Newar Art of the Kathmandu Valley: Style and Aesthetics

- Dina Bangdel

With the recent discovery of the spectacular over life-size sculpture of King Jayavarma (dated 184 CE) and the existing stone sculptures of Mother Goddesses from the 2nd-3rd centuries, we can presume that the Kathmandu Valley was a thriving artistic center during the pre-Licchavi period. Certainly, by the Licchavi period (ca. 4th-9th centuries), Nepali craftsmen had developed distinctive stylistic and aesthetics conventions in both metal and stone sculptures, rivaling their Indian counterparts of the Gupta period. These masters—the Newar artists of the Kathmandu Valley—quickly achieved international repute throughout Asia, and were acclaimed as world-class painters and sculptors with unparalleled skill and iconographic expertise. The Transitional (ca. 9th-13th centuries) and Malla (1200–1768) periods were the most prolific and inspired eras of artistic production, with extensive cultural exchanges with the neighboring countries. The Buddhist monasteries and temples echo these creative productions in stone, wood, and metal—with shrine façades embellished with spectacular toranas, graceful strut figures, and intricate sculptural decorations. These virtuoso artists, many of whom belonged to the Buddhist castes of Vajracharyas and Shakyas were also patronized by royal Hindu patrons and lay followers. In fact, what we today generally refer to “Nepali” art is largely the creative genius of these Newar masters, and it was their styles and idioms that were adopted by artists in Tibet, China and Mongolia. This exhibition, Jewels of Newar Art, celebrates this extraordinary legacy through the works of contemporary paubha artists and sculptors— their artistic conceptions combined with stylistic innovations allude to the unique expressions of contemporary Newar artistic renaissance.

Newar Painting Traditions: Manuscript Illuminations
Early paintings from the Licchavi period have not survived, although inscriptions mention that the walls of a Buddhist temple were decorated with the Kinnari Jataka and other Buddhist subjects. Given the extensive production of metal and stone sculptures in the Licchavi period, some of the Buddhist monasteries must have been decorated with wall paintings, following the Indian tradition that date back to the 6th century murals of Ajanta and Ellora Caves. The earliest surviving Nepali paintings are the illuminated palm-leaf manuscripts, dated and inscribed to the early 11th century. Since palm-leaves are not native to the Kathmandu Valley, this tradition was likely introduced from Eastern India, especially the Bihar and Bengal regions during the Pala-Sena period (ca. 9th-12th century), where palm-leaf manuscripts were illustrated with Buddhist deities dispersed with in the text and also painted on the wooden covers. By the 9th century, there was a great deal of contact with the great Indian Buddhist centers such as Nalanda and Vikramashila, and we have records of pilgrims traveling to Bodhgaya, the heartland of Buddhism and the site of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. The earliest extant palm-leaf manuscript is the Prajnaparamita Shahashrika manuscript, currently in the University of Cambridge Librarya. Dated to NS 135 (1015 CE), the colophon states that it was written in Hlam Vihara, presumably in Patan. The second oldest wooden cover of the Prajnaparamita manuscript is dated to 1028 CE in a private collection in Calcutta. Others include the illuminated Prajnaparamita manuscripts, dated 1054 CE (LA County Museum, USA) and 1072 CE (Asiatic Society, Calcutta). Stylistically, these early illuminated manuscripts are generally characterized by deep red backgrounds, slender elegant figures with subtle animations in their forms, and delicate delineations of facial features—aesthetics that are different from the Eastern Indian Pala manuscripts. The sharp angularity of the nose, chin, eyes and overt animation of figures in the Pala manuscripts can easily be distinguished stylistically from the Nepali conventions, with the subtle movements of the figures, delicate modeling of the form and gentle charm of facial expression. However, Pala influence continued to be important in Nepali art, especially when the itinerant Newar artists, familiar with Pala aesthetics, began to produce Pala-derived paintings for their Tibetan patrons after the demise of Indian Buddhism in the 12th century.
