• Culture & Tradition
  • 06 December, 2021

The Sacred Art of Nepal – Paubha

The Sacred Art of Nepal – Paubha

Paubha is more than just a painting, it is a lesson that ought to be applied in the life of an artist,” states renowned Paubha painter Lok Chitrakar, while reflecting on the philosophical dimension of Paubha painting.

Understanding Paubha painting is an exotic journey for creative minds due to its immense philosophical and spiritual power. It requires enormous skill and years of dedication to become a master Paubha painter. Traditionally, education for the traditional art of Paubha was imparted through the Newari guild system. But nowadays universities and art schools offer courses in this ancient genre of Nepali art.

As a student of Fine Arts, I had first-hand experience of studying Paubha painting in Nepal under the renowned artist Lok Chitrakar and academic theoretical studies under Dr. Junu Basukala. I have been fortunate enough to build a personal relationship with traditional art practices. Painting a paubha is a spiritual experience as the spirit of producing Paubha is to obtain Karmic fruit that benefits all living beings.

Painter painting Paubha
Thin brushes are used to create a Paubha painting

What is Paubha art?

Paubha is derived from the term Patrabhattaraka that later came to be known as Paubha. [i] Nepal Brihat Shabdakosh defines ‘Pauba’ as a traditional form of painting gods. [ii] [iii]

Lok Chitrakar states that there are four key points in Paubha tradition: rule of painting, the tradition of painting, purpose, and benefits of painting.  The basic rule of painting as per Chitralakshan is the correct usage of colors, ingredients, hand, and body postures.

The painting was created for various traditional purposes through the collective effort of the priest, the patron, and the painter. For example, paintings of ‘Manjubajra’ and ‘Bajradhateshwori’ were painted by Keshraj Chitrakar in C.E.1409 for Harsaram Chitrakar under the guidance of the priest Kul Bhadra. Another painting titled ‘Vishnu Mandal’ was painted by Jaya Tej Pun in 1420 CE for Tejoram Sharma and his brothers.

paubha is created mainly to record an event, worship a personal deity or a deity in a temple, for a guthi, for meditative purposes and to obtain blessing after completion of a certain action.

History of Paubha Art

Paubha painting tradition seems to have developed within Kathmandu Valley with one notable exception of Pala (an ancient Indian Empire) influence. Kreijger states, “In thirteenth to mid-sixteenth century Paubha, the well-defined aquiline noses, long eyelashes, and elongated eyes, and decorative elements like jewelry, including bracelets, armlets, and crowns have a great deal of resonance with Pala sculptures and manuscript illustrations.”[iv]

The artistic style of Paubha also known as Beri style or Newari style became the universal painting style in Tibet for a century between the 1360s-1450s, reflecting the influence of Nepali style in the Tibetan art culture.[v]

In 1997, Steve Kossak wrote that the oldest surviving Paubha painting is ‘Vasudhara Mandala’, dated C.E. 1367. It belonged to an era when Kathmandu Valley suffered Muslim raids resulting in the destruction of many ancient artworks. [vi]

However, more than a decade later in 2010, Steve Kossak wrote in another book that the ‘Green Tara’ painted around 1261-1270 and attributed to Arniko is the oldest surviving Paubha painting.[vii]  

A Paubha artiste
A Paubha artiste

Iconography in Paubha

According to Dr. Junu Basukala an expert in Buddhist paintings, traditionally the artist needs to follow traditional laws to draw a certain number of heads, hands, leg positions, hand positions (known as iconography). But there is freedom for the artist to decorate the clothing and the background as it is not mentioned in the shastras.

Many artists have successfully followed iconography but not paint as per iconometry (ratio and proportions in painting as defined by shastra). One would need complete knowledge of the shastras and the right skills to create a perfect paubha.

It has been said that by failing to paint gods as per iconography the artist would suffer dosha – they may become childless, a person close to them may die, loss of wealth, or sickness.

She further added, traditionally the eyes of the gods are painted at last because eyes are the symbol of life and by painting the eyes life is infused inside the painting. There can be a variety of themes such as the life of Buddha or other philosophical interpretations. There are also erotic paintings which as per scholars represent the union between wisdom and compassion. But as it could be misinterpreted these paintings are not shown to the outsiders.  

