expressions of art, classical and modern, are imbedded in
the daily practice of religion. Unique craftsmanship is
most easily found in temples, architecture, shrines, fountains
and the design of religious objects. Understanding the various
religious creeds as well as the representations of gods
and goddesses enhances the appreciation of Nepalese art.
- Tantrism: explains Prayer Wheel at upper right
- Bronze Figures
- Preservation of Art
Nepal, the only country that is a Hindu state,
boasts tremendous religious tolerance of the many faiths
practiced within its borders.
Hinduists predominate in Nepal as 86.5% of
The next largest religious groups consist of Buddhists,
Muslims, 3.5% of the population.
Common to all of these religions is the integration of religious
expression within everyday life. In contrast with Western
religions, these religions involve codes for- individual
behavior and daily rites of worship. In the morning, people
gather at temples, sanctuaries or river banks to offer prayers
The word Hinduism was introduced in the 19th century to
define the aggregate beliefs of the Arya, immigrants who
left Central Asia in 1500 BC, and animist religions of native
populations in India.
Basic concepts. Cosmic law rules the good
order of the world, be aware and respect cosmic law. Lead
the life of a good Hindu, observe rules, perform all rites,
accept the caste of birth. Caste system supplies code of
conduct and rites done. Encompasses all parts of life; rites
but also who to take drink from, associate with, marry,
Principles of Hinduism. Dharma religious law
and moral code by which people can earn enlightenment. Karma
is the life balance of action and reaction; individuals
responsible for decisions and consequences. Leading good
Hindu life will bring rebirth into a better life. Samsara
is cycle of reincarnations determined by karma. Moksha is
liberation from samsara; individual unites with universal
timelessness, ultimate serenity, nirvana. Path to moksha
is good Hindu life.
Each deity has different names, as well as
different symbols, attributes, tasks and powers according
to what god it represents. Each deity has a vehicle, an
animal usually which serves master. Primary Hindu gods are
Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Brahma is the creator of the universe. Attributes
are the rosary, the receptacle of holy water, the ladle
and the book. Mount is a goose or swan. Brahma usually represented
with four heads, allows him to watch over world. Very few
statues of Brahma since creation is done.
Saraswati is Brahma's consort and is goddess
of knowledge, learning and music. She is often portrayed
with four arms, plying the veena (seven stringed musical
instrument) with two hands as well as holding a rosary and
a book. Sits on a lotus riding a peacock or a swan. Often
a crescent moon on forehead. Worshipped by Buddhists as
a form of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom.
Vishnu is the preserver of life and the world.
Attributes are the conchshell, the disc, the lotus and the
mace. Mount is Garuda, a mythical half-man and half-bird.
He often appears in some of the following forms:
Narayan, which means "he who guides development
in all fields" or universal knowledge.
Buddha, ninth reincarnation of Vishnu.
Rama, warrior who rescued wife Sita who had
been taken by Ravan, demon-king of Ceylon.
Krishna, personification of manhood who bewitched
'gopis' (milkmaids and shepherdesses) with whom he frolicked.
Forms of Rama and Krishna more popular in India.
Shiva, the destroyer and regenerator. Attributes
are the trident, the tambourine, the tiger skin, the club,
and the lingam. Mount is Nandi the bull.
Pashupati, master and protector of animals,
especially of cattle, who is the friend of life.
Bhairav, the form of Shiva eager to destroy
everything, including evil. Usually a black statue, with
necklace of human skulls.
Hanuman, the monkey god. Symbolizes faithfulness
and willingness to help. Associated with successful military
undertakings and assisted Rama in fight against demon-king
Ravan who kept Ram's wife Sita imprisoned for 12 years.
Ganesh, (Ganapati) one of the most popular
gods in Nepal. Infallible, charitable and has power to decide
fate of any human enterprise. Universal power. Shiva and
Parvati's son. Shiva was away, Parvati bore a son while
he was gone. Ordered son not to let anyone in. Shiva came
home, young guardsman barred him from entering so he chopped
off the guard's head with sword. Parvati terrorized, Shiva
promised to bring him back to life by beheading the first
living creature he found in the forest. Saw elephant first,
so cut off its head, rushed back and put it on Ganesh's
head. Ganesh always dressed in red, four arms and body covered
with layers of sandalwood paste. Only one tusk, mount is
a shrew, sometimes mistaken for rat or mouse. Consequently
all three are sacred.
