Early Nepali art should be studied against a historical background because socio-political changes and policies adopted by the rulers have had an important impact on the evolution, the consummation, and the operational modes of Nepali art.

Pal (1985: 17) divides Nepali art history into five broad periods, starting at 300 A.D.:


  1. Lichavi (330 - 879)
  3. Transitional (879/80 - 1200)
  5. Early Malla (1200 - 1482)
  7. Late Malla (1482 - 1769)
  9. Shah (ever since 1769 when the capital and the Kathmandu valley were conquered by the Gorkha king, forefather of the present king of Nepal)

The early period is unique in a number of ways, but the perpetuation of Nepali art forms as developed and executed earlier can be seen as the continuity of a mode of art in itself.


Brahminical and Buddhist mythology is the main subject of early Nepali art. The dual features of Nepali art can be noticed in all historical periods shown above. Painters could boast a richer repertoire than sculptors whose work was mainly concentrated on the creation of icons and ritual objects. The range of a painters was broader: they could more productively use mythology, their medium was more versatile, they could use a wider variety of themes and styles. 


Chinese descriptions of a special Nepali taste in art during the Lichavi period (330 to 879) indicate that people decorated the walls of their houses with paintings. But such paintings of the period have not been discovered. The earliest records of paintings go back to the 11th century. They are manuscript illuminations executed on palm-leaf sheets and painted wooden covers which were used to protect the manuscripts. The same style of manuscript illuminations was employed in the 5th century in India to decorate shrines. The Nepali manuscript illuminations are quite distinctly related to these Indian illuminations at Ajanta and the monasteries of Eastern India. In such manuscripts gods and goddesses are depicted in a heretical manner, and the forms and style are set and defined. 


The artist's skill and originality can be seen in the dexterous delineation of the motif however stereotyped it may be. The diminutive deities were made with considerable skill and the use of primary colours, especially red, heightened the personality and the aura of their power and charm, their erotic and demonic manifestations. 


Uniqueness of Nepali Art

Nepali art of the early period had a uniqueness of its own. It was different from Indian art in a number of ways. The styles of the illuminations were distinct. The Pala style of illumination palm-leaf manuscripts was more conservative than the Nepali style which was more "expressive and more painterly" (Pal, 1975: 17).


Extensive studies of Nepali art in various books and survey articles by different scholars have shown the uniqueness of Nepali art, especially in relation to Indian art of a similar vein in the Eastern monasteries of India. Still many scholars and observers tend to ignore the uniqueness of early Nepali art and draw hasty conclusions about the extension of Indian influences on it.


Nepali illuminations have been considered provincial versions of the Pala period (9th to 11th century AD). Pal quotes Indian art scholars? interpretations of Nepali art in this regard (Pal, 1978: 134-5). As early as in 1927 Coomaraswamy said that "the distinction in style between Bengali and Nepali illustrated manuscripts is so slight as to be scarcely definable in a few words". In a comprehensive article written a few years later, Stella Kamrish considered Nepali art to be an emulation of Nalanda and other styles. Pal states that Indian scholars have taken a disdainful attitude towards Nepali art over a long period of time. They consider Nepali art either as a deviation of the Pala style or as inferior art. There is a consistent attitude of disdain on the part of Indian scholars towards Nepali art. But in reality "the manuscript illuminations from Nepal reveal not only a richer repertoire than those preserved from Eastern India, they often display far more complex compositions which are pictorially more exciting" (1978: 135).


The Earliest Nepali Painting

Nepali artists have used both art forms and media to make them flexible enough to express their response to the canonically defined art formes. These responses can be noticed in their execution of paintings and paubhas. The wood-cover illumination of the manuscript of Prajnaparamita (which Bajracharya claims to be the earliest Nepali painting now under custody of the Shakyas of Patan) was executed 920 AD. Bajracharya's claim pushes the history of Nepali painting back to one century earlier than recorded by foreign scholars on the basis of the manuscript illuminations found in foreign collections. This painting has a specific Nepali character, as can be seen by the rebellious character and syncratic forms of the deities. Buddhist illuminations make use of the styles used in Saiva paintings where gods and goddesses are richly attired. This painting shows the tall pyramidical hat of the Pancha Buddha and other garments somewhat clumsily made which perhaps show the style of 10th century Nepali painting.


The painting makes very effective use of colours and their tonality. They are very functional in terms of their use for accentuating volume and roundness of different parts of the body. Even after a thousand years the colours have not lost their lustre and freshness - an indication of the uniqueness of Nepali art!


Illuminations as an Art Form

Manuscript illuminations are classically defined conservative forms. There was little innovation in them. Most of the illuminations belonged to the same traditions as those of similar paintings in India. But according to Pal the Nepali paintings show a perceptible stylistic difference: the generally employed primary colors red, blue and yellow and in addition colors like white and green differ in "intensity and tonality" in Nepali paintings (Pal, 1985: 186). Nepali red is "tinged with crimson" as against the brighter vermillion used in Indian illuminations. The pigment shades in Nepali illuminations are more subdued than in the East Indian illuminations. The Nepali palette has a richer variety than that of the East Indian artists. The liberal use of mauve, purple and pink in Nepali art shows this very clearly. The exuberant cubical rocks used by Nepali artists are not found anywhere in Eastern Indian paintings.


