Paubha Or Thanka Painting Of Nepal

Min Bahadur Shakya

The origin of Buddhist art of painting

The earliest Buddhist art may be traced back to the Buddha's lifetime although some art historians are of the view that it originated some centuries after Buddha's great Parinirvana. We find many exegetical references to strengthen evidences in the Sutra texts ie Vinaya and Tantra, including Manushrimulakalpa and so on.

It appears that Buddha himself considered painting to be an important subject as he mentioned methods of painting in sutras such as Buddha Pratimalaksana sutra. This is apparently a very late Buddhist text – perhaps after 10th century AD. These scriptures explain how to make the image of deities and spiritual figures.

Two kings of Magadha, Bimbisara and Udrayana wee, very close friends and they would often exchange gifts. Once, when Udrayana, King of Vatsa sent a priceless gift to his friend, King Bimbisara responded by deciding to send a painted scroll of the Buddha. But when the artist began to look at the Buddha, they were so overwhelmed by the splendor and light emitting from his body that they could not draw his image. Once seeing this Buddha cast his shadow on a sheet of cloth and advised the artists  to trace it. This supposed to have been the first painted figure of the Buddha.

Similarly, at one time, the Buddha, residing in the Nyagrodha Grove at the city of Kapilvastu, was teaching the Dharma to thousands, including his father Suddhodana, and queen Mahaprajapati, accompanied by her attendants. Mahanama, the Shakya asked Buddha to teach his wife obstinate and haughty Sashiprabha. While Buddha was teaching, Sashiprabha asked her slave girl Rohita to bring her pearl necklace to show up her beauty. While she was rushing to get pearl necklace back, she was struck by a cow, and died instantly. She was reborn in Srilanka as a princess called Muktalata. Showers of pearls fell down when she took birth therefore named as Multalata( The pearl creeper) when a group of merchants was traveling to Sri Lanka, they began to chant a hymn dedicated to Lord Buddha. Princess Muktalata, hearing the songs of the Buddha, called the merchants to take offering back to Buddha. Lord Buddha accepted the offerings with pleasure. Lord Buddha in return sent a cloth painting of himself inscribed with some teachings to Princess Muktalata. She saw the portrait and deep faith arose in her for the Buddha and consequently realized the truth and attained the sate of stream entry (skt: strotapanna). Later, it came to be know as the portrait of "Rasmimuni" ie (Radiant Saint). It is said to be the second portrait during the lifetime of Buddha.

History of Nepalese painting

To trace the history of Buddhist art in Nepal in the pre-Lichchavi period is quite a difficult task due to the lack of documentary evidence. Nepalese history is documented only after 464 A.D., the date of a stone inscription at Changu Narayana. However, the Licchavi Period (400-880 A.D) is said to be the golden age of Nepalese art. Several very beautiful sculptures dating from this period have been found. For example Padmapani Bodhisattva image at Srigha vihara dating 550 A.D is the one best example. Unfortunately, not a single painting from that period has been found.

It is well known that Buddhist art was introduced into Tibet from Nepal in the 7th century when Srong-btsang sgam-po (617-650 AD) married the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti Devi. The presence of Newar artist in Tibet from the early 7th century to the mid – 9th century is frequently noted in Tibetan historical works. Furthermore, "It is fairly certain that there were trading connections between Nepal and Tibet long before the Tibetans became a recognized political power". At Lhasa itself, local traditional maintains that the "Phrul-snang or Jokhang was built by Princess Bhrikuti, the Nepalese wife of Srong-btsang sgam-po.

The Mani Kabum mentions that Nepalese artists, commissioned by King Srong-btsang sgam-po, produced the statue of eleven-faced Avalokitesvara together with statues of Bhrikuti, Arya Tara, Marici, Sarasvati, Hayagriva and many others in Jokhong Temple of Lhasa. For example, Srong-btsang sgam-po "commissioned the celebrated Nepalese craftsman Khre-ba to have 11 images of Avalokitesvara made which were to be same sizes as the king himself." The Chronicle of the fifth Dalai Lama also refers to the presence of Nepalese artist in Tibet at the time of the early kings. Many skillful artists were called from Nepal to Tibet where they developed a unique artistic tradition.