Parvati, Shiva's consort. In benevolent forms,
Devi, Uma, Shakti or Annapurna as the "dispenser of
abundance." As wreaking havoc, forms of Kali, Durga
Based on meditations of GAUTAMA SIDDHARTA, also called Sakyamuni
(wise man of the Sakya clan) and later the Buddha (Enlightened
one). Philosophical doctrine and code of conduct. Based
on the three jewels, Buddha himself, dharma, Buddha's teachings
and prescribed conduct, and sangha the community.
Buddha was born in Lumbini, Nepal around 544
BC. Son of raja (title for rulers and wealthy landlords)
who sought reason for human misery. Left his family and
experimented and traveled; found enlightenment through meditation
at Bodh Gaya.
Dharma is the doctrine of four truths discovered
Existence is unhappiness.
Everything in life brings suffering, birth, responding to
needs and death. Origin of suffering is in needs, wants
and desires of men and being attached to material values
(illusions of the senses).
Unhappiness is caused by selfish cravings or passions.
Selfish cravings can be eliminated by renunciation desires
and following the eight-fold path:
1. Right views, understanding and vision
2. Right purpose, aspiration and intention
3. Right speech
4. Right vocation and honest livelihood
5. Right conduct and action
6. Right effort and dedication
7. Right alertness and mindfulness
8. Right concentration and meditation.
Sangha is community of Buddhists. Used to
mean monastic community but concept broadened. Showing the
path to enlightenment.
About 100 years after Buddha's death, communities
disagreed and split over ways to achieve enlightenment.
Traditional school of Theravada Buddhists follows Buddha's
original teachings. Mahayana school accepts some changes,
various ways to enlightenment (became Zen).
Scripts appeared also introducing changes.
Deification of Buddha, and separation between mortal Buddha
like Siddharta who will reappear, and transcendental ones
which are only understood through meditation (Dhyani Buddhas).
While enlightenment reached through individual effort, idea
spread that meditation Buddhas give merit to those who worship
them. Bodhisattvas are humans who reached enlightenment
but instead of joining nirvana chose to help others reach
Movement from with the Mahayana school appeared in first
century AD in fringe areas of India. Hindus and Buddhists
came into contact with animist religions and integrated
beliefs and practices. Yoga, physical exercises to control
body functions, mantras, repetitive utterances, bijas, magic
syllables, use of designs and objects such as mandala and
dorje. Transformed into Lamaism which penetrated also into
Nepal. Purpose was to shorten the road to enlightenment
with such practices.
Prayer Flags and Prayer Wheels take prayers
to the sky, to the divinities. Idea that movement creates
power. Prayer wheels rotated clockwise to send mantra to
the divinities. Usually brass cylinder with pre-Sanskrit
script, ranja, writing. The wheel contains parchment like
paper upon which the Tibetan incantation OM MANI PADME HUM
(image top) is repeatedly printed. Some rough translations
of this mantra are
Oh, the jewel (mani) concealed in the lotus
One specific interpretation of this incantation
is that of a prayer the Boddhisattva Padmapani who controls
Oh, Padmapani, give me the jewel in the lotus,
which is the blessing on non-rebirth or attainment of Nirvana
through the acceptance of the Buddhist doctrine.
A more general interpretation is
Oh, may the jewel remain in the lotus, meaning
may Buddha's teachings remain pure in our minds and souls.
Vajra or Dorje looks like two crowns with bases attached
by a metal ball. Each crown has four outer spokes and one
inner spoke to represent the meditation Buddhas, united
at the top to convey that they are but one. Means "thunderbolt"
symbolic attribute of Hindu god Indra who is the divine
power of natural forces, and the "diamond", the
substance that is translucent and unbreakable. The Dorje
is primarily a symbol of power but is also a representation
of the male.