The earliest surviving Hindu manuscript illuminations are two covers of the Vishnudharma Purana (1047 CE), now in the National Archives in Kathmandu. The manuscript is profusely illustrated with various iconographic forms of Vishnu, but is stylistically similar to the Buddhist manuscripts. Other Hindu illustrated manuscripts included the Shivadharma Purana and various copies of the Devimahatmya. The tradition of Newar illuminated manuscripts of Hindu and Buddhist themes continue well into the Malla period, with the copious production of handwritten manuscripts, often exquisitely illustrated. Stylistically, these manuscripts are carefully executed, with an increasing interest in scroll motifs in the background and ornate throne-backs. By the late Malla period, a significant stylistic shift occurs in the manuscript paintings, with the introduction of Rajput and Mughal influences in the 17th century. Increasingly, the animated figures are often delineated in bold black outline, and they lack the crisp definition and refined details of the earlier periods. The intricate scroll designs on the background now give way to a plain monochromatic backdrop and more static compositions. By the late 17th-early 18th centuries, long horizontal scrolls, some as long as thirty feet, are the preferred format to illustrate religious narratives, such as the vrata story of Vasundhara, Svayambhu Purana, or the life of the Buddha.
Paubha Painting Tradition
In Nepal, the term paubha, derived from the Sanskrit term pata (“cloth painting”) generally refers to large vertical format of sized cloth painting. These were commissioned by Hindu or Buddhist patrons to commemorate a special religious event, or given as an offering to gain religious. Historically, Hindu shilpashastra treatises, such as the Vishnudharmottara Purana(ca. 7th century) as well as the early Vajrayana literature, Manjushrimulakalpa(ca. 8th century) were well-known as reference manuals, especially for the technical processes of creating cloth painting (patavidhana) and also for the lost-wax process casting techniques. The descriptions also delineate the ritual procedures during the creation of painting and sculptures, such as purificatory rituals of preparing the materials, empowerment of the artists (hastapuja), mental and spiritual preparation to complete the painted image, and finally the consecration rituals to animate and vivify the finished object. In the Vajrayana texts, the artist is often described as a yogin, a practitioner who is able to reproduce onto the canvas images visualized during meditations. Iconometric guidelines were also important for the study of style. Specific grid measurements of body and facial proportions, and general delineation of deity categories, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattva, peaceful or wrathful deities, follow iconometric conventions of a specific style or school. Stylistic mastery was generally acquired through teaching lineages, often transmitted within family or within an informal guild system. In the Newar tradition, artists, sketchbooks often serve as short hand of iconographic/ iconometrics accuracy (color, attribute, form) and stylistic variation, and these sketchbooks must have been created as handy reference to familiarize the artist with the complex iconography of both Hindu and Buddhist deities. Rather than relying on the strict iconometric grids, master artists tend to sketch freehand. In this context, artists were generally designated by their hereditary caste affiliation of wood-carvers, metal casters, and painters (chitrakara/ pun), although the Buddhist Shakyas and Vajracharyas caste have been superb sculptors and painters, and their iconographic and ritual knowledge were associated their religious training. Even today, the authority and iconographic expertise of the Vajracharya or a Hindu Tantric priest would over ride the artist’s own visual repertoire. Artists were also expected to have mastery of the religious iconography, and Buddhist texts such as Abayakaragupta’s Nishpannayogavali, Sadhanamala, or Vajravali as important references. Thus, form, color, composition, and iconography are the key elements of defining the Newar stylistic tradition, and we know from surviving paintings that Newar artists working for Tibetan patrons would use Tibetan conventions of composition as well as specific iconography based on a Tibetan lineage. Sadhana, or visualizations of the image, were critical to the accurate portrayal of the deity onto the canvas, as the final intention of these exquisite works of art was to engage the viewer to experience and evoke the quality of the divine beings. Works of art were based on these visualizations, and this correlation between iconography and visualization is evident in the sadhana of. Vajrayogini based on the 12th century Indian teacher Umapatideva’s Guhyasamaya Sadhanasamgraha
“Imagine the yogin’s body as the mandala palace. In the middle of the mandala is a triangular source of Dharma (dharmodaya), white outside and red inside with a narrow root and a large hood, domed on top like the back of a tortoise. Inside this, speech is transformed into the syllables of the mantra and the mind into the deities. From PAM arises a lotus in the center of which is a yellow corpse with its head to the left. On the heart-mind of the corpse is OM from which comes a sun disk on which is VAM. Light rays emerge from it and spread throughout all directions returning with the Jina of the ten directions who dissolve into the syllable. It becomes myself, Vajrayogini, deep ruby red, as brilliant as 10,000,000 suns.