According to Sir Arel Stein, Nepalese artists painted part of fresco one of the caves at Dunhoung. If Stein's judgment is correct, then its date can be assigned to 775-825 AD. Certainly, more research is needed in this case.

During the time of Tri-Ralpacan, (806-838) the art of painting in Nepalese-style was introduced into Tibet. While constructing the Buddhist monastery "Tashi Gephel", he employed many Nepalese artists for painting in their Nepali style. Thus, on account of these artisans, the art of painting in Nepali style thrived in Central and upper Tibet.

Another trend of Nepalese style of painting became prominent  during the time of Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) in China. Most were commissioned by the Sa-skya-pa school of Tibetan Buddhism. While there are traces of Bengali-style painting in the murals of Zhwa-ly monastery, the majority of 13th century paintings found in Sa- skya monasteries are in Nepalese style.

In 1260, Kublaikhan, the great ruler of China and suzerain of the Mongol states and Tibet, asked his spiritual preceptor, lama 'Phags-pas (1235-1280) , to erect a golden pagoda in Tibet. He extended invitations to over one hundred Newar artists. The King of Nepal, Jaya Bhima Malla (1258-71) managed to gather only eighty of them.

Arniko, although only seventeen years of age, was chosen to lead the expedition. Arniko was accomplished draughtsman, painter, modeler and metal caster. The erection of Golden Pagoda was accomplished under his direction in the year 1262. After its completion he was invited to visit Beijing to construct a White Pagoda. He manufactured several images and created paintings and developed a unique system of art blending Newar and Chinese styles.

Arniko introduced Nepalese artistic styles into Chinese culture. Some of his outstanding paintings and sculptures are

  1. Portrait of Emperor Kublaikhan and empress Chabi
  2. Painting of Green Tara: Now preserved in the Cleveland Museum of Art, USA
  3. Mahakala sculpture: dated 1292
  4. Lacquor Bodhisattva
  5. Image of Manjusri

The tradition of Arniko lasted for a long time among Buddhist sculptors in China and is still upheld in the introduction to an 18 century iconometric treatise, the Zaoxiang Duliang Jinjie, by the Mongolian scholar Gon-po skyabs(1690-1750).

Newars a prolific Mandala Makers

In the 15th century, the Tibetan Master Anandabhadra (Kun-dga bzand-po), founder of Ngor monastery, invited Nepalese artists to embellish Ngor's chapels.  In 1429 A.D.,  Nepalese artists decorated the chapels of Ngor Monastery with mandalas, patas and portraits of the Sa-skya-pa school.

It is also known that the entire series of Vajravali mandalas at E Vam chos idan gyi ri khrod were painted by skilled Nepalese artists.

Dr P.Pal writes:

"Monasteries of the Sakyapa religious order in Tibet seemed especially partial to Nepali craftsman. After the 12th century, when most of the Buddhist Monasteries in India were destroyed, Nepal filled the vacuum for a time for the Tibetans. "

The sMan-bris school of art

After the fall of Bengal following the Islamic incursions of the 13th century, most monasteries in the Bengal and Bihar were abandoned. Thereafter, Buddhist art was no longer produced in these regions. A survey of Buddhist Paubha paintings of the Malla period until the 17th century reveals only slight Indian influences.

According to A.W. Macdonald and Anne Vergatui Stahl, the Bal-ris movement developed in south Tibet, in the area around Gyantse, in the 14th and 15th centuries, Bal-ris means "Nepalese drawing".

Manla Dhondup (b.1440) began to live in Tsang in southern Tibet. There he met a Nepali artist named "Dopa Tashi" who was exert in Nepalese style. He studied under the guidance of Nepali artist with great enthusiasm. After studying, although he kept the proportion of image, portrait and stupa as before, made a slight change in the standard of portions in various designs, religious motifs, colors and compositions, and developed a new pigmentative style in Tibet, since then the art, which was known as Manri became popular in Tibet. Manla became his major disciple and learned the Nepalese style of art from Dopa Tashi Gyalpo.

