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Paintings of Nepal


Paintings from Nepal were primarily found in illustrations of Holy Scriptures from the eleventh century AD. They were painted on different materials such as leaves, wood, and the wooden covers of the scriptures. It is said that the first paintings to enter the country were those inspired from these Holy Scriptures and painted by artists in India during early eleventh century. In comparison, Buddhist manuscripts were more elaborately decorated than the Hindu manuscripts. Most of these early scriptures were written on palm leaves, a plant that is found on the plains and coastal region of the Indian subcontinent, further indicating the possibility that later paintings in Nepal were inspired by those of what is now India. The paintings found in the manuscript may be used to describe the theme or for the sole purpose of decoration. They usually depict shrines, temples, animals, and deities and their surroundings. These old paintings found in both Buddhist and Brahman manuscripts do not hold a wide variety of colors or shades as traditional dyes were used derived from raw materials. Some dyes were more commonly used in some areas as the raw materials were more easily found. The early scroll paintings of Nepal existed in different forms as patas, torananas, paubhas, and thangkas. They were mostly held in private possession and were only displayed to the public during festivals. The unique thing about most of these Nepalese paintings is that the date, title, the owner, and sometimes the artist of the painting would also be mentioned.

The oldest surviving painting of Nepal is of a vihara which was painted during the transitional period of 1015. Other paintings of the eleventh century are the Nepal-Swayambhu chaitya that looks like a conventional stupa and was completed in 1071 and Nepal vugama-Lokesvarah, a revered Buddhist deity during medieval Nepal, is another from the same year. [These three ancient paintings are presently under the care of The Asiatic Society, Calcutta; (Source: Nepal Mandala; Mary Slusser)]. These paintings represent the features of the Swayambhu in the eleventh century, with no eyes or nose on the sides. The style of painting of eyes and noses on stupas began in the fifteenth century.

Stella Kramrisch, author of "The Art of Nepal," specifies that the first paintings that entered Nepal were in Buddhist manuscript from the Pala dynasty in what is now Eastern India during the eleventh century. Paintings on the cover and scripture of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita (Book of the Perfection of Wisdom) dated 1028 [presently in anonymous possession], is among the earliest of these paintings found to date.

According to Pratapaditya Pala, the writer of "Art of Nepal," the paintings found in the manuscript were either intended for the description of the theme or for the sole purpose of decoration, which had little or no relation to the subject of the manuscript and most probably for the protection of the book from natural destruction. Usually the cover was more extravagantly decorated that the inner pages and was often carved. Some of these old manuscripts with portraits are Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, Paramartha Namasangiti, and Gandavyuha. Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita depicts eight events in the life of Lord Buddha. Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries manuscript painting was highly conservative; copies of old manuscripts were made without any addition of new paintings to them but were rather duplicated as exact copies of old ones.

Though the Nepalese and Indian sub continental manuscript paintings evolved from the same tradition, close examination shows differences in style and shades of color between the two. For example Nepalese paintings generally give a hint of crimson in red and show a definite outline while the Southern counterparts used a bright red vermilion color and loose outline of the subjects.

The early scroll paintings of Nepal, pata in sanskrit, torana or paubha in Nepali, and thangka in Tibetan were different in form and purpose from each other. A major contributor to these differences was when traditional paintings arrived in Tibet in the thirteenth century. There they were strongly influenced by Buddhist designs to become known as the thangka, whereas, the Newari paubha primarily highlights Hindu dieties. However, the basic painting methods were the same in all of them. In the paintings of Nepal, mudras (the different postures of hand and body) rather than the facial expressions were applied to convey the emotional state of the subject. The pata and torana were essentially long successions of paintings completing an illustrated a story. Whereas, thangka is a single complete painting with a central subject of deities. In Buddhist paintings, the seven jewels considered auspicious and figures representing the universe are common features. These paintings were initially made with chalk or other mineral powders of primary colors and glue on primed cotton cloth. These bold colors were always applied so as to make distinct images of the subject. After finishing the painting the surface was varnished with egg-white and water to preserve the paint. Scroll paintings were held mostly in private possession; the paintings of gods and goddesses were displayed during festivals and special events which highlighted the god or goddess. On Bisket Jatra, a festival in Bhaktapur, a ceremonial wooden pole around eighty feet long called a linga is raised in order to hang two banner paintings representing serpent-demons reaching down to the ground. According to legend, these two serpents emerged from the nostrils of a princess and were slain by a prince on this day.

The paintings of Amitabh surrounded by Bodhisattva made in thirteenth to fourteenth century and Buddha Ratnasambhava with eight Boddhisattva made in fourteenth century, which are presently at Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, India are among the earliest recorded mandalas of Nepal. These mandalas show clear circles, squares, and other shapes, adaptations more common to Central Asian, and identical to those in present day Nepal mandalas.

By the sixteenth century, Kathmandu was the center of the trade route between India and Tibet. However, around that time the Indian influences in the paintings were insignificant and more Tibetan styles intervened, leaving a lasting effect on thangka paintings. The traditional method of captioning the title of the painting and its owner still existed, and in accordance to Tibetan style, a distinct border distinguished the subject of the painting from the rest of the poster. These margins of the paintings were either bold lines, or lined leaves, clouds or hills in the Tibetan style.