Ghanta, the bell is bronze and topped with
crown shaped handle. The bell symbolizes the female. In
a metaphysical sense, male represents knowledge and female
represents wisdom. Both important to rituals.
Statues and temples for Buddha or to Bodhisattvas.
Chaitya, a somewhat conical stone structure,
shrines for gratitude or worship. Always show four statues
representing each of the dhyana-Buddhas or meditation Buddhas.
Facing north, Buddha Amogasiddhi with right
hand upward and palms outward to express fearlessness and
blessing (associated with green).
Facing east, Buddha Akshobya, right hand outstretched
with fingers touching earth calling Earth-goddess to witness
that Buddha resisted temptations put forth by demon Mara
who was trying to lure him away from his meditations. Also
thought of as calling to witness Buddha's deserving supreme
Facing south, Buddha Ratnasambhawa with right
hand palm outward to express compassion. yellow
Facing west, Buddha Amithaba, two hands folded,
resting on lap in meditation. red.
Some chaityas or scrolls show a fifth central
figure, the Buddha Vairocana who is above or in the middle
of the previously mentioned four. Hands folded in front
of chest he is perfect sovereignty as "turning the
wheel of the Buddhist doctrine." white.
Another common Buddhist statue is that of
the Tara, either white or green Tara. Were the two wives
of Srong Tsam Gampo, King of Tibet that they converted to
their faith, Buddhism. Deified.
Bodhisattvas honored often are Padmapani,
holds a lotus flower and is master or reincarnations. Manjushri
is honored as bearer of wisdom by Buddhists and Hindus.
Holds book of knowledge in left hand and a sword to strike
ignorance with right.
A historical look demonstrates that artistic
expression reflects the religious and ethnic diversity within
the valley. Nepalese art became prominent in the 13th century
through the work of Balbahu, also known as Arniko, an architect
for the king of Tibet and possibly the Emperor of China.
Nepalese art is recognized for its candour, simplicity and
harmony balanced with intricacy and decoration. The Malla
dynasty promoted all forms of artistic expression from the
14th to the 19th centuries. Tibetan forms of expression
influenced art in the valley beginning in the 17th century.
Tantric and Buddhist themes introduced greater differentiation
between Nepalese and Indian art.
People walking the streets of Kathmandu cannot fail to notice
the abundance of religious buildings in the city. Temples
exist near or around royal palaces, as well as at important
geographical locations including the top of hills, river
banks or near wells. Private temples were built anywhere
and can be found in almost every neighbourhood.
The temples are sites of magnificent stone
and wood carvings. Most of the stone carvings are from the
eleventh and twelfth centuries and reflect the influence
of Indian art from the Gupta (5 and 6th century A.D.) and
the Palasena (10th to 12th century AD.) periods. Wood carvings
are predominantly from the eighteenth century used to decorate
pillars, door and window frames, cornices and supporting
struts. Struts of Hindu temples usually contain an erotic
scene which attracts speculation from visitors. The motivation
for such motifs are natural; in countries where death is
predominant, procreation is sacred in some respects as the
embodiment of life-giving energies and fertility. Sexual
union also represents the union of the individual with the
universe in the Vedas which are Hindu texts.
Temples are usually one of three types; pagodas,
shikaras or stupas. Stupas are exclusively a Buddhist temple,
but pagodas and shikaras may be Hindu or Buddhist. Buddhist
temples are almost always surrounded by a wall with a defined
entrance way. A wall of prayer wheels often surrounds the
temple. Whether Hindu or Buddhist, these temples are not
places of religious gatherings popular within Christianity
and Muslim religions but are sites of individual worship.
Pagodas (devala in Nepali) are usually square
or rectangular with a simple geometric design. The base
of the temple holds an image of the god honored by the presence
of the temple. The temple has several roofs which get proportionately
smaller with height. The number of roofs is usually odd,
since odd numbers are more auspicious than even numbers.
Many scholars believe that the pagoda style of roofing mimics
the multi-tiered style of umbrellas held over royalty or
images of deities during processions. The building is usually
brick, although the foundation may consist of stone blocks.