Nepali painting must have developed from its native tradition. Wall paintings were a familiar phenomenon in Nepal as early as in the mid fifth century AD. The murals which decorated the monasteries and temples of the Lichavi period in Nepal impressed the Chinese emperor Wang hsuan-tse in the seventh century so much that he admired them as great works of art. The monastic style of doing illuminations in the eleventh century must have been derived from those murals of the Lichavi period. These were most probably executed in the same style as the wall paintings in the Buddhist caves at Ajanta. Thus Eastern Indian monastic painting and Nepali monastic painting must have a common source in the Gupta tradition (Pal, 1978: 43). Hence to say that Nepali painting of the early centuries is a direct emulation of Eastern Indian monastic painting seems exaggerated. Other evidence to this effect can be found in sculptures as well. Nepali sculptures were influenced by Gupta India (AD 320 to 600), but Nepali sculptors developed an independent style of their own. The sculptures found in Nepal are not Indian sculptures. In fact, no Indian sculptures have been found in Nepal: "while large numbers of Indian bronzes have been discovered in the remote monasteries of Tibet and even as far off as Japan, not a single bronze of Indian origin has emerged from a Buddhist monastery in Nepal" (Pal, 1985: 36). This is further proof of how independently Nepali artists developed their own art forms while basically retaining the classically defined form.


Nepali art thus developed as a Nepali aesthetic response to the ways of gods and men and women. It represents the Nepali mind - and a configuration of their spiritual and worldly experience.


A sense of competition that dominated the religious norm of the day between Buddhists and Saivites had a positive impact on Nepali art. To popularize the religious motifs, artists created beautiful illuminations for manuscripts. These illuminations were made mainly to let people have a good impression of the religious and mythological texts. The aim of the artists and scribes of Nepal was to establish a good inter-textual, inter-painterly and text-painterly pragmatics. The main thrust of communication was to produce a spiritual impact on the audience. This spirit of communication impelled the leaders to make monasteries meetings places, in different parts of town and in the cities of the Kathmandu valley. Murals, paintings and scrolls with attractive pictures of deities to be exhibited on the walls were created by skillful artists. The exuberances in the attires of deities in the Saiva paintings had impact on the Buddhist art, which must be attributed to some kind of competition between the two schools of faith. Such a tradition of competition can be noticed in the periodic exhibitions of scrolls, paintings and figures of deities in temples and monasteries even today. Manuscripts describing the methods of illumination are also displayed in monasteries and other holy places.


From the tenth up to the sixteenth century, Nepali paintings were executed either with a religious fervor or with the fulfillment of a certain role given to the artist by society. Paintings of this period follow the classical method. Lining patterns and delicate use, concept of harmony and balance, glazing fast color, fully filled-up space within the field of action are the stylistic features of the art of these centuries. Moreover, the decorative execution of twigs and branches and flame shapes, the concept of harmony between the facial expressions and the body symmetry of the deities are other continues features of the style of this period.


Nepali artist used paper as a medium after it was introduced from Tibet in the thirteenth century. The narrow horizontal format of the leaves was not immediately broken, but it allowed more space and a wider folio to the artists. The new medium gave a new impetus to the development of Nepali art. By joining the folio edge, a folding paper book was created. Such books were called "thyasaphu" in Newari. The continuation of the folios in Folds was a very useful medium for narratives both in language and in painting. The folios thus created were full of beautiful paintings and very telling sketches.


Paper as a material was also used for painting. In fact, the most exquisite paintings were done on the narrow cloth material, horizontally shaped. Some of the best paintings in Nepal and in foreign collections are executed on this medium. The didactic narratives depicted here follow both Buddhist and Saiva traditions.


In the seventh century Hindu artists used album pictures und the influence of Mughal and Rajput artists. "Ragamala" poetical literature, Ramayana and Mahabarata stories, devotional songs such as "Devimahatmya" and the story of Lord Krishna's life and achievements were the subject matter of such album pictures. The texts were written either on the back or at the margin and the space was occupied by art. Buddhist artists did not seem to use this form of picture albums.


Nepali painting has been mainly anthropomorphic. The human shapes of divinities were subject of the paintings. There is no transparency in the natural scenery. Stones and trees and cubical shiny gold shapes represent nature in these paintings. But in the mid-seventh century Newar artist came under the influence of Mughal and Rajput art. The narrative scrolls now depicts nature on a continuous basis in the background of paintings. Mountains, snow-peaked ones, grass mass, clouds and birds are now visible. Especially in this new type of creating an image of nature and landscape, influences from Mughal and Rajput and even Tibetan arts can be seen while the native tradition continues.


