Paubha Paintings

Author: Min Bahadur Shakya


Newar paintings, called "Paubha" in Newari and "Pata" in Sanskrit, are usually rectangular in shape and are prepared from cotten woven specially to fit the dimensions required for each painting. Unlike the Tibetan Thanka, the Newar Paubha is mostly uniform in size. Tibetans may craft huge thankas from ceremonial display, as seen in Tahilhumpo monastery or Jokhang Temple, Tibet or in Paro, Bhutan.

With regard to subject matter, Paubhas usually portray figures of important divinities, mandalas of divinities, and monuments surrounded by various figures. These paintings are mostly created for religious purposes. They were used as aids to meditation. In the early days of Paubha painting. Both patrons and artists were motivated by spiritual concerns. Newar Buddhists commissioned Paubha paintings in order to earn merit, and they were displayed on special occasions. The paintings, which serve as aids in meditation, were hung on private alters, in temples and in monasteries. For instance, a large Paubha, dedicated to Maha Manjushri, was once hung on the walls of Hiranyavarna Mahavihara. In the present day, this tradition of displaying Paubhas is now endangered due to the rise of theft, pollution and commercialization.

It is difficult to determine when and where Paubha painting originated, owing to the lack of early Paubha paintings in Nepal. Lain Singh Bangdel, the veteran authority on Nepalese art, confidently states that Newar artists were the pioneers of Paubha painting. Through and analysis of the historical development of relations between Nepal and Tibet, we find evidence to support his statement. Most early thanka paintings from Tibet appear to have been strongly influenced by the Nepalese style, resembling painting style such as those found in the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript.

So far we do not have any Nepalese Paubha paintings dating from earlier than the 13th century. Most ancient Paubha paintings are now preserved not in Nepal but in American and European Museums.

The painting of Amitabha Buddha in the Los Angeles County Museum is believed to be the earliest Nepalese Paubha painting. Although the painting is not dated. Its style resembles that of the manuscript paintings in astasahasrika Prajnaparamita(1015 A.D). Also in the same style is the Paubha of Ratnasambhava also in the Los Angeles County Museum(early 13th century).

Green Tara dated (1368 A.D)

Surya Mandala (1379 A.D)

Vishnu mandala(1420 A.D)

Vanaratna’s wife distributing alms(1469A.D)

Cakrasamvara mandala(1475 A.D)

Amoghpasa mandala(1542 A.D)

Ushnisha Vijaya(1416 A.D), Patan Museum

Swayambhu complex(17th century A.D)

The above specimens are among the best examples of Newar painting dating from before the 17the century. Paubha paintings are not limited to Buddhist subjects; there are also a few paintings based on Hindu themes. Tow such paintings are Visnumandala(dated NS 540 i.e. 1420 A.D) and Suryamandala(dated 1379 A.D)

The Newar tradition of displaying Paubhas, mentioned earlier, takes place over several days during the Bhidyo Boyegu Ceremony, held in the month o July-August. During this period, Several Viharas or Baha or Bahis in Kathmandu and Lalitpur display their Paubhas for communal worship. But in recent times, the threat of theft and art trafficking has made the owners of these Paubhas hesitant to display them. The result is that the display tradition has been discontinued in most viharas.

Here are some examples of Paubha formerly displayed in Patan and Kathmandu.

1.Suraschandra Mahavihara- Nhayakan Bahi- Paubha depicting Shilu Tirtha

2.Hiranyavarna Mahavihara- Kwabahal- A Grand Paubha depicting Manju Vajra

3.Gopichandravihara- Patan- Paubha depicting Sakyamuni with host of bhikshus, yaksha, gandharvas, kinnars and so forth paying homage, 1437 A.D.

4.Gopichandravihara- Patan – Vanaratna’s wife distributing alms(1469 A.D)

5.Jesthavarna Mahavihara- Patan- Paubha depicting Devarath, Bhimrath and Maharath

6.Jesthavarna Mahavihara- Patan - Astamatrika and Astadikpalas

7. Jesthavarna Mahavihara- Patan – Viharalaksana chitra dated 1344 A.D.

8.Tanga Baha- Patan-  Yamadvara laksana

9.Vikramashila vihara- Paubhas depicting Sristikarta Lokeshvara dated 1819A.D.

Nowadays, since Tibetan thanka painting has become very popular in the world market, when people speak of thanka, Tibetan thankas are what they have in their mind. The casual visitor knows nothing about Newar painting and its characteristic features, and about the uniqueness of these early Newar paintings. Knowing the importance and features of Newar panting has become essential for these Nepalese artists wishing to preserve Newar painting as separate style. Although in its early stages Tibetan thanka painting was highly influenced by Nepalese style, after the 16th century, marked differences between the two styles began to appear.

How can we distinguish Nepalese painting from Tibetan?

Difference between Tibetan Thanka and Nepalese Paubha Painting

  1. Newar style after the 13th century reflected developments in illustrated manuscript painting, which was an earlier tradition, dating from 11th century; the Newar style changed little until the 17th century.
  2. One of the special features of Newar Paubha is that the central figure occupies an ornate frame, an elaborate arch or a torana dvara, formed by the head of garuda or Tsepu or Kirtimukha, a mythical creature of Nepal. Holding two snakes. It is surrounded by much smaller subsidiary figures.
  3. The profuse use of red color in a softer tone that the red used by Tibetans.
  4. Designs in the aura of the main deity are much simpler than in Tibetan paintings.
  5. The background is filled with flowers and creeping plants in early Newar paintings.
  6. The blank spaces in the background contain simple designs of flowers and long leaves.
  7. The deities are painted with fine line drawing in Newar paintings.
  8. The inclusion of white flowers, large leaves, mountains, stupas, clouds, temples and monasteries in background scenes is found in Tibetan compositions, whereas there were no background elements in early Newar paintings.
  9. The painted surface is divided into sections. In the larger upper part, the main divinities and their acolytes are depicted, while the lower part is usually smaller in size, and filled with depictions of sponsors or donors. Also women are graphically separated from men, each appearing on opposite sides of the central divinity or sacrificial fire. This grouping by gender is characteristic of near painting.
  10. Only after 17-18th centuries did Nepalese artists began to paint background scenes.
  11. The portrayal of Tantric deities’s wrathful expression is more vigorous in Tibetan than in Nepalese paintings.
  12. The painters remain anonymous.
  13. Mughal and Rajput influences appear only during the 17th century
  14. Curly Chinese clouds entered the repertoire of decorative motifs after the 18th century. 


The author, Min Bahadur Shakya is a scholar of Newari and Tibetan Buddhism. Among his major publications are : Princess Bhrikuti Devi, Boudhanath Stupa, A Short History of Buddhism in Nepal, Introduction to Buddhist Monasteries of the Kathmandu Valley and Iconography of Nepalese Buddhism.

He was vice-president of the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth(WFBY) from 1984-1988 and was nominated as Research Associate of the Fokuang Shan Chinese Buddhist Research Academy(Taiwan), 1989-1990.

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