The doors and windows are wood with latticed patterns for
adornment. A torana sits above the door, also of wood or
bronze-plated wood, depicting the triumph of good over evil
with the image of a gryphon holding in its grip a naga or
kirtimukha. The struts of the temple (tunal in Nepali),
carved wooden brackets which support the projecting roof
eaves at a 45 degree angle, consist of a deity standing
upon a lotus flower above a decorative scene, often erotic,
carved upon the lower part of the strut. The struts in the
corners of the pagoda often depict a roaring lion or mythical
animal which conveys power. The roofs are plated with copper
or gilded bronze and the corners of the roofs always turn
upward. These corners end in a human or animal's head facing
downward and a bird in flight on the upward slant. A metal
ribbon hangs from the topmost point almost to the ground,
symbolizing the path for the deity to descend to earth and
people to rise to the divine. Kinkinimala adorn the edge
of the roofs; unmoving bells with a thin metal clapper which
tinkles against the bell in the wind. One or two bronze
bells also stand near the entrance of the pagoda. Protecting
this entrance are bronze or stone images of dragons or lions.
Mirrors often hang from a temple wall; these are a modern
addition to ensure that a woman's tika is neatly placed
in the center of her forehead. Examples of pagoda style
temples are the Taleju Mandir in Kathmandu's Durbar Square,
the Golden Temple in Patan and the Nyatapola in Bhaktapur.
Shikaras are similar in design to Indian temples,
best recognized by a majestic dome roof. Some describe the
dome as an unopened lotus flower or a folder royal umbrella.
The base of the temple is square with many stories of balconies.
Two famous shikaras are the Krishna Mandir and the Mahabuddha,
both located in Patan.
Stupas, designed as funeral mounds, usually
have a cubic base with a spherical body and a towered roof.
This design mimics the mandala design, a cosmic representation
of the universe conducive to meditation. The cubic base
symbolizes the earth's solidity, the spherical mound symbolizes
water, the tower is fire, the ring above it air, and the
crowned top symbolizes ether. Thirteen steps between the
mound and the tower represent the number of steps to attaining
perfect knowledge. Most of the stupa is painted masonry
white but the four sides of the tower hold the omniscient
eyes of Buddha. The eyes watch over the universe, and the
symbol between the two prominent eyes is the third eye which
allows one to see beyond and inside the self. The symbol
in the typical position of the nose is the Devanagari script
for the number one, to remind people that only one way exists
to salvation. The stupas, designed to hold remains or relics,
are not hollow. People encircle stupas by walking clockwise,
often spinning prayer wheels embedded in the wall surrounding
the temple. Boudhanath and Swayambhunath, the largest stupas
in Kathmandu, are approximately 2000 years old.
The earliest paintings appeared in 11th century AD. and
consisted of illustrated manuscripts on palm leaf or rice
paper. Thangkas, a more predominant form of painting, are
popular among Buddhists in Nepal as well as in Tibet and
date back to the late 14th century. These paintings on cotton
are rectangular in shape and usually longer than they are
wide. They are framed with three stripes of Chinese brocade
of blue, yellow and red which represent the rainbow which
separates sacred objects from the material world. Older
Thangkas consisted of mineral-based colors, while current
Thangkas are produced with vegetable-based or chemical colors.
Frequent themes of Thangkas include images of Buddhist figures,
mandala designs, the wheel of life design, or depiction
of scenes or stories.
Mandalas are geometrical patterns which assist
in the practice of meditation, as well as symbolize the
nature of the universe. The symmetrical pattern reflects
the development of the cosmos from an essential Principle
and its rotation around a central axis.
Other Buddhist symbols are common to Thangkas
and wall paintings. A picture of four guardians may adorn
the entrance to a monastery; two images are benevolent to
greet worshippers, and two are fierce looking to protect
against evil spirits. Other symbols are the wheel of moral
law, the umbrella to protect against evil, the victory banner
of Buddha's doctrine, two golden fish which represent wealth,
the endless knot of eternal re-birth of everything, the
flower-vase holding eternal bliss, the conch-shell proclaiming
the benefits of enlightenment, and the lotus flower which
symbolizes purity and the release of spirituality from earthly
The fable of the four unanimous brothers involves
an elephant standing near a fruit-bearing tree with a monkey
on its back. The monkey holds a rabbit on its shoulder and
a bird perches on the rabbit. All hold a piece of fruit.
