“No other people on earth, Watson, has produced such intricate beauty in as small a space as the Valley of Kathmandu. One trenchant observer has described it best as a kind of coral reef, built up laboriously over the centuries by unrecorded artisans. As a human achievement, it ranks with the creations of Persia and Italy.”
“Good Lord, Holmes, and to think that no one even knows of its existence!”
(Ted Riccardi: The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. 2003)
This fictional exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr.Watson perhaps best describes the predicament of these unrecorded artisans who worked so laboriously over the centuries. For these were the Newar artists of Nepal, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, who probably first migrated here from India soon after the advent of Buddhism. Newars from Ye Dey (Kathmandu), Yala Dey (Patan or Lalitpur) and Khwopa Dey (Bhaktapur) have created a unique style of artwork that has spread across all continents yet not recognized to the fullest extent.
With the discovery of the life-sized sculpture of King Jayavarma (dated 84 CE) and the existing stone sculptures of Mother Goddesses from the 2nd-3rd centuries, we can presume that the Kathmandu Valley was a thriving artistic center during the pre-Licchavi period. Certainly, by the Licchavi period (ca. 4th – 9th centuries), Nepali craftsmen had developed distinctive stylistic and aesthetics conventions in painting and metal/stone/wood sculptures, rivaling their Indian counterparts of the Gupta period, these masters–the Newar artists of the Kathmandu Valley–quickly achieved international repute throughout Asia, and were acclaimed as world-class painters and sculptors with unparalleled skill and iconographic expertise.
The term Paubha, derived from the Sanskrit term pata (“cloth painting”) generally refers to a large vertical format of sized cloth painting. Historically, Hindu shilpashastra treatises, such as Vishnudharmottara Purana (ca. 7th century) as well as the early Vajrayana literature, Manjushrimulakalpa (ca. 8th century) were well-known as reference manuals, especially for the technical processes of creating Paubha and also for the lost-wax process casting techniques. Specific grid measurements of the body and facial proportions, and general delineation of deity categories, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattva, peaceful or wrathful deities, follow iconometric conventions of a specific style of school. Stylistic mastery was generally acquired through teaching lineages, often transmitted within family or within an informal guild system. Artists were generally designated by their hereditary caste affiliation of wood-cravers, metal casters, and painters, although the Buddhist Shakyas and Vajracharyas caste have been superb sculptors and painters, and their iconographic and ritual knowledge were associated with their religious training.
Nepal’s political and artistic alliance with Tibet began at least as early as the 7th century. Newar artists were commissioned to build and embellish the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, and the Nepali princess Bhrikuti, daughter of Amshuvarman is said to have taken a number of artists with her to Tibet, when she was given in marriage to Srongtsan Gampo. The famous Newar artist Arniko (ca 1245-1306) was first invited to go to Tibet by Phagpa, the hierarch of the Shakya sect in 1260 to build a golden stupa in Tibet.
Newar devotional paubha painting, sculpture and metal craftsmanship are world-renowned for their exquisite beauty. The earliest dated paubha discovered so far is Vasudhara Mandala which was painted in 1365 AD (Nepal Sambat 485). The murals on the walls of two 15th-century monasteries in the former kingdom of Mustang in the Nepal Himalaya provide illustrations of Newar works outside the Kathmandu Valley. 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 Newar window, roof struts on temples and the tympanum of temples and shrine houses exhibit traditional creativity. From as early as the seventh century, visitors have noted the skill of Newar artists and craftsmen who left their influence on the art of Tibet and China. Newars introduced the lost-wax technique into Bhutan and they were commissioned to paint murals on the walls of monasteries in both Bhutan and Tibet. Even till today, if one was to visit any of the older Buddhist monasteries in Bhutan and Tibet then they would be able to see the works of Newar artists and craftsmen.
Newa art has come a long way since the first dated artifacts and it will keep evolving overtime to be able to attract the younger generations. One of the main focus of Bodhisattva Gallery has been to help flourish and to continue what the artists and artisans had created in history. Many believe that the sacred art has died and been overcome by commercial statues and paintings but Bodhisattva Gallery has been trying to continue to create some of the highest quality of art work in collaboration with some of the best artists from Kathmandu Valley. Even till today we continue to follow the traditional ways of making statues and paintings but work with the artists to bring a creative touch without compromising on the iconography. We believe that without this effort the sacred form of Newa art will be lost to commercialization.
For more details, check out Jewels of Newar Art available at Bodhisattva Gift Shop