What is Newar Art ?

-Robert Beer
“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. Yet it was from this tiny Himalayan kingdom, which occupies the same area as a small city, that much of what is now recognized as ‘Early Tibetan Art’ actually first arose. For the Newars were the direct inheritors of the unique artistic and architectural traditions of the late Pala Dynasties of Eastern India, which were ruthlessly destroyed at the end of the twelfth century by the iconoclastic armies of Islam. Between the eighth and twelfth centuries the transmission of Vajrayana Buddhism flowed from India into Western Tibet through the Vale of Kashmir, and into Southern Tibet through the Kathmandu Valley. And from the Valley’s three royal cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur respectively came the finest Newar painters, statue-makers and wood-carvers, whose enduring influence on Tibetan art was simply enormous. But with the Valley’s increasing absorption of Hindu culture and religion over the last few centuries, the traditions of Newar art became somewhat static and less innovative. This was due in part to the influence of Indian miniature painting, and to the fact that both Nepal and Tibet had chosen to become isolated from the outside world. Nepal actually only opened its doors to foreigners after the Chinese had invaded Tibet.

However, in the late 1930’s a vibrant Newar artistic renaissance began, inspired mainly by the genius of a painter named Anandamuni Shakya (1903-44). At the age of eighteen Anandamuni spent a year working in Lhasa, where his talents were soon recognized by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, who rewarded him with a lifetime’s supply of mineral pigments. Anandamuni’s artistic style was later influenced by the work of Sandro Botticelli, and by the stark realism of black and white photography. In 1941 he became a partner in Kathmandu’s first art gallery, which closed just after his death in 1944. During these years only one painting was sold at this the gallery.

Anandamuni’s son, Siddhimuni Shakya (1933-2001), then continued to develop the innovative technical skills and photographic realism of his father’s own unique style. Siddhimuni died in the same month that King Birendra and his family were assassinated, and his sublime artistry now rests in the hands of his son, Surendra Man Shakya, who recently finished a painting that took more than six years to complete. I first met Siddhimuni in 1973 and was deeply inspired by his dedication and devotion, as were most of the other ‘senior’ painters of that time, who have since gone on to inspire their own students. The community of Newar artists still only numbers around a hundred painters who earn their living by depicting the various Hindu and Buddhist deities that populate the Newar pantheon. A few of these artists have become divinely inspired geniuses in their own right, while the genius of Siddhimuni Shakya has now become legendary.

Tibetan Art and Newar Influence

For over a thousand years Tibet had absorbed the artist influences of its neighbouring lands. During the 7th century with the strategic marriage of the expansionist Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo to the Nepali and Chinese princesses, Tibet became the direct inheritor of the various Vajrayana traditions of India, which represented the ultimate flowering of Indian Buddhist culture before it was finally annihilated by the iconoclasm of the Muslim invaders. From its southern neighbours Tibet inherited the ancient artistic traditions of the Pala dynasty of Eastern India, and the ingenious skills of the Newar craftsmen of the Kathmandu Valley. From the west and north Tibet absorbed the early artistic influences of Kashmir, Khotan and Central Asia, whilst from the east came the stylistic influences of Chinese art.

Over the centuries the impact of this encircling ring of artistic diversity gradually gave rise to the unique form of expression that we now identify as ‘Tibetan Art’, with the enduring influences of the ornate Newar and spacious Chinese styles later evolving into such indigenous Tibetan schools as the Menri, New Menri, Khenri, and Karma Gadri styles. One erroneous view that is commonly held in the West is that Tibetan thangkas1 or Newar paubha are the work of copyists, who display little creative imagination or talent in their meticulous replication of previous works. But this is not the case. The continuity of such a long and highly esoteric artistic tradition inevitably gave rise to sparks of artistic genius in each generation, and there have been countless anonymous ‘divine artists’ whose innovation and creative stature equalled that of Raphael or Michelangelo. Another erroneous view is that thangkas were traditionally painted by monks, whereas they were usually painted by highly skilled and devout laymen, whose knowledge of the iconography and symbolism of the vast pantheon of deities would stagger any Tibetan monk. To attain to the status of a master thangka and paubha painter takes many years of study, dedication and practice under an accomplished master. And with this attainment came the confidence of one’s own unique creative vision within the context of the vibrant continuity of the ‘lineages of transmission’.

