It is easy to not be fascinated by the traditional sculptures, architecture, and paintings one finds in almost every temple in Nepal. Often times these pieces of artwork carry some mythological and/or religious value. Sculptures and structures are often ritual objects and places of worship while paintings tend to depict divine figures and tales. Often times these paintings are rich with symbolism and act as a medium for religious storytelling.
But while I have long enjoyed and appreciated these works of art, it was only recently that I discovered the art of “Paubha” painting to be unique from its more commercially known counterpart of “Thangka” art. While both types of paintings illustrate a pantheon of Buddhist figures, symbols, and mythical creatures, it turns out that the two art forms also have notable differences.
This is where Ujay Bajracharya comes in. In an attempt to better educate myself about the world of Paubha art, I sought out Bajracharya, who is a master craftsman and veteran Paubha artist. Bajracharya has also authored a book on the subject titled, “Paubha, Where the Divinities Reside.” When he isn’t in his studio honing his craft, Bajracharya is involved with the Aksheswar Traditional Buddhist Art College as a faculty member. Prior, he has also been a guest lecturer at Kennesaw State University in the United States. As for Bajracharya’s work, they have found a home in numerous collections inside and outside the country. This includes the Museum of Nepali Arts (MONA), the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, and private collections from Bhutan, India, China, Norway, the United States, and more.
Born in 1981, Bajracharya has long dedicated his life to the practice and conservation of Paubha art and maintained how Paubha art varies from Thangka art. He states, “A general eye may not find the differences between Paubha and Thangka as they look quite similar. But if you compare the traditional Paubha and Thangka arts, we can find huge differences.”
What sets Paubha art apart
Bajracharya shared, “Paubha is more than just a painting; it is a medium for a spiritual practice.” He explained that traditionally, Paubha paintings were created for religious purposes and were kept inside prayer rooms.
Historically, Paubha art is said to be closely associated with the Newari culture of Kathmandu valley and is influenced by both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. Just as how idols of Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses are revered by followers, Paubha paintings retain the same holy space in Hindu and Buddhist tradition.
Based on the theology of Buddhism, all creatures possess Buddhahood and can reach this level of great perfection if their minds are freed from ignorance. One attains the state of Bodhichitta and becomes ready for enlightenment gradually. Paubha art illustrates this route to Buddhahood and aids the practitioner in pursuing it.
When it comes to actually making a piece of Paubha art, a Newar high priest known as a Gurju performs a ritual known as the Hasta Puja on an auspicious day with the participation of the patron and the artist. During this ancient ritual, one’s body, mind, and speech are said to be purified, along with the supplies and materials that will be used, as well as the canvas on which a deity will be painted.
The artist’s hand is the one who puts the paint on the canvas, hence, the Hasta Puja is a ceremony that worships the hands that will be painting the holy images. According to Newari tradition, one shaves their hair and trims their nails a day ahead to prepare for the ceremony. The ceremony is conducted to pray for the completion of the work without interruption from start to end.
The Gurju then writes a syllable of a chant that pertains to the god that is being painted on the canvas to officially begin the Paubha painting. The art of Paubha entails a challenging routine. The artist is required to paint on empty stomach and has to adopt a strict vegetarian diet from the beginning till the end of their work.
History of the art style
Paubha painting is a distinctive Newar art style, that emerged from the central valley’s three vibrant cities, Patan, Bhaktapur, and Kathmandu. The word Paubha is derived from the Sanskrit term ‘Patrabhattaraka’, ‘Patra’ meaning sheets or paper, and ‘Bhattaraka’ representing ‘gods and goddesses’. Together, it means “divine in flat form.” The word was eventually shortened to become Paubha.
The earliest history of Paubha art dates back to the 13th century when it first appeared in the Kathmandu Valley. Art historians disagree about the origins of Paubha art and it is still the subject of in-depth research. The fragile medium on which it is painted and the custom of replacing old paintings with new ones is a nig reason behind the lack of samples of the earlier form of this art.
Paubha art is believed to have originated during the Licchavi period in Nepal which was a period of great artistic and religious growth in the valley. The art form was heavily influenced by the Newar people, who are credited with the creation of this art form and its development into a distinct style.
Read also: The Sacred Art of Nepal – Paubha
While to the uniformed eye, the genres of Thangka and Paubha might appear to be the same, in reality the two art styles hold many stylistic differences.
Indeed, both words refer to two distinct, ancient painting traditions that feature religious imagery. However, Thangka depicts Buddhist subjects or even deities from the pre-Buddhist Bon faith while Paubha contains Hindu and Buddhist deities, reflecting the ancient symbiosis of Hinduism and Buddhism in Kathmandu Valley. In contrast, the Thangka painting tradition is primarily associated with the central Tibetan region.
What really sets Paubha art are their intricate details and precise linework. The figures and objects depicted in these paintings are often highly stylized, with elongated limbs and exaggerated facial features. The paintings usually depict Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses, often in the form of mandalas. These mandalas are often seen as a representation of the cosmos, with the gods and goddesses representing the different elements of the universe. In addition to the deities and mandalas, Paubha paintings often feature many intricate symbols and motifs. These symbols are believed to bring good luck and are often seen as a form of protection.
As opposed to its northern cousin, Paubha art is considered to be the pinnacle of Newar art that fundamentally emerged and evolved within the confines of Kathmandu Valley.
“Thangka and Paubha are generally on the same page in regards to theme, materials, and subject. The real difference is in the style in which the two are made. Paubha consists of lots of detailing with red and darker colors. Whereas, Thangka consists of scenery with more vibrant colors,” explained Bajracharya.
The legacy of Paubha art
Paubha is an important part of Nepalese culture, and they are a reminder of the country’s long and rich history. The art form is a unique expression of faith and devotion that is still practiced today.
Today, Bajracharya estimates that there are around two hundred professional Paubha artist in Kathmandu. He shares that in recent years the number of younger artists showing interest in the art style has gradually been on the rise.
“Different art schools are now conducting 4-year courses for those interested in the style. Previously, we were not provided with any academic credentials or philosophy regarding the paintings. Now that courses pertaining to the art style have been added to the curriculum, students are not only trained to polish their skills and techniques but also provided with philosophy and commercial logic,” Bajracharya shared.
But while the practice of Paubha art remains common in Nepal, the rituals and asceticism that once accompanied it seem to disappearing. The long-standing custom of keeping this ancient tradition of painting in the utmost secrecy, as well as the sacred value it has in both Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, have in some ways contributed to the deterioration of this rich heritage.
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