-Min Bahadur Shakya
The Origins of Buddhist Art

The earliest Buddhist art may be traced back to the Buddha’s life time, although some art historians suggest that it originated some centuries after the Buddha’s Great Parinirvana in the 6th century B.C.E. We find many exegetical references to strengthen evidences in the Sutra texts, i.e Vinaya and Tantra, including the Manjusrimulakalpa. It appears that the Buddha himself considered painting to be an important subject as he mentioned methods of painting in sutras, such as Buddha Pratimalaksana Sutra.This is apparently a very late Buddhist text, perhaps after 10th century C.E. These scriptures explain how to make the image of deities and spiritual figures.

According to Buddhist legend, the two kings of Magadha, Bimbisara and Uddayana were very close friends and they would often exchange gifts. Once, when Uddayana, King of Vatsa sent a priceless gift to his friend, King Bimbisara responded by deciding to send a painted scroll of the Buddha. But when the artist began to look at the Buddha, they were so overwhelmed by the splendor and light emitting from his body that they could not draw his image. Upon seeing this, the Buddha cast his shadow on a piece of cloth and advised the artists to trace it. This is supposed to have been the first painted figure of the Buddha in his lifetime.

Similarly, the Buddha, at one time was residing in the Nigrodha Grove at the city of Kapilavastu and was teaching the Dharma to thousands, including his father Suddhodana, and queen Mahaprajapati. The Shakya prince Mahanama asked Buddha to teach his wife, the obstinate and haughty Shashiprabha. While the Buddha was teaching, the vain Shashiprabha asked her servant Rohita to bring her pearl necklace that would further accentuate her beauty. While she was rushing to get pearl necklace, the servant was struck by a cow, and died instantly. She was reborn in Sri Lanka as a princess called Muktalata. Showers of pearls fell down when she took birth therefore named as Muktalata (The Pearl Creeper). When a group of merchants were traveling to Sri Lanka, they began to chant a hymn dedicated to Shakyamuni. Princess Muktalata, hearing the songs of the Buddha, called the merchants to take offering back to the Buddha. The Buddha accepted the offerings with pleasure, and in return sent a cloth painting of himself, inscribed with some teachings to Princess Muktalata. She saw the portrait and deep faith arose in her for the Buddha and consequently realized the truth and attained the state of stream entry (strotapanna). Later, it came to be known as the portrait of “Rashmi-muni” ( The Radiant Saint). It is said to be the second portrait during the lifetime of the Buddha.

History of Nepali Painting

To trace the history of Buddhist art in Nepal in Pre-Licchavi period (before 464 C.E.) is quite a difficult task due to lack of documentary evidence. The history of Nepali art is documented only after 464 C.E., the date of a stone inscription at Changu Narayana. However, the Licchavi period (464-880 C.E.) is said to be the golden age of Nepali art. Several beautiful sculptures dating from this period have been found. For example, the Padmapani Bodhisattva image at Srigha Vihara dating 550 C.E., is one of the best examples. Unfortunately, not a single painting from that period has survived.

It is well know that Buddhist art was introduced into Tibet from Nepal in the seventh century, when King Srongtsan Gampo (ca. 617-650) married the Nepali Princess Bhrikuti Devi.The presence of Newar artists in Tibet from the early 7th century to the mid- ninth century is frequently noted in Tibetan historical records. Furthermore, it is fairly certain that there were trading connections between Nepal and Tibet long before the Tibetans became a recognized political power. At Lhasa itself local tradition maintains that that the Jokhang temple was built by Princess Bhrikuti, the Nepali wife of Srongtsan Gampo.

The Tibetan revealed text of Avalokiteshvara, Manikabum mentions that Nepali artists, commissioned by King Srongtsan Gampo, produced the statue of eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara together with statues of Bhrikuti, Arya Tara, Marici, Sarasvati, Hayagriva and many others in Jokhang Temple of Lhasa. For example Srongtsan Gampo is said to have commissioned the celebrated Nepali craftsmen Khreba to create eleven images of Avalokiteshvara, which were to be same sizes as the king himself. Many skillful artists were called from Nepal to Tibet where they developed unique artistic tradition.

During the time of Tri-Ralpacan, (806-838) the art of painting in Nepali style was introduced into Tibet. While constructing the Buddhist monastery “Tashi Gephel”, he employed many Nepali artists for painting in their Nepali style. Thus, on account, the art of painting in Nepali style thrived in Central and upper Tibet. Another trend of Nepali style of painting became prominent during the time of Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) in China. Most were commissioned by the Sakya-pa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The majority of 13th century paintings found in Sakya monasteries are in Nepali style. In 1260, Kublai Khan, the great ruler of China and suzerain of the Mongol states and Tibet, asked his spiritual preceptor, Phagpa (1235-1280), to erect a golden Pagoda in Tibet. He is said to have extended invitations to over one hundred Newar artists. The King of Nepal, Jaya Bhima Malla (1258-71) is said to have managed to gather only eighty of them.