Her principal face is of goddess aspect, imbued with passion and wrath, laughing and with bared teeth. The right face is that of a pig, wrathful and looking upwards. Her right hand brandishes a vajra knife, her left holds a skull [bowl] of blood at her heart while carrying a white khatvanga in her armpit. Her garland of five dry skulls is strung on a wreath of black vajras and she is adorned with a long, hanging necklace of fifty blood-dripping human heads links with entrails and the five symbolic ornaments of human bone, i.e., circlet, earrings, bracelets, necklace [and girdle]. Naked, youthful as a sixteen-year-old, and full breasted, she stands in ardhaparyanka dancing posture with the left leg extended. She is amorous and playful in the midst of the blazing fire of insight.”
The vertical scroll painting (Skt. pata. New. paubhas) format adopted by the Newar artists suited their purpose, since its distinctive format and painting technique enabled portability, and could be easily rolled up and transported over the high Himalayan passes to their clients in Tibet. As sacred objects, these paintings were consecrated, and became the focal point of meditation or worship within a monastery or temple. Today, some of the most significant Newar paintings are now in museums and private collections in the West and Asia. To name a few of these magnificent Newar paintings and sculpture: Green Tara (ca. 12th century) in the Cleveland Museum of Art; Chakrasamvara Mandala (ca. 13th century) from the Metropolitan Museum; Ratnasambhava (ca. 13th century), Vishnu Mandala (1420 CE), Chakrasamvara Mandala (dated 1490), and Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi (ca. 15th century) from the Los Angeles Museum of Art; the reconsecration of Svayambhu Mahachaitya (dated 1565) and the Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi (ca. 15th century) in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Collection; the stunning sculpture of Durga Mahisamardini (ca. 15th century) in the Rubin Museum; Acala and Dveshavajri (ca. 14th century) from the Zimmerman Collection; Rakta Ganapati (ca. 1435) in the Magnucci Collection; and the painting depicting Pratap Malla performing the Tuladhana ceremony (dated 1664), Musee Guimet in Paris.
Artist Arniko in the Yuan Courts
The Kathmandu Valley’s importance as artistic nucleus and great center of Tantric Buddhist practice is nowhere more clearly evident than in the Tibetan historical accounts, and Chinese sources in the Yuan dynasty. Especially from the 10th to 12th centuries we have accounts in the Blue Annals of the great Indian Mahasiddhas coming to Nepal, staying in the Kathmandu Valley, and transmitting the Tantric initiations to Newar panditas before making their way into Tibet. Similarly, in the Tibetan accounts, there are extensive lineage transmissions of the Tantric teachings, which list some of the great Newar Tantrins who came to Tibet and conferred initiation there. Conversely, as the Nepal Valley was widely known as one the great centers of Tantric practice, we have innumerable references to Tibetan teachers coming to Nepal—to study with a famous Newar teacher and to receive empowerments, to learn Sanskrit, and to translate the texts into Tibetan with the help of the master. Indeed, these textual references testify to the vitality of the Kathmandu Valley around the 10th to 13th centuries, where there was extensive contact and exchange of teachings among the Indian, Newar, and Tibetan Buddhist practitioners. It is within this religious environment that Newar art flourished through contact with its neighbors.
With the decline of Indian Buddhism in the 12th century, Nepal became the rightful inheritor of the Sanskrit Buddhist tradition, including the Pala-derived style of Eastern India. However, Nepal’s political and artistic alliance with Tibet began at least as early as the 7th century. Newar artists were commissioned to build and embellish the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, and the Nepali princess Bhrikuti, daughter of Amshuvarman, is said to have taken a number of artists with her to Tibet, when she was given in marriage to Srongtsan Gampo. Chinese textual sources were well aware of the aesthetic refinement and artistry of Nepali architectural designs. The Chinese ambassador Wang Xuan Ze, from the Tang dynasty (618–906) thus describes the royal palace in the Valley:
“In the middle of the palace, there is a tower of seven stories, roofed with copper tiles. Its balustrade, grilles, columns, beams, and everything therein are set with gems and semi-precious stones. At each corner of the tower, there descends a copper water pipe, at the base of which is spouted four golden dragons."