Later, the sMan-gsar, mKhan-bris and sgar-bris styles of art were developed successfully. Although these schools vary from each other in style, all of them principally follow the iconometric canons. Nepalese artists have been popular with the Tibetans over the centuries, and were used extensively as late as 1447, as documented in Gedun drub's construction of Tashi Lhunpo monastery.

Although in its early stages Tibetan thangka painting was highly influenced by Nepalese style, after the 16th century, marked differences between the two styles began to appear.

In any discussion of Newar painting, we cannot overlook the impact of Indian styles, especially Rajput and Moghul, from the 17th century onwards. There are several examples of Newar Paubhas, especially long scroll paintings, in which Indian influences are evident. A paubha painting is sacred art and is extremely difficult to appreciate without a proper understanding of the religious symbolism they employ.

The impact of Newari art was extended not only to Tibet but also to China. A group of Thangkas bear Chinese Inscription of the Ming period corresponding to the 1474, 1477, 1478, 1479 and 1513. These paintings and related xylographs, dating from 1410 and 1426, have been studied and illustrated by Lowry who points out many unique Newar stylistic features.

 E.F. Lo Bue claims that Newar influence on Chinese sculpture and painting was not limited to the Yuan period (1279-1368), but continued during the Ming period, not only under the Yongle emperor, but also under his successor, as is demonstrated by the dates in the inscription mentioned above.

Newar artist worked in Tibet and brought back to Nepal several paintings which had been executed in Tibetan monasteries. Today in Nepal there are several examples of Newar Paubha paintings which were executed in Tibet. Newar paintings were influenced by the Tibetan style from the 17the century onwards, i.e., a Tibeto-Newar style developed.

An enlarged pantheon enabled the Newar Artist to paint freely, drawing on imagery from meditation manuals such as the Sadhanamala and Sadhanasamuccaya.

It is hard to differentiate between Newar Paubhas and Tibetan Thanka with regard to the poses of the deities, floral motifs, and the Tantric divinities. Micheal Hutt remarks, "Nepalese artists became heavily involved in the ornamentation of temples and monasteries in Tibet, and Tibetan paintings from 9th to 17th centuries are almost wholly Nepali in style."

Classification of the Paubhas:

  1. Nepalese Paintings can be classified into five types:
  2. Illustrated manuscript Paintings
  3. Paubha paintings
  4. Narrative scroll paintings
  5. Mural or wall Paintings

Here we are interested in describing the Paubha paintings.

Near paintings, called "Paubha" in Newari and "Pata' in Sanskrit, are usually rectangular in shape and are prepared from colleen 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 during the month of July – August every year. 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. Most early thanka paintings from Tibet appear to have been strongly influenced by the Nepalese style. 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). The paubha paintings are not limited to Buddhist subjects; there are also a few paintings based on Hindu themes.

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.

Some of the essential features of Newar Paubha paintings

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The profuse use of red color in a softer tone that the red used by Tibetans.
  • Mughal and Rajput influences appear only during the 17th century

Content or Themes of the paubha paintings

The subject matter of Paubhas may be classified as follows:

  1. Buddha's life and previous lives
  2. Enlightened beings
  3. Istadevatas
  4. Dakas and Dakinis
  5. Dharmapalas or yakshas
  6. Mandalas
  7. Illustration of Dharma

Buddha's life and previous life

The life of historical Buddha has been a favorite theme in the art of both Hinayana and Mahayana traditions since ancient times. In Tibetan Buddhism, the past lives of the Buddha and the Buddha's twelve principal deeds are also depicted frequently. They are

  1. Buddha in Tushita heaven
  2. Buddha's descent to the world.
  3. Entry into the womb
  4. Birth of Buddha in Lumbini
  5. Bodhisattva Siddhartha's skills in sports and knowledge
  6. Four signs of renunciation
  7. Great departure
  8. Six years of meditation
  9. Going to Bodhi mandapa
  10. Attainment of Perfect enlightenment
  11. First Dharma Cakrapravartan at Sarnath and
  12. Great Parinirvana.

Besides, there are works of art in Buddha's previous lives such as Prince Vishvantara and his generosity, Prince Mahasattva and his sacrifice of flesh and blood to five tigress and so forth.