The artist Arniko, although only seventeen years of age, was chosen to lead the expedition. Arniko was an accomplished draughtsman, painter, modeler, and metal caster. The erection of the Golden Pagoda was accomplished under his direction in 1262. After its completion he was invited to Beijing to construct the famous White Pagoda. He manufactured several images and created paintings and developed a unique system of art blending Newar and Chinese styles.

Arniko introduced Nepali artistic styles into Chinese culture. Some of his outstanding paintings and sculptures are:

Portraits of Emperor Kublai Khan and Empress Chabi
Painting of Green Tara
Sculpture of Mahakala. Dated 1292
A lacquer Bodhisattva
A sculpture of Manjusri. Ca. 1305
The tradition of Arniko lasted for a long time among Buddhist sculptors in China and is still upheld in the introduction to an 18-century iconometric treatise, the Zaoxiang DuliangJinjie, by the Mongolian scholar Gonpo-yab (1690-1750).

Newar: Artisits Prolific Mandala Makers

After the fall of Bengal following the Islamic incursions of the 13th century, most monasteries in Bengal and Bihar were abandoned. Thereafter, Buddhist art was no longer produced in these regions, however, Nepali artists continued the Buddhist artistic tradition. A survey of Buddhist paubha paintings of the Malla period until the seventeenth century reveal only slight Indian influences.

According to A.W. Macdonald and Anne Vergati Stahl, the Bal-ri movement developed in south Tibet, in the area around Gyantse, in the 14th and 15th centuries. Bal-rimeans “Nepalese drawing”.

In the 15th century, the Tibetan master Anandabhadra, Kunga-zangpo, founder of Ngor monastery, invited Nepali artists to embellish Ngor’sinterior shrine walls. In 1429 C.E., Nepali artists decorated the chapels of Ngor Monastery with mandalas and portraits of the Shakya school. It is said skilled Nepali artists painted the entire series of Vajravalimandalas at Ngor Monastery (Evam Choden).

Art historian Pratapaditya Pal writes:

"Monasteries of the Sakyapa religious order in Tibet seemed especially partial to Nepalese craftsmen. After the twelfth century, when most of the Buddhist monasteries in India were destroyed, Nepal filled the vacuum for a time for the Tibetans.”

Menri School of Tibetan art

Tibetan artist Menla Dhondup (b.1440) lived in Tsang district in southern Tibet. There he met a Nepali artist named Dopa Tashi, who was expert in Nepali style. He studied under the guidance of Nepali artist with great enthusiasm. After studying, although he kept the proportion of image, portrait and stupa as before, made a slight change in the standard of proportions in various designs, religious motifs, colours and compositions, and developed a new pigmentation style in Tibet. Since then the art, which was known as Menri became popular in Tibet. Menla became his major disciple and learned the Nepali style of art from Dopa Tashi Gyalpo.

Later, the Mensar, Khyenri, and Gardi styles of art were developed successively. Although these schools vary from each other in style, all of them principally follow the iconometric canons. Nepali artists have been popular with the Tibetans over the centuries, and were used extensively as late as 1447, documented in the First Dalai Lama’s construction of Tashilhumpo monastery.

Although in early stages Tibetan thangka paintings was highly influenced by the Nepali style, a marked difference between the two styles began to appear after the sixteenth century. Newar artist worked in Tibet and brought back to Nepal several paintings, which had been executed in Tibetan monasteries. The impact of Newar art was extended not only to Tibet but also to China. A group of thangkas bear Chinese Inscriptions of the Ming period corresponding to the following dates: 1474, 1477, 1478, 1479, and 1513. These paintings and related xylographs, dating from 1410 and 1426, have been studied and illustrated by Lowry who points out many uniquely Newar stylistic features.

E.F.LoBue claims that Newar influence on Chinese sculpture and painting was not limited to the Yuan period (1271-1368), but continued during the Ming period (1368 – 1644), not only under the Yongle emperor, but also under his successor, as is demonstrated by the dates in the inscriptions mentioned above. This Nepali influence continues to the present. Today in Nepal there are several examples of Newar paubha paintings, which were executed in Tibet. The Newar paubha paintings were influenced by Tibetan style from the seventeenth century onwards, and a Tibeto-Nepali style developed.

In any discussion of later Newar painting, we cannot overlook the impact of Indian styles, especially Rajput style from the seventeenth century onwards. There are several examples of Newar paubha paintings especially long scroll paintings, in which Indian influences are evident. Michael Hutt remarks: “Nepali artists became heavily involved in the ornaments of temples and monasteries in Tibet, and Tibetan paintings from ninth to seventeenth centuries are almost wholly Nepali in style. ”It is hard to differentiate between Newar Paubhas and Tibetan thangka with regard to the poses of the deities, floral motifs, and the tantric divinities.