The most famous Newar artist is perhaps Arniko (Ch. Anige/Aniko), also known as Balbahu.5Arniko (ca. 1245–1306) was first invited to go to Tibet by Phagpa, the hierarch of the Sakya sect, in 1260 to build a golden stupa in Tibet. Although Arniko was only fifteen, he took charge of the hundred artisans and impressed Phagpa with his talents. After completing the stupa, Arniko requested to return to Nepal but Phagpa encouraged him to go to Yuan court and meet the great Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan. Phagpa initiated the artist in esoteric Buddhist rites and presented him before the Great Khan. Chinese texts mention that Arniko answered Kublai’s questions eloquently and with composure, impressing the ruler with his bravery, piety, and skill. The Khan then tested Arniko by ordering him to repair a badly damaged Song-period bronze statue. None of the court artists had been able to accomplish the task, because the statue had a complicated system of arteries and veins. When Arniko restored it successfully in 1265, the young artist sealed his reputation at the Yuan court and remained in favor for more than forty years.
Arniko’s works were instrumental in the conversion of Kublai Khan to Tantric Buddhism. In 1274, Phagpa directed Arniko to create an image of Mahakala that was used in a protection ritual to aid Khan in his battles against the Southern Song, whom he final overthrew in 1280. This same image also became important in the political strategy of the 17th-century Mongols and increasingly powerful Manchus in the Qing dynasty. Arniko’s Mahakala image had become a powerful symbol of these leaders’ authority to rule, linking them to the deity’s powers as well as to the Great Khan.
By 1273, Arniko was appointed Supervisor-in-Chief of the Artisans of Various Ethnics, and he was incharge of eleven units that included the departments of Buddhist Images, Lost-Wax Casting, Casting, Silver (and Gold) Articles, Metal work, Agate and Jade, Stone work, Wood work, and Lacquer ware. The history of the Yuan dynasty, Yuandaihuasuji, describes the various artistic projects Arniko oversaw, spanning an impressive array of Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist commissions. Among his important accomplishments were nine major Buddhist temples, three stupas, two ancestral shrines, one Daoist temple, and innumerable objects for court use and ceremonial and shrine images. Among his many architectural projects, only the White Stupa in Beijing still stands. He was responsible for many imperial works and worked in a variety of media, such metal, dry lacquer, ceramic, unfired clay images, cloth paintings, and woven tapestry. Although his works are not signed, Arniko’s style was noted for the skillful fusion of Indian, Chinese, and Newar aesthetics. This marks the definitive authority of Newar stylistic influence in the Tantric Buddhist arts of Tibet, China, and Mongolia.
Newar Artists in Tibet and Beyond: Beri (Bal ri) Style
For the Buddhist clientele, the Newar Buddhist caste groups of Vajracharyas and Shakyas were the Valley’s craftsmen: carvers of stone, wood, and ivory; painters; and highly skilled metalworkers, goldsmiths, and silversmiths. These occupations led many members of these caste groups to serve as itinerant artists in Tibet, commissioned to work for monasteries throughout central and southern Tibet. In this regard, devout lay Newar Buddhists were major patron of the arts, specifically from the merchant (uray) castes, who offered the artworks as token of gratitude and benefaction for all sentient beings. They were also skilled traders and many lived in Lhasa and southern Tibet, taking Tibetan wives and maintaining a family. Therefore, by the 13th century, Newar aesthetic and style has made a lasting impact in Tibetan art, and Newar artists were held in high regard, for their skill and expertise of various styles. Indeed, by the early 14th century, Newar artists were actively traveling to Tibet and have been instrumental in the development of the Tibetan Beri (Bal ris or Bal bris) style of painting and sculpture from the 14th-16th century. “Beri” style, meaning “Newar-derived painting/sculpture,” created by the Newar artists, are found in the murals and sculptures in the monasteries of central Tibet, such as Shalu, Sakya, and Ngor monasteries. The distinguishing features of the Newar style are the delicate softness of the faces, highly decorative and detailed brushwork, the overall red palette, intricate scroll patterning in the background, and elaborately decorated throne backs with spectacular makaratails and kirttimukhamotifs. Iconographically, however, the Newar artists were familiar with Tibetan conventions based of specific Tibetan lineage traditions.