Nepali "Paubha" Painting

A special place in Nepali art is occupied by "paubha" painting ("pata" in Sanskrit and "thangka" in Tibetan). Paubhas are done both by Buddhist and Hindu artists. There are certain important differences in themes and style, while similarities are of equal importance. The paintings are done in water color, using resin as an adhesive. Buddhist and Brahminical images are painted on coarse cloth. The emphasis is on symmetry, order, balance and harmony. There is a rich red and brilliant warm tonality used in Nepali paubhas. Bright yellow, deep green and intense blue colors are also used to form the environment for these paintings. The foregrounding of the forms and colors is hieratic. Many natural objects form the symbolism in the paubhas.


The earliest paubha goes back to the twelfth century. It is the painting of "Ratnasambhava and the Eight Bodhisattvas" now kept in a Los Angeles collection (Pal, 1975: 16, 33). Many features of the paubha have remained the same through history, such as the figurative mode, the use of natural forms as symbols and decorations, the use of thrones and shrines, the lack of spatial dimension within the picture plane, a uniform distribution of light with a non-existence of shade, the defined positions of sitting figures using rich attire, jewellery, the meticulous precision in drawing, apart from the color structuralism discussed above. In later paubhas of the second half of the 14th century, the portraits of priests and donors drawn along the bottom of the painting became a common feature of this art form. 


Painters were working within a tradition of art and they were part of a group of artists who balanced their aesthetic perceptions with religious motifs. Sculptors, for instance, represent in a tangible form the mode of Nepali aesthetics as expressed through the different media. For this reason, we should also look a Nepali sculptures, especially at the three-dimensional projections of the same motifs as handled by the painters, to understand the history, the tradition and the pragmatic intent of the painters. 


Nepali Sculpture 

Nepali sculpture used stone, metal, terracotta and wood as a medium. Icons are strewn around the cities of the Kathmandu Valley. They can be found in temples, monasteries, lanes, courtyards, business centers, waterspouts and paddy fields. Lain Bangdel claims that Nepali icons can be traced back to the 1st century BC or the 1st century AD (404). The early predominant icons were those of mother goddesses, created by sculptors of Saiva, Buddhist and Vaisnava schools. The early icons represent deities in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions and served mainly for religious functions. Therefore aesthetic and religious impulses meet in the sculptures.


The sculptors became less and less rigid in time, but like the painters they always followed certain classical norms. There may not have been a great deal of space for their own minds to work in, but the very exquisiteness of the sculptures gives sufficient proof of the sculptor's personalities and skills.


The Lichavi-period images of Vishnu in stone, bronze and in terracotta figurines maintained their appeal up to a much later date. Nepali sculptures do share a strong tradition with the Gupta sculptures in India. But Nepali sculptors also went to Tibet and China. A team of Nepali sculptors, under the leadership of Arniko, went to China where the monumental "Swetachaitya" was created. By the early Malla period Nepali sculptors had created a unique style of their own: facial features became nepalized, the artists created their own version of symmetry, of facial features and of the divine and demonic manifestations. There is a strong human feature in sculpture. Even in the late Malla and Shah period Nepali sculpture continue to maintain its tradition of more than a millennium of years. The sculptors remained creative throughout the ages and the number of icons created over the centuries was abundant.


Both the sculptures and the architecture of the Kathmandu Valley have an urban base. They both reflect the spatial impact on Nepali art over the centuries, its urban design and its meeting places - everything exhibits the Nepali aesthetic construct which was a combination of artistic form and religious belief.


Wood Carvings as a Special Art Form

Wood carvings, which are part of traditional architecture, also constitute an important form of Nepali art since the 12th century. They can be seen in temples, monasteries, private homes, palaces and public places and show a secular concept of art. The subject matter for the strut carvings are events of daily life and the cycle of seasons and of life. The famous 84 sexual postures that can be seen in the struts at the Saiva temples in the heart of Kathmandu exemplify the Saiva tantric tradition while at the same time showing how free the artist was in his use of secular motifs.


The struts can be divided into two categories, namely corner struts and struts in other places. They are arranged slantingly standing at a 45-degree angle to support the sloping horizontal beams above. Since the slanting struts project their dominant spatial position, the art work - colorful decorations and carvings - tend to draw the eyes of the viewers. The struts were therefore considered a very important medium for the creation of an aesthetic effect by the artists. They carry either religious or semi-religious motifs and they are classified under the name of lion or the position of the principal deity. Since the struts were made at a time when tantrism was at its height, they bear images of tantric gods - the tantric manifestations of Shiva and Parvati, of Vishnu and Lakshmi, of Bodhisattvas, Lokesvara or various mother goddesses. There are smaller panels below the main motif depicting different figures well-known in the mythological systems, such as dancers and erotic figures.


The struts project a very charming visual effect. They are like paintings in their use of color and decoration and their dexterous manipulation of religious motifs. Such a dexterous artistic performance can also be seen in elsewhere in carved panels, windows, doors and the wooden items of daily use. 


I have here introduced sculptures and strut carvings only insofar as they project a common pattern in the choice of motifs and in the combination of religious subject matter, aesthetics and the secular perception of art.