, fulfills its aesthetic and utilitarian purpose in a sense that we continue to acknowledge and inculcate the undying traditional art values and creations seen through examples of rich architectural buildings as well as exquisitely curated classical paintings at museums.
But as we associate our cultural and moral identity to the past of such a rich cultural heritage, what exactly are we associating to? ? Is it the rich vicinity where we live, that constantly reminds us of our motherland? Or is it the efforts to maintain and preserve what our ancestors have passed down to us? How do we view the cross-dimensionality of Nepali art relating to the past and present? With the advent of artificial intelligence and ever-expanding digitalization how has the mindset to create art been shifted? What needs for innovation in the making of art do the international art world, and the competitive art forums within the country, are in demand? Does our art have reflections of ‘Nepalese quirks’? Or have we been mindful about preserving our roots while trying to advance so much towards the path of modernization?
The answer is yes: the history of Nepali painting has been developed on a religious basis from history to contemporary situations. Both the artworks, traditional and modern, have evolved with their own distinct characters in redefining how we view ‘art’ today. Visible on windows, doors, temples, and roof struts, numerous of these sculptures, architecture, and artifacts, all carved by hand, can still be found excellently excavated and preserved to the present day. They serve the purpose of tourist attraction as cherished portrayals of the wonders of Nepali craftsmanship. The traditional Nepali art thus, have didactic values, that is, they teach moral lessons. As they are religious, they are ethereal and magical. They are anthropomorphic in the sense that even the divinities are embodied in human forms and emotions.
Despite all the modernization and gentrification, there are still numerous places in Nepal where local artisans have continued to maintain the traditional art form using indigenous elements, raw materials, some religious or spiritual symbolism, which resonate with the rich cultural history of the past and the invaluable skills of the ancestors. The Kathmandu Valley, henceforth, by reason of its relatively protected geographical location, has specifically been able to keep its Hindu heritage amazingly intact all through these years. In order to preserve this essence of traditional Nepali art and architecture, many artifacts have even been meticulously rebuilt despite heavy destruction due to earthquakes and rapid urbanization. Because of this, one can proudly say that true Nepali artistries haven’t been lost during transitions of various developmental stages of society over time.
Simultaneously, some contemporary Nepali artworks have blurred the boundaries among art genres like sculpture, painting, music, drama, photography, and literature. In a single artwork, we can view the elements of two or more art forms. Nepali art today, mainly seeks a dynamic and interdisciplinary means of artistic expression, while embracing and without forgoing the beliefs and norms that have been framed over the centuries. And within, we see motifs of ancient Nepal and ancient art practices which not only the older generation resonate with great memories of the past but younger evolving artists appreciate them equally with great reverence. Nepali artists aware of their own tradition and the novel trends in world art have learned the past and absorbed the contemporary, learning and unlearning to hear their inner voice, create codes, and put their own signature in a subconscious manner.
Modern painters have still managed to empower the iconography of the traditional painting and have inculcated the traditional mode of paintings into modern paintings with the pursuit to empower and reflect on traditional Nepali tribes and artistry. For example, taking inspiration from peculiar perspectives of parted legs, distinctive torso, and bold exaggerated lips, and geometric appearances, many contemporary Nepali artists like Umesh Shah and Mithileshwari Devi Karna blend traditional Mithila paintings with modernist tendencies like surrealism, cubism, and so on, reflecting on personal matters as well as depicting strong symbolisms that allude to societal issues elated with feminism, empowerment, etc. Similarly, artists such as Uttam Nepali and Lain Singh Bangdel, through their abstract artworks include luminaries of the Kathmandu valley and the importance of our land and geographical structure, that might have been overlooked from the predominant threads of our history.
Artists as such are important, not just to help us revisit and appreciate our roots, but also to view them in a modern nuance. However, to make works of art and art practices even more relevant to the contemporary scene, we need a medium of representatives, whether it be carefully curated gallery space, retrospectives, sales, and prizes, or art writers, monographs, major public works, honors, professorships and trusteeships, which can all set the right narratives of the art world. This will affect the view of the public and perception of what traditional art and architecture mean in the context of modern societies, and will simultaneously help Nepal understand and follow global market trends to rise internationally. Hence, along with the long-standing preservation and acknowledgment, we need advocacy and promotion.
- Jyoti Prakash B.K.; Nepali painting: Traditional motifs in modern art
- Madan Chitrakar; Nepali painting through the Ages
- Facts and Details; Tibetan Mandalas and Thangkas
- Raju Manandhar; Thesis on Reinterpretation of Traditional Motifs in Contemporary Nepali Paintings