An inscribed thyasaphu of 1435 is the oldest surviving artists’ sketchbook. It belonged to the 15th century Newar artist Jivarama, and the inscription mentions that he had worked in Tibet and brought the book back after his stay in Tibet. What is spectacular about this sketchbook is Jivarama’s mastery of different styles and iconographies—the indigenous Newar style, Chinese style, as seen in the style of the Arhats , or in a Tibetan idiom, as indicated by the four Guardian kings. Another Newar artist Srimatadeva had a similar sketchbook, which he prepared in Lhasa in 1652. These types of sketchbooks suggest that they were not only used as a sampling of their virtuosity for the Tibetan clients, but was also to familiarize themselves with Tibetan iconography and Tibetan/Chinese styles. In recent years, Himalayan paintings that were previously designated as “Tibetan” or “Nepalese” can now be more specifically reattributed to the works of Newar artists in Tibet, or Tibetan artists working on the Newar style. This extraordinary eye for accommodating the desires of their patrons still continues today, as contemporary paubha masters fluidly shift their styles and adopt idiom suited for their specific clientele—whether it is iconography and styles of Japanese Buddhist art, the 17th century Tibetan New Menri School, or purely localized “Newar” style of painting.
Toward the late 15th to 19th centuries, the commissions of Newar traders who patronized the Tibetan artists also created distinctly Tibeto-Newar-style paintings combined with a specific Newar iconography. Indeed, some of the most spectacular paintings of this period highlight the interaction between Newar artists and Tibetan patrons and, conversely, the symbiotic relation of the Newar patrons in Tibet. The Gyantse Kumbum and the murals are among the best examples of 17th century Tibeto-Newar-style. These works also herald the foundation of the Tibetan New Menrischool, which is an amalgamation of Newar aesthetics, Tibetan iconography, and Chinese inspired blue-green landscape elements.
Newar Style and School of Zanabazar (Mongolia):
Newar stylistic influence continued into the Chinese Ming dynasty, especially in the sculptural styles of Emperor Yongle, and to some degree into the Qing dynasty. With the Qing emperor’s connections with the Mongolian court, especially with the Zanabazaar, Newar artist once again were invited from Nepal to the court of this Mongolian emperor. One of the most elegant schools of Buddhist sculpture is that associated with the Mongolian Tulku Zanabazar (ca. 1635–1723). As both a religious leader and a master artist, Zanabazar single-handedly reconstructed the Mongol school of metal image-making and was a major force in the resurgence of Mongolian Buddhism.11From 1649 to 1651, he traveled extensively in Tibet and collected numerous images. The Dalai Lama ordered that an entourage of monks and artisans, including Newar artists, accompany him on his return journey to Mongolia. These craftsmen taught the local artisans the technology of metal casting, architecture, and iconography. Zanabazar’s personal interest was in sculpture, which he began making immediately upon his return. He created a school of metal working that produced exquisite statuary of nonpareil quality and refined aesthetics, reflecting the direct influence of Newar art, beginning in the 13th century with Arniko’s works in the Yuan courts. Of course, Zanabazar was familiar with the history of the Mongol rule Kublai Khan and his religious advisor, the Tibetan Sakya hierarch Phagspa. It is therefore highly likely Zanabazar’s patronage of Newar aesthetics sought inspiration from earlier imperial commissions by the Newar artist Arniko and the legacy of Newar art.
Throughout the history of Nepali art, we find that Newar artists were able to skillfully accommodate the visual tastes of their patrons—be it the Newars of the Valley themselves, or their international clients in Tibet, China, or Mongolia. Just as painting, the sculptural techniques, especially of the lost-wax technique with hot gilding process were highly appreciated in Tibet. Newar craftsmen in their trade relations in Tibet never reveal the treasured techniques of fire gilding to their Tibetan counterparts. The Newar traders and artists brought gold from Lhasa back to the Valley, and the techniques of fire gilding with a mercury amalgam was a distinctive feature of Newar sculptures, unsurpassed in technique to any other artistic tradition in South Asia. Significant in the Newar sculptural tradition was also the medium—pure copper, as opposed to bronze, is the preferred metal for the Newar craftsmen. Technologically, overcoming the difficulties of casting a copper sculpture and successfully transform the metal into a work of sublime beauty could only be achieved by Newar artists. It is therefore thisfascinating history of creativity and excellence that spans almost 12 centuries that the contemporary paubhaartists and sculptors must seek to preserve in their cultural and artistic heritage.The historical roots of Newar aesthetics and style must to contextualizedby the paubha artists in order to define their “contemporary” expressions of Newar pauba painting.