Paubha Painting: The Traditional Art Of Nepal

Author: Renuka Gurung (Pradhan)

Description of Paubha

"Paubha" the traditional art of Nepal is believed to have been practiced from time immemorial. Due to the lack of documentary evidences it has become difficult to pin point exactly since when and how the painting was practiced and originated in the valley. The word "Paubha" is derived from a Sanskrit word Patrabhattarak. This means depiction of god and goddesses on a flat form. There have been some paintings found where instead of Patrabhattarak or "Paubha" the painter has written Patibahar. However these evidences prove that the word "Paubha" must have travelled a long way from Patibahar to Patrabhattarak and however, a very intensive research is required to explore the original and development of the words "Paubha". This very old traditional art form was practiced from a historical time when there was a tradition of oral transfer of knowledge from father to son or the member of the family of their own caste or clan, and the knowledge was kept secret within the circle of their family. Sometimes the knowledge was also passed on to the devout pupil from a learned master, so it was a master to disciple tradition (guru sisya parampara). On the basis of historical evidences "Paubha" painting tradition goes beyond 7th century. The use of mineral pigment and the process of making color signify its historic origin. To describe the method and historical time of practice of "paubha" painting a passage from an important tantric text "Manjushree Mulakalpa" dating from third century A.D is given below.

"A cloth is to be woven by a pure virgin and its presentation is accompanied by an elaborate ritual. An officient (Sadhaka or Acharya) who may either do the work himself or employ a painter who works under his direction conducts the whole ritual. Pure colors are to be used. The Painter beginning his work on an auspicious day should work only from sunrise to mid-day. Seated on a cushion of kusha grass facing east his intelligence awakes, his mind directed toward the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. He takes in his hand a delicate brush (Vatrika) and with his mind at ease begins to paint. After the prescribed divinities have been figured he should depict the efficient himself in a corner of the canvas according to his actual appearances and costume, kneeling with bowed head holding an incense burner."

This is the earliest known description of the process of painting on cloth which has a great similarity with the basic process of "Paubha" painting. Therefore this statement suggests that the "Paubha" painting was practiced by traditional painters as early as during 3rd century A.D. However, due to certain reasons such as fragility of the medium, political disturbances and cultural practices (for instance, there was a tradition of replacing old "Paubhas" with the new one) earliest "Paubhas" have not survived till present time nor have been discovered so far. However among the oldest known "Paubhas" one of which is still surviving is an image of "Ratna Sambava" is now in Los Angeles County Museum. This "Paubha" belongs to the early 13th century.

"Paubha" faced a threat of extinction toward the end of Malla era. The political disturbances led to decline in paubha painting. As a result the painters looked toward other way to explore and introduce "Paubha" painting, so over historical time there has been inflow of various art forms in Nepal. Nepalese art form such as "Paubha" also travelled outside the valley towards Tibet. The Chitrakars (the Newar traditional painters) believe that "Paubhas" taken to Tibet from the valley became as an inspirational tool or a basis for the development of the Himalayan Buddhist devotional art known as Thangkas. Because of the reason, Newar traditional artists regard "Paubha" as the precursor of Thangka.

Tradition of "Paubha" painting

The Ritual

"Paubha" is always painted for a spiritual reason and the painting process embraces painter's spiritual contemplation and guidance from learned master (Bajracharya priest). Therefore, the "Paubha" painters are advised to work in a quiet and secluded environment without outwardly disturbances accompanied by his master (Sadhaka).

The sastra says the painter has to be humble, meditative, detached from materialistic world and patience. He has to be devoted to his craft of skills and contemplated to the spiritual space "a real master of craft". A Buddhist text describes a quality of a painter as follows, 'A painter must be a good man, no sluggard, not given to anger, holy, learned master of his sense, pious, benevolent, free from avarice such should be his character. An auspicious day, date and time is fixed by the Bajracharya priest to start "Paubha" painting. Before starting to paint there was a tradition of "Hasta Puja" (worshipping the hands) of a painter and his tools. After the ritual of hasta puja the painter would remain under the strict discipline for example, he would fast and eat only vegetarian food, remain holy and observe brahamacharya.

The painting is initiated with short prayer and meditation to the deities. Once the work is finished the painting is consecrated (given life to) by the Bajracharya priest. This signifies that the deity is alive. It has been suggested that the "Paubha" should not be unrolled in presence of strangers; it has to be worshipped by the initiated owner only. However this practice is long lost and very few traditional painters at present are struggling to continue this tradition of "Paubha" painting alive.

Method and Methodology of "Paubha" painting

"Paubha" the traditional art of Nepal has its own unique method of painting and a reason to be painted. The painting process need to be strictly according to the principles and guidelines of holy sastras. Therefore it is indeed a time consuming process.

First, a canvas has to be prepared by a painter which takes about a week. For canvas making a cotton cloth is stretched on a rectangular wooden frame where a mixture of glue (Saresh) and white clay (Sapeta) is applied uniformly on the surface. Then it is allowed to remain under a shade for a while to dry.

                                                      Prepared Canvas

           cotton rope, iron needle & stone for brushing the canvas                                         Prepared canvas

Once it is dry, the cotton surface is burnished with a smooth stone to give it a final appearance. Burnishing is also a time consuming and tiring task. One has to rub the cotton cloth with the stone regularly about 4/5 times a day at repeated interval. Once the cotton surface becomes like animal hide then the canvas is ready to be painted.

Second step is color preparation:-
All the color for "Paubha" paintings is prepared from minerals and plants materials. These minerals are broken down and are made into a fine powder; the process requires lots of manual work while grinding in a mortar and pestle. The mineral is hand ground for months to achieve good result. The mineral for color preparation are available in Nepal however some of the minerals for supplementary color are imported from India and Afghanistan as well. Traditional "Paubha" is painted with five basic colors - red, blue, yellow, black and white. Saresh is used as a binder.



White color of Nepal was very famous in ancient time. The color of each deity needs to be according to the principle of holy sastra. Sketching is also another very important part of the "Paubha" painting. The painter must have a sound knowledge of iconographic and iconometric principles. The painter cannot sketch any deity out of mere imagination but it has to be according to the principles set by the realized sages and Mahasiddhas, who had recorded visions of the different deities in their meditation. After the initial coat of color is applied the painter then gives fine lining to give a perfect shape to the deity. Then he starts shading and gradation, which is a time consuming part of the painting process. Painters also apply gold and silver to the painting as an act of contemplation to the deity. It has been learnt in the earlier times, the painter used to sketch the drawing by a measurement done by "Angul" (finger breadths). The eyes of the deity are opened in the end which signifies that the painting is complete.


                                       Pure gold                                                                                         Pure silver

The process of "Paubha" painting is very different. The ritual which is carried out during the process of "Paubha" painting is long lost and is not practiced nowadays. In this regard, this art form is already extinct. At present, the paintings are usually not created for any religious reason, because of shortage of time, intensive workmanship and unavailability of an initiated painter who knows the sastras and remain under strict discipline. However some traditional painters are struggling hard to continue the tradition so that everyone would get an opportunity to observe, understand and enjoy the ultimate bliss thereby attaining the Buddhahood.

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By: Sumit Shakya, patan (2012-09-29)
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