Detailed Traditional Craftsmanship

Tantra in Nepal

Nepal has historically remained a major and vital center and the entrepôt for the transmission of Tantric Buddhism into Tibet Tantric and for its artistic expression between northeast India and Tibet. The small fertile valley of the Kathmandu, consisting of the three cities of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, is the locus of Tantric Buddhism, where it has shared the religious environment with Hindu practices for at least 2,000 years.

Practiced by the Newar community, this form of Buddhism serves as the last remaining legacy of Sanskrit Buddhism still actively followed within a South Asian cultural context. Indeed, the Kathmandu Valley is virtually an open-air museum, with more than 500 Buddhist institutions and numerous temples, giving evidence to the creative genius of the Newars.

The Newar Craftsmanship

In fact, the term "Nepalese" art often refers exclusively to the artistic production of the Buddhist Newars of the Kathmandu Valley. Through the centuries, the Newar Buddhist community of artists has also fulfilled major commissions for the royal Hindu patrons, and the Tibetan patrons to this day especially recognize the aesthetic refinement and iconographic accuracy of Newar craftsmanship.

Thus, as testified in the Tibetan accounts of the Blue Annals, Nepal historically served as a critical foundation of Tantric Buddhism for the Tibetan teachers, who came to the Kathmandu Valley not only to learn Sanskrit but also of to receive teachings from the renowned Newar Buddhist masters. 

Buddhist Masters

The Excellence of Newari Art

By the 7th century, the excellence of Newar workmanship was recognized when Newar craftsmen were commissioned to build and embellish the Jokhang in Lhasa. Indeed, the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti, daughter of Amshuvarma, is said to have taken a number of artists with her to Tibet. Furthermore, commenting on the artistry and aesthetic of Nepalese architecture, the Chinese ambassador Wang Xuan Ze, from the Tang dynasty (618-906), thus describes the royal palace:

"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."

Art and the Caste

For the most part, the monastic community of the Vajracharya and Shakyas are the Valley's craftsmen: carvers of stone, wood, and ivory; painters and highly skilled metalworkers, goldsmiths, and silversmiths. In particular, the metalworkers from Nepal are among the finest craftsmen working the Valley. These occupations have led many members of the monastic caste groups to serve as itinerant artists in Tibet, commissioned to work for monasteries throughout Central Tibet, in Lhasa, Shakya, and Samye.

Newari and Tibetan Iconography

Indeed, historically, the Newar artists have been instrumental in the development of the Tibetan painting and sculptural style of the Bal ris and Bal mthun ("Newar-painting/sculpture.”). An inscribed sketchbook belonging to the artist Jivarama specifically mentions that he had worked in Tibet and brought the hook back after his stay in Tibet, and indeed the iconographic and decorative elements of the sketchbook and painting are virtually identical.

The Newari Craftsman Anige

Perhaps the most famous of the Newar craftsmen is Anige, who went to the Chinese Yuan court with the Sakya hierarch Phagpa along with eighty craftsmen. Anige impressed the great Kublai Khan and was commissioned to create a colossal stupa as well as various metal, dry lacquer, ceramic, and unfired clay images and paintings. Influencing Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian art, he served as the head of the metal-casting division and in 1299 was commissioned by the Emperor to undertake 191 images and 64 paintings.

Chinese accounts state that in 1304, 181 images were produced and restored by him. Though little that survives can definitely be credited to Anige's hand, there are two objects from his workshops in the exhibition. Moreover, there are several paintings in the exhibition representing the ongoing aesthetic exchanges between the Tibetans and Chinese, which Anige initiated.

An Era of Artistic Production

After the Licchavi dynasty, the Transitional (880-1200) and Malla (1200–1768) periods were the most prolific and inspired eras of artistic production, with extensive cultural exchanges with Tibet. The Valley's creative excellence of stone, wood, and metalworking are best exemplied by the complex visual imagery of the Buddhist institutions of the Valley.

Shrine façades of the bahas are embellished with exquisite toranas, elegant strut figures, sculptural decorations, and votive offerings in the courtyards, such as chaityas and mandalas. The visual imagery in the major monasteries date from the 14th to 15th centuries, with offerings that continue to be added through the centuries by the pious lay patrons of the community.

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