The bird maintained that while enjoying the shade and fruit
of the tree, they owe gratitude to him since he planted
the seed of the tree. The rabbit replied that while the
bird sprinkles seed without regard, he watered the seed
daily and conscientiously. The monkey stated that it was
his dung, not the planting or the watering which was essential
to the seed's growth. The elephant acknowledged their contributions,
but said that it was his protection of the plant from other
animals which made the tree's growth possible. The moral
of the story is that cooperation causes fruitfulness.
The wheel of life symbolizes the endless cycle
of reincarnations. A demon holds the wheel with fangs and
claws to symbolize how repulsive it can be to participate
in life. Buddha is portrayed outside of the wheel standing
erect since he reached enlightenment and escaped the cycle
of rebirth. The center of the image is a circle which contains
the three vices; the rooster symbolizes lust, the snake
symbolizes hatred, and the boar symbolizes ignorance. A
ring around this circle shows the six stages of reincarnation;
at the bottom is hell for the doomed, followed by the world
of the pretas which are greedy and slaves to their desires,
the last inferior world of the animals portrayed with a
pastoral scene, the human world of towns and villages, the
world of the Titans which wage war against the gods, and
the world of the gods portraying beauty and serenity. Another
ring illustrates small images to teach a lesson; a blind
woman using a stick to walk symbolizes impulses created
from ignorance, the potter manifests these impulses with
the focus on feeling, a monkey picking up fruit represents
the consciousness of acting on impulses, men in a boat symbolize
that consciousness can create individuality but also separation,
an empty house with an open door represents sensory perceptions
translated into action by the mind (perceptions enter through
windows but leave as actions out the door), a couple embracing
shows how sensory perception creates physical desires, a
man hit by an arrow demonstrates that touch excites the
senses with pain or pleasure, a woman filling a man's cup
shows that excitement of the senses creates a thirst for
more, a monkey grabbing for fruit shows desire becoming
a demand for more, the expecting mother shows that such
eagerness for more is part of existence, the child's birth
demonstrates birth as a necessary condition, and a man carrying
a body shows death as a necessary condition of existence.
Literature appeared in the valley during the 18th century.
Poetry is the predominant form of writing from this period,
but most authors are unknown. The following centuries brought
more poets and writers inspired by religion as well as social
problems. Musical lyrics celebrate the beauty of nature
and life, or convey a legend.
Bronze figures, sometimes alloyed with copper, appeared
in the valley around 8th century AD. These images usually
represented religious deities or legendary figures. The
most frequently used production technique is that of cire
perdue, a form of wax casting. Images often contain embedded
semi-precious stones, usually coral or turquoise, or are
gilded with gold.
Jewelry of gold and silver reflects the preferences of ethnic
groups. Gurung women often wear large disc earrings of bronze
and copper, while Sherpa women often have turquoise and
silver earrings. Other forms of jewelry include nose rings,
pendants, engraved silver belts, anklets and bracelets.
See sample pictures in Shopping: Souvenir and Gift Items
Pottery flourishes in Patan and Thimi, a locality near Bhaktapur.
Common forms of pottery are terra cotta oil lamps used to
light homes during the festival Dipawali, and flower pots
decorated with peacocks and elephants.
preservation of art
People constantly express concern about the preservation
of art in the valley. Many temples and statues are in various
stages of disrepair. Two earthquakes, one in 1833 and one
in 1934, left a wake of destruction in the country. Until
recently, Nepal lacked people with the scientific knowledge
required for artistic restoration. Authorities also battle
with the establishment of priorities; financing the development
of infrastructure and addressing social and health concerns
of the population detracts money from restoration projects.
Foreign aid projects specifically addressing the maintenance
of palace squares and other historical sites are becoming
more popular and provide valuable assistance in the preservation
of Nepalese art.