Key Buddhist paintings include Pancha Buddha, the concept of which could briefly be understood from the following chart[viii].

NameColorDirectionEnlightened Mind
VairochanawhitecenterAll-encompassing Dharmadhatu Wisdom
AkshobyablueeastMirror-like Wisdom
RatnasambhavayellowsouthWisdom of Equality
AmitabharedwestDiscriminating Wisdom
AmogsiddhigreennorthAll-accomplishing Wisdom

The chart reflects the direction each of the Buddhas faces and the color with which they are painted with and what they represent. Traditionally, there are five primary colors namely red, yellow, blue, black, and white, which the old texts state as pancha ranga karma. Green is a secondary color generated by combining yellow and blue.

Colour pigment
Natural pigments

While studying Pancha Buddhas following the direction from west-south-east, the colours used are red, yellow, and blue. From west-north-east, the colours used are red, green, and blue. Finally in the middle is white.

During a practical class of traditional art practices, my classmate Dinesh Sinkhwal (belonging to a family of Paubha painters) remarked against the contemporary culture of shading gods- “Have you ever seen a shadow in a bulb? In the same fashion gods are self-luminous how can anyone add any shade upon them!” Considering this philosophy, gods can have a variety of colors but they lack dimension achieved through shading.

The beauty of the ancient paintings rests on their surreal qualities that make the paintings look magical and as something beyond the humanistic realm with gods having multiple hands and heads.

Paubha in recent times

There is rising fear that the Paubha market may crumble because of modernization, manipulation, and digitization of the art. Senior artists complain that younger apprentices these days lack the patience to dedicate multiple years to learning Paubha painting.  

Paubha painting is considered to be expensive, but it requires very high skills and the use of natural colour pigments derived from real gold and silver dust to create one. Artistes are required to use thin ‘000’ number brushes, even for large-scale painting, which makes the task of painting more laborious.

Paubha Painting
Paubha art

There are blogs, articles, YouTube videos on the internet spreading awareness about the indigenous Nepali (Newari) artwork, Kathmandu University has made Traditional Art Practices a compulsory degree course for Studio Major in Fine Arts. However, no official institution exists to certify Paubha painters but this process is slowly changing as more universities are interested in introducing courses dedicated to Traditional Art Practices.

Artists such as Lok Chitrakar have protected traditional Paubha paintings while popular artists like Uday Charan Shrestha and Samudra Man Singh Shrestha have modified it to build a new culture of art.

A simple place for a tourist to find these paintings is the shops around Thamel, Swayambu, and Boudha. High-quality Paubha paintings are exhibited at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts, in the category of Traditional Arts. Other notable galleries for the collection of Paubha paintings include Boddhisatva Gallery, Inar, Patan and Museum of Nepali Art, Kathmandu Guest House, Kathmandu.

Older paintings are exhibited at the Bhaktapur Art Museum, National Museum in Chauni. Many old paintings are displayed in various Bihar (Buddhist Monasteries) during the auspicious period of Gunla Dharma (around June-July) as per the Newari calendar.

Author: Kripendra Amatya

Images Courtesy: Kripendra Amatya



[i] Beach, C. Paubha: An introduction to traditional newar painting. Himalayanartschool. www.himalayanartschool.com/art-history.

[ii] Nepal Brihat Shabdakosh. Nepal Rajkiya Prajya Pratisthan. p.809

[iii] Manandhar, T.L. Newari-English dictionary modern language of Kathmandu Valley. p.156 [1] Kreijger H.E. Kathmandu valley paintings the Jucker Collection

[iv] Kreijger H.E. Kathmandu valley paintings the Jucker Collection. Serindia Publication: London. p.18

[v] Jackson D.P. The Nepali legacy in Tibetan paintings. Rubin Museum of Art: New York. p.XX

[vi] Kossak, S. Tibetan art towards a definition of style. Laurence King Publishing: London. p.28

[vii] Kossak, S. Painted Images of Enlightenment Early Tibetan Thankas. Marg publication: Mumbai. p.106

[viii] Mandalas Life Nepal. Dhyani Buddhas. https://mandalas.life/2018/dhyani-buddhas-pancha-buddhas/

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