You’ll find Buddhist art depicted in stone, wood, and metal works, most of which are images of Buddhist deities, and as paubhas/thangkas (religious paintings). Although most early sculptures were of Hindu deities, Buddhist art is an important part of Nepal‘s ancient history. While the earliest stone sculpture discovered was the headless ‘Yaksha’ in Handigaun of Kathmandu, dating back to 1st century A.D., Buddhist stone sculpture began to be seen from 5th century A.D., with ‘Budha Head’ (7th century A.D.) and ‘Buddha’ (9th century A.D.) being among the earliest.
As far as works in bronze and copper are concerned, Buddhist deity images have been found that date back to 10th century A.D. Since ancient times, and even today, most metal sculpture in Kathmandu Valley are made using the lost wax method. It begins with the making of a wax image (an art requiring great artistic skill), which is cocooned inside a mixture of fine soil and cow dung that is then plastered over with a mix of rice husk and yellow clay, and left to dry indoors for some days. After it has dried completely, it is heated, and the wax poured out of some small openings. The cast is then put into a furnace on extremely high heat, and once it has hardened, molten metal is poured in through another opening. Next, it is left to cool, and once it has set, the cast is broken, revealing the image beneath. Fine refinement work follows that includes chiseling in the details, and painting, if required.
According to a Mr. Purna Kazi Shakya, a leading metal sculptor of Lalitpur, the quality of the cow dung and fine soil mixture goes a long way in determining the quality of the finished product, the better the mix, finer the feature details. Cow dung is preferred over other animal dung because it has stronger holding power, and as for the soil, the soil of anthills has been found to be excellent for the purpose. Before 2034-35 B.S., copper was not used much, with bronze being at the forefront, although copper is more ductile and soft, and so, more suitable for fine chisel work and face painting, including gilt painting. Bronze, on the other hand, is hard and brittle, and difficult for etching in the finer details, while with copper, one can do both fine chisel work as well as face painting. The reason for copper’s late entry into metal sculpting was because coal was not easily available at that time, and it was needed to create the high and sustained heat required to melt copper.
Dwelling on the process of casting, a difficult process in metal sculpting, another master sculptor of Lalitpur, Mr. Santa Shakya, says that working around conditions of extremely high heat is challenging, and new innovations have been made, including one by himself, to make the process less uncomfortable. Additionally, he also states that sculptors in Nepal depend on experience to judge the right time when the casting should be be taken out, as well as at what stage the molten metal should be poured into the cast. To say that metal sculpting is an art requiring great skill would be an understatement, particularly when the finished products you see all around the Valley, in many shops, workshops, and monasteries are of such high quality. Many of the finest examples of metal sculptures of Buddhist deities are to be found in various monasteries, and this is to be expected, since some of the best metal sculptors make figures only for monasteries, and not for sale outside. Lalitpur (Patan) has some of the most renowned metal sculptors, with certain localities like Oku Bahal being practically the mecca of Buddhist metal sculpture.
Paubha:, or thangka, is the other popular medium for Buddhist art, and it an art in which quite a few Nepali artists really excel. Paubha: is derived from the Newari term Patra Bhattarak that means ‘depiction of god in flat form’. The Tibetan term is thangka. One of the oldest paubhas:, according to Mr. Lok Chitrakar, a leading exponent of the art, is a late 12th – early 13th century painting of Ratna Sambhav that is on display in Los Angeles County Museum in the U.S.A.. The starting point of paubha: painting is known as Patbhumibandhan. This involves stretching out of a white canvas on a wooden frame, which is rubbed with kamaro (white clay) and saras (buffalo hide glue). Kamaro provides the color, which covers all the pores, while saras acts as the binding medium. The artist then does free hand sketching on this prepared canvas. Most themes are based on Buddhist religious texts (sutras), with a central iconic figure sitting on a canopied pedestal having cornices at the four corners with various figures. This makes up the center point of a figurative temple.
Permanent ink sketching comes next, followed by coloring. Generally, red, blue, yellow, white, and black are the five basic colors used. Traditionally, these are from mineral and vegetable sources, with orpiment and cinnabar being the sources for yellow and red, respectively; lapis lazuli being the source of blue; conch shell powder for pure white; and soot of burning pine wood for black. Gold color, which is used quite a lot, is produced from gold dust, while indigo provides the rich indigo color. Mr. Deepak Joshi, one of the foremost paubha: painters of Kathmandu, reveals that clients often insist on him using stone colors while painting on their commissioned paubhas:. He says that he uses malacite for green color, lapus lazuli for blue, hingul, or rato simrik, for red, and harital for yellow, while limestone is the source of white and soot of black. He admits that it is a tough task making them, it being a very time-consuming process. However, he confesses that the distinctive quality of the colors so derived makes the effort worthwhile.
Indeed, Buddhist art, whether in metal, stone, wood, or as paubha: painting, is all pervasive in Nepal, and they contribute greatly to the culture and heritage of this country of Lord Gautam Buddha. It is also heartening that we have so many artists and artisans who are extremely skilled in their particular art form. Their beautiful works are viewed with awe and admiration by people of all hues and colors, and from all around the globe. Buddhist art, it must be repeated, is a part of Nepal’s heritage that does the country proud.