The paubhas of the various Buddhas other than Shakyamuni Buddha, as well as gurus, Bodhisattva and Arhats, fall in this category. All the Buddhas may be regarded as gurus in Vajrayana. However, special importance is placed upon the five transcendental Buddhas who represent the five wisdoms. Each of these Five Buddhas embodies the primordial purity of these five defilements, which obscure our mind. These forms of Buddhas are in face metaphorical expression of non-dual wisdom and skill in means. They are Sambhogakaya Buddhas and can perform ceaseless activity for the benefit of all sentient beings.


Istadevata means "meditational deity" in the Buddhist context. While the word istadevata is frequently used to represent the personal deity in Hinduism as well, [for Hindus]  the deity is someone who is god and master, the one into whom one dissolves one's lesser self; whereas in Buddhism, the istadevata is the nearest, or personal, deity, symbolizing one's own mind, a form that may be visualized or meditated on. Using the meditative techniques of the Developing stage and Completion stage, one proceeds to the realization of the nature of the mind.

Dakas and Dakinis

Dakas and Dakinis are supports for the practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism. They represent inner refuge in the Tantric Buddhist tradition. Wearing bone ornaments, some are in dancing posture and some are naked. These Dakas and Dakinis may travel through space, helping the sadhaka by eliminating obstacles and by guiding them along the path to Enlightenment. They are able to grant eight great powers to all devoted sadhakas.


Dharmapalas are divinities who help protect the Buddha dharma from degeneration. They also act as defenders of Buddha's doctrine. They are in general wrathful in appearance, and their purpose is to strike terror into potential sinners. In Nepal, Mahakala is considered to be a great wrathful dharmapala. Their wrathfulness is directed towards to self-grasping attitude of the general mass.


The Hevajra Tantra defines a mandala as that which bears an essence – the essence of the Great Bliss of enlightened consciousness. The word ‘Mandala' is so called because "it bears"(Skt: malanad mandalam uchyate). Many (but not all) etymologies in Buddhist tantra say that mandala consists of "manda", the essence or contained, and "la", the container. Mandala therefore means something like "contained essense" in Buddhism. It also retains it's original Sanskrit meaning of circle – eg Skt. Chandramandala(moon  disc), vayumandala, etc. in Buddhist contexts.

In normal Buddhist practice, the mandala is depicted as an architectonic entity founded on an elevated platform, usually in the shape of square. It has four doorways and four towers, each adorned with garlands, chains and vajra threads, and encircled by lines of different colors[- a five colored boundary, in which the five colors correspond  to the five tathagatas]. For the purposes of ritual, it should be drawn with powdered colors, which are ideally made from the five gems, though acceptable substitutes include the five grains or powdered bricks and charcoal from the cremation grounds.

Illustrations of Dharma

Illustrations of the dharma are pictorial expressions of dharma teachings. The wheel of life is a common subject in this genre. It depicts the totality of the Buddhist teachings, which include the twelve linked causes constituting dependent origination, the six realms of existence, the three poisons ie. Namely lust, hatred ad delusion, and the path of enlightenment.


We have described very briefly essential features of Nepalese Paubha paintings with some historical background and its relation with Tibetan Thangka painting. We have stated elsewhere that Nepalese Paubha paintings existed long before the appearance of the Tibetan Thangka painting.

The purpose of this article is to present a history of Nepalese art and its meaning. Paubha painting was a sacred art and its production was itself a form of religious Sadhana because of its sacred character those paintings were placed in the monasteries and temples where profound respects were paid to them as objects of devotion and meditation.

But in modern times these practices have been almost forgotten. As a result, artists began to create works of art of inferior quality. In the name of creativity some artists began to introduce even pornographic material into this sacred art in the name of glamor and creativity and innovation.

In my opinion, the beauty of Nepalese art lies in the canonical depiction of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities, Mandalas and so forth handed down through generation. Most of the beautiful Paubhas and other artifact of Nepal are seen and preserved in the Western Museum. They value these works of art in high esteem and feel themselves very proud in possessing them. It is imperative for us to preserve and keep the glorious artistic tradition of past intact in the years to come as well.

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By: viikram neupane, ram path (2012-09-29)
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