The sky in the paintings represented in dark indigo color, the clouds known as 'Tai' made in curly white structures, water represented in white curling basket like lines on a blue background, the hills illustrated in different colored peaks, etc, are all Tibetan techniques that have been handed down through generations in thangka painting. About that time, the dress seen in the paintings like the jama wore by men and hats worn by women were more of Central Asian influence than the Indian sub continental styles. A disciple of the Buddha is given credit for the first serious scroll painting in the thangka genre. In the sixth century BC, it is said, a man Sharipura took exact measurements of the Buddha's features and defined precise colors of his skin. Since then, his standards have been maintained. In the latter years, others students of dharma, following this example, also measured their teachers so that no one would distort their looks in the future.

These measurements have survived until today and the good artist meticulously copies each figure to the millimeter. He or she is not at a liberty to change the details and usually reproduces a master copy that has come down through the centuries. To the worshippers, no variation from the assigned scale is acceptable. Scroll paintings that do not follow pre-given directions are useless for religious purposes.]


Both scripture and banner paintings are related to the Gupta tradition of arts in what is now India. However, in later years the artistic styles in Nepal continued with Buddhist paintings as seen in the murals in the caves of Ajanta, India. These Indian sub continental influences are clearly seen in Nepali painting up to the late fifteenth century. A Samvara pata of the fourteenth century (presently in display at Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, India) and Amoghapasa Pata made in 1436 (Ethnographical Museum in Leiden) show the similarity to the artistic style that passed through the Indian subcontinent around the same time they were made. The Samvara pata is based on Buddhist texture and shows the subject in Dhyana, a meditative state. Amoghapasa Pata is a unique example made in Apbhramsa mudra with the face of the subject filling three fourth of the entire painting and having big bulging eyes. This painting is made with five primary colors, which are mixed to get other shades too.

There are no archives suggesting the start of different sophisticated and equally beautiful paintings like thangkas and mandalas. Though not supported by physical evidence, paintings found from the fourteenth century hint towards their slow development from their earlier stages that have not been recorded. Narrative scroll paintings were carried by Buddhist travelers and were displayed to people while reciting a legend of the deities.

Other images of the medieval period that were recovered are:
(a) Ten incarnations of god Vishnu. Painted on wood, in 1220, Bir Library Kathmandu,
(b) Manuscript of Buddhist Sanskrit text (pancaraksa), with paintings of Dhyani Buddhas and female Buddhist deities, in 1274, Bir Library, Kathmandu. Then the paintings were done on cloth, paper, and to decorate objects like boxes. Other paintings were found on ornamental casket for woman that was covered with painted cloth and plastered, made in the fifteenth century, presently at National Art Gallery, Bhaktapur; seven scenes from a Buddhist legend (visvantara jakata); Amogpasha Avalokiteshvara, early fifteenth century, painting on cloth, 27"X 23", (presently in anonymous possession);
(c) Hitopadesha, folding book painted on paper, 1594, Bir Library, Kathmandu, Nepal.

With the enthusiasm towards arts shown during the Malla period from the thirteenth to eighteenth century, the paintings continued to flourish. There have been changes in style though the basic tradition of painting remained the same through out the period. With the start of seventeenth century the paintings made, along with the dress worn during the Malla regime, some accordance with the paintings of Rajasthani, Pahari, or Mughal styles. Except for the basic traits of the Rajasthani style, paintings in Kathmandu also contributed to the development of this style. For example, the smaller gods seen around the central subject of paintings was a style that developed and was implemented in Nepal and not seen in any of the Indian sub continental paintings. Though some paintings were still drawn in the earlier tradition of Nepali style to the end of Malla period, the Rajesthani tradition became popular for manuscripts, paintings on cloth and paper, and murals on walls of Malla buildings. These murals specially portrayed the kings and their families. Some paintings that are painted in the Rajesthani tradition are:
(d) The invading Mukundasena, a king of Palpa, in seventeenth or eighteenth century painting on cloth, Itum Bahal, kathmandu; King Pratap Malla at prayer, watercolor on paper, seventeenth century, (private collection);
(e) JayaPrakash Malla, the last king of Kathmandu, National Museum, seventeenth to eighteenth century. Tibetan influence on some paintings is also seen in some of the paintings of the Malla period.

In 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah invaded the Valley and took over the throne, he still insisted that the tradition arts of the Valley not be disturbed. Instead he patronized the artists working in different fields and asked them to continue in their previous fields. It is his steps in preserving the ancient culture that has enabled the continuation of it into the modern period.

In the nineteenth century the Rana rulers came to power and were highly influenced by British styles in order to better trade relations. The Valley witnessed an influence of a new tradition of painting that had no Asian artistic styles, the European arts. There were still some traces of the Rajesthani style remaining such as in Jalasayana Narayana, Laksmi, Brahma, Madhu, and Kaitav with a king, priests and counselors on the right, detail of a multicolored mural, Mohan Chok, and Hanuman Dhoka, done in the nineteenth century. Later in the century the Ranas exclusively preferred portraiture in European fashion. This can be seen by the vast number of oil portrays that were made during the period.