Nepal developed a new Newar style. A great variety of Tantric Buddhist images rarely depicted in Indian art were preserved in Newar art. Paubha painting tradition is a sacred art and is extremely difficult to appreciate without a proper understanding of the religious symbolism they employ. An enlarged pantheon enabled the Newar artist to paint freely, drawing on imagery from meditation manuals such as the Sadhanamala and Sadhanasamuccaya.

Classification of the Paintings:

Nowadays, since Tibetan thangka painting has become very popular in the world market, and when people speak of thangka, Tibetan thangkas are what they have in mind. The casual visitors generally are not familiar with Newar painting and its characteristic features, nor are they aware of the uniqueness of these early Newar paintings. Knowing the importance and features of Newar painting paubha painting has become essential for these Nepali artists wishing to preserve Newar painting as a separate style.

Themes of Paubha paintings

The subject matter of the paubha paintings can be roughly divided into seven categories:

Buddha’s Life and his previous lives
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
Meditational deities
Dakas and Dakinis
Illustration of the Dharma
1. Buddha's Life and His Previous Lives:

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni has been a favourite theme Buddhist art since ancient times. Events of his life, such as the birth, his enlightenment at Bodhgaya, the first teaching at Sarnath, and his mahaparinirvanaat Rajagriha remain important themes in Newar Buddhism. Similarly, jakata and avadana stories of his previous lives are significant in the art.

2. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

The paubhas of the Buddhas from the Mahayana and Vajrayana pantheon, as well as gurus, Bodhisattvas, and Arhats, fall in this category. All Buddhas may be regarded as gurus in the Vajrayana tradition. However, special importance is placed upon the five transcendental Buddhas (Panca Buddha), who represent the five Wisdoms. Each of these Five Buddhas embodies the primordial purity of these five defilements, which obscure our mind.These forms of Buddhas are in fact metaphorical expressions of non-dual wisdom and skill-in-means. They are Sambhogakaya (bliss-body)Buddhas and can perform ceaseless activity for the benefit of all sentient beings.

3. Meditational deities (Ishtadevatas)

Meditational deities in the Tantric Buddhist context are called ishtadevata (Tib. Yidam), and are the chosen deity for the practitioner. While the word ishtadevata is frequently used to represent the personal deity in Hinduism as well, for Hindus the deity is one’s personal expression of the divine, the embodiment of the ultimate Brahman into whom one dissolves. In Buddhism, the ishtadevatas are a tangible form of the practitioner’s own mind, a form that may be visualized or meditated on. Using the meditative techniques of the developing stage and complete stage, one proceeds to the realization of the nature of the mind.

4. Dakas and Dakinis

Dakas and Dakinis act as supports for the practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism.They represent inner refuge in the Tantric Buddhist tradition. Wearing bone ornaments, some are in dancing posture and some are naked. These Dakinis and Dakas may travel through space, helping the practitioner by eliminating obstacles and by guiding them along the path to Enlightenment. They are also able to grant the eight mundane siddhis to all devoted practitioners.

5. Dharmapalas

Dharmapalas are divinities, who help and protect the Buddha dharma from degeneration. They also act as defenders of Buddha’s doctrine. They are in general wrathful in appearance, and their purpose is to strike terror into potential sinners. In Nepal, Mahakala is considered to be great wrathful Dharmapala.

6. Mandala and Stupa

A mandala in the Buddhist tradition symbolizes the essence of the great bliss of enlightened consciousness. In normal practice, the mandala is depicted as an architectonic entity, combining geometric shapes of squares and circles, within which Tantric deities are represented. As a celestial palace, it consists of four doorways and four archways in the cardinal directions, each adorned with garlands, chains, and vajra threads, and outlined by multicolored paths. For the purpose of ritual, it should be drawn with powdered colours, which are ideally made from the five gems, though acceptable substitutes include the five grains or powdered bricks and charcoal from the cremation grounds. The stupa is also a key object of worship in the Newar Buddhist tradition, and paintings depicting stupas are often associated with Ushnisavijaya and the old-age (Bhimratha) ceremony.

7. Illustrations of the Dharma

Illustrations of the Dharma are pictorial expressions of the Buddhist teachings. Most only these are symbolic and short-cut design to represent the teachings. For example, the wheel of life is a common subject in this genre, as it depicts the totality of the Buddhist teachings, which include the twelve linked causes constituting dependent origination, the six realms of existence, the three poisons (lust, hatred and delusion) and the path to enlightenment.


We have described very briefly essential features of Nepali paubha paintings with some historical background and its relation with Tibetan thangka painting. We have stated elsewhere that Nepalipaubha paintings existed long before the appearance of the Tibetan thangka painting.