Sculpting Art of Metal Statues and The Lost Wax Process

Craftsmanship of Statues 

During the earlier days in Tibet, wood and clay were the popular medium for carving statues. Large-sized statues were made out of woods to be placed in monasteries. Besides the woods and clays, metal sculpture is another favorite medium in Tibetan Sculpting practice. Artisans in Nepal and Tibet use the traditional lost wax sculpting method to mold the statue. This technique was first seen in Nepal in 10th century ACE. Since then, it has evolved into a polished art style utilized to make the excellent Nepali sculpture in the world.

The sculpting tradition has been going on in Nepal for many years. With just a slight change in proportions and design patterns, the foundation of the molding process remains the same. Nepalese sculpture is renowned for miniature bronze or copper alloy religious figures and ceremonial items. The Newari community of Nepal has a long history of making small bronze statues, generally religious and notably Buddhist, which have been sent to India and Tibet in large quantities over many years.

Newari Craftsmanship

The first masters of Nepalese sculpture were the Newar, one of Nepal's ethnic groups. They were creating metal statues, such as the Buddha Statue, which takes a lot of time and ability. Giant metal sculptures require the collaboration of several people and can take up to couple of months to construct. This exclusive skill of crafting metal statues is inherited from generation to generations.

It is worth noting that the Newar artists of medieval Nepal were known for their craftsmanship of religious sculptures and images. These were the results of religious devotion and a disciplined manifestation of traditional vows prescribed by ancient sacred texts and contemporary socio-religious beliefs and practices prescribed for the artists of religious pictures and sculptures.

As a result, the Newar artists would take a holy bath each day, shave their heads, eat only satvik-bhojan (natural foods that lessen unneeded worldly emotion), and wear clean and certain forms of essential clothing while creating pictures or sculptures of religious icons. The Newar people of medieval Nepal believed that sacred art always included a divine essence (deva-atman). Because of these beliefs, the artists adhered to the holy laws, especially while creating religious art and objects by carving, painting, making, or casting. 

The Lost Wax Process:

lost wax method statue casting

Source: Garland Magazine

The metal sculptures in Nepal and Tibet are made using two different methods. The sculptor takes a metal sheet and places it on a pitch of surki, khoto, and saaldhup. This pitch is similar to that of the German red pitch for chasing. Then the artist starts crafting the design by chasing the metal sheet with different chisels. Statues made with such methods are lightweight as several metal sheets are joined together. This method of making is called 'kata jya' or 'thvajya', the art of sculpting on metal sheets. 

For the second method, the sculpture first makes a model of the deity or a figure using wax. He adds saaldhup  for better shaping of the mold alongside the wax. For a perfect sculpture, a flawless wax mold must be created. It requires extreme skills and dedication to perfect the technique.

Using the principle of 'kata jya,' the statue can be prepared by molding different parts separately and assembling them at the end. The wax mold is then heavily covered with clay and cow dung. As soon as it dries out, it is coated 2-8 times to thicken with special sand, 'gicha' and chaff. Only one small hole is made on this clay mold so the wax can be let out. This mold with wax inside is heated on fire. The molded wax melts out, resulting in a fine hollow mold of a statue. The wax is lost from the mold; that is why it is given the name, The Lost Wax Process. The remaining part is called a block.

Use of Metal Alloys:

A wide variety of alloys are used while casting statues. Bronze is one widely used alloy both in Tibet and Nepal. However, the amount of copper in the alloy makes a remarkable difference in the outcome.

For instance, if the Bronze contains a high amount of Copper, they turn out to be reddish, while the brass gives a yellowish tone to the cast.

Also, Copper is a highly soft and smooth metal. Hence, statues made by the Newars of Kathmandu valley are distinguished from others because of the smooth finishing. Their alloy contains a handsome amount of copper compared to those of Indians.

The selected metal alloy is poured into the hole in the shadow. When pouring metal this way, it is cooled a bit when the metal is filled inside the block. Later, the same is dipped in the water inside the Khasi (a large fossi-like vessel). Then, all the sap is taken out, and all the lumps of soil are blown out.

Now, the artisans beats the statue with Vocha and Sumicha (small retorting jaws). If the figure has to be raised on obscure parts, he uses a kata (another retaining jaw) to correct the statue's shape. The figure is further polished, and more details and design patterns are added per requirements.

Solid-Body and Hollow Body Statues 

Two types of casting models can be prepared using wax, a hollow and a solid mold, resulting solid body statue and a hollow body statue. The figures made using solid molds tend to be heavier than the hollow body molds.Hollow body Buddhist StatueView our Collection of Hand Carved Statues:

The majority of the casting of the Tibetan and Nepali Statues are made with a hollow body. This space is to be filled with the consecration relics and charms (blessed bits of paper with a mantra written on them). This practice of inserting relics is a part of Vajrayana practice and helps to build a strong connection between the deity and the practitioner.

A thin metal sheet is used as a base plate to cover the bottom of the statue. In the case of seated peaceful Buddha and Bodhisattvas, Buddhist masters, and mahasiddhas, the base plate is always on the bottom, while for the wrathful standing deities, this open-able plate is on their back.

Once the consecration of the statue is performed by the monk or a realized master, this plate is sealed completely. There is also a comprehensive practice of inscribing a double Thunderbolt (Visva Vajra) on this plate.

Depending upon the size and complexity of the deity, statues are either cast in one solid form or in multiple parts, which are later assembled.

For instance, a small statue is usually cast into two pieces: The main body and the lotus base. But for larger sculptures, the parts are made separately into different elements like the main body, lotus base, attributes, halo, etc.).

Gold Gilding:

The Tibetan statues are also seen painted with multiple bright colors. Painting and gilding statues are commonly seen practices. But even in polychromed sculptures, the skin of the deity is always painted with the liturgically prescribed colors. This is because of the pre-defined iconography of the Buddhist figures that an artisan must comply with.Medicine Buddha & Amitabha BuddhaCollection of Buddha Statues:

For instance, the body of Amitabha Buddha is always painted red while Medicine Buddha with blue.

But the use of gold is allowed, especially in the face area. Gilding the face with cold gold and painting other facial features (eyes, nose, and mouth) with appropriate colors is a common practice. Similarly, the hair of the peaceful deities is painted either blue or black, while the wrathful deities have red-colored hair that imitates the blazing fire.

Hence, the practice of gilding the face of the statue with gold is exclusively Tibetan. Being a valuable and auspicious metal, Tibetans preferably use gold as a religious offering.

Gold Gilding is a complex and tedious manual process that requires skills and precision. A mixture of gold and mercury is used to coat the statues (either whole body or on desired areas). It is then heated over the smokeless fire, which causes the mercury to evaporate completely. Hence, only leaving the gold gilded on the surface. This coated surface is further polished to create a lustrous shine, adding more beauty to the deity.

Use of Precious Stones:Green Tara & Crown Shakyamuni buddha with corals precious gemstones

View this beautiful Stone embedded Tara Statue:
One of the most distinctive features of Tibetan statues is the use of precious stones. They are encrusted with semi-precious stones like turquoise, opal, corals, and crystals. Such elements add a further dimension to the statues and create a surreal texture to see and feel.

Hence, artists all over Nepal and Tibet mold the statue using lost wax process. The design pattern on the statue, different styles of the art may have been changed over the time but the basic principle of crafting such statues still remains the same. Such skillsets has been passed down to generations. The artist mold the statues with pure devotion and respect the corresponding deity. To master the method, you must have exceptional talent and commitment.  

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