With the takeover of Tibet by China in 1949, Chairman Mao’s Red Guards understood nothing of these things as they smashed and plundered their way through the devastating years of the Cultural Revolution. The ensuing decades of extreme religious and cultural suppression resulted in the abrupt severance of many of Tibet’s ancient ‘lineages of transmission’, with an entire generation of lamas, monks, scholars and craftsmen being either persecuted and imprisoned or forced into exile on the Indian side of the Himalayas. With the first glimmer of liberalisation and the opening of Tibet to foreign tourist groups during the mid 1980’s the Tibetans began to rebuild and restore some of the 6,000 monasteries that had been either destroyed or desecrated. Sadly only a small number of elderly thangka painters had survived to begin this work of restoration, and although their enthusiastic younger apprentices rapidly developed their hereditary skills in the techniques of painting, their ability to accurately draw and understand the highly esoteric symbolism of the deities and their mandalas was not so easy to assimilate.

Most of the Tibetans who fled into exile in 1959 were resettled in the refugee camps of India and Nepal, but their impoverished conditions were not conducive to the propagation of their artistic traditions. Many of the great scholars and craftsmen that I met in the early 1970’s were often employed on road building crews, and the few thangka painters who had managed to re-establish themselves in exile were thinly spread throughout the refugee settlements. With an increasing demand for commissions and insufficient financial patronage these artists often had to produce works very quickly, and as a consequence their full artistic potential was often thwarted. The traditional standard of being able to devote a year or more to produce an exquisite painting was now rarely applicable, and with the depletion of their stock of native mineral pigments and dyes the artists often had to resort to synthetic Indian ‘Camel’ poster colours.

During the early 70’s the overland ‘hippy trail’ from Europe to Asia culminated in the ancient temple city of Kathmandu, and to meet a growing demand for esoteric souvenirs the Nepali entrepreneurs of ‘Freak Street’ market began to produce cheap artifacts, such as ritual implements, erotic woodcarvings, and Tibetan thangkas. Although these thangkas were often touted as genuine articles painted in ‘stone colour’, they were really the works of young Nepali painters, who cunningly darkened their painted surfaces and brocade borders to make them look old. They were invariably also completely icongraphically inaccurate and made no sense in any Buddhist tradition. These Buddha-filled compositions and mandalas are still available in Nepal at the cheap end of the market, where they can almost be bought by weight - but the sophistication of the market has moved on since then.

With the availability of many beautifully illustrated books on Tibetan art and the nearby proximity of colour photocopy machines, it is now quite easy to enlarge and trace an image onto a blank thangka canvas and fill in the colours, mainly for the tourist market. There are now over 5,000 Nepali artists working in the Kathmandu valley, and although they are very skilful copyists they invariably have little understanding of the complex subject matter they are depicting. The same holds true for the many dealers who own the thangka shops in Kathmandu, who generally display a regrettable lack of knowledge of Buddhist iconography. The need to create fascinating new compositions has also led to the production of many ‘hybrid thangkas’, where the lineage holders and deities of different Tibetan traditions are depicted in incongruous assemblies. The simpler peaceful deities are often painted quite accurately, but the more complex tantric and protective deities are frequently laden with iconographical errors. There is a thriving market for these paintings in countries like Taiwan, Japan and even Tibet, where they are sold as authentic Tibetan thangkas. Some of the Indian miniature painters in Rajasthan have also began to paint Tibetan deities recently.

The indigenous Newar artistic tradition of Kathmandu has undergone the most vibrant revival over the last century, which was instigated by the artistic genius of Anandamuni Sakya, his son Siddhimuni Sakya, and Siddhimuni’s son, Surendra Man Sakya (b. 1967). Many extremely talented young Newar artists now follow in the footsteps of Anandamuni and Siddhimuni in their striving for artistic perfection and for the preservation of their cultural heritage.

And what of the future? Wherever Buddhism has travelled it has absorbed the cultural expression of each country in which it has taken root, and as its iconic art impinges on the secular aestheticism of the West it inevitably has to pass through a period of experimental transition in its search for meaning. Yet I feel confident that this meaning will be found through the course of time and increased understanding. The pure light forms of the Vajrayana deities encapsulate the entire spectrum of the Buddhist teachings within their complex symbolism. As visual archetypes of our own inner potential they are destined to shine once again in mankind’s eternal quest of the search for meaning.