Besides archaeological excavations, two other areas that reveal a lot about Nepalese culture, both past and present, are painting and sculpture. Fortunately, there are many fine and well-preserved articles that have survived the passage of time and thus enabled detailed research to be made. Looking briefly at the history of Nepalese painting, it appears that ancient icon and religious paintings entered the valley during the Lichchhavi period. Lichchhavi inscriptions dating from the mid-fifth century AD inform us that traders, monks and Brahmans, as well as artists from neighboring areas visited the Katmandu Valley from time to time.
Katmandu Valley, located on the crossroads of the major trade routes from India to Tibet was the place of consequentially becomes the cultural center for the exchange of icons and paintings.
The Chinese envoy, Wang Hsuan Tse, who came to Nepal in the 7th century AD, described quite eloquently the houses in the valley which even at that time were embellished with sculptures and paintings. Although there are no surviving examples of paintings form Lichchhavi period (400-750AD), it can be surmised that the murals or wall-paintings noticed by the Chinese envoy, were probably like those that adorn monasteries, temples, and houses today. Since the sculpture tradition of Nepal during the early centuries of the Christian era was so vital and creative, there seems no reason to believe that the tradition of painting was not equally sophisticated.
The earliest examples of Nepalese painting are in the form of manuscript illustrations on palm leaves. When the first surviving paintings are examined, it becomes quite clear that they are the result of along and well-developed pictorial tradition. The antiquity of Nepalese manuscripts goes back to the ninth century; however, not all early manuscripts were illustrated. The earliest known example o an illustrated manuscript is the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita dated 1015AD. These manuscripts invariably consist of narrow folios of palm leaves about thirty centimeters long, depending on text, but not wider than five centimeters. The manuscripts are perforated in two places, loosely held together with string and protected by wooden covers on both sides. These wooden covers, a large number of which have fortunately survived, are more lavishly painted than the manuscripts themselves. In palm leaf manuscript, the scribe leaves spaces for illustrations, which the artists’ later paint with figures of divinities.
Influence Of Religion On Paintings
All surviving illustrated manuscripts, whether Buddhist or Hindu, are illustrated with heretic images of gods and goddesses. A large number of manuscripts are devoted to the principal events from the life of Buddha or the hieratic images of gods and goddesses. A large number of manuscripts are devoted to the principal events from the life of Buddha or the hieratic representations of Vajrayana deities, which bear little relation to the text. During the early medieval period, Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom, became one of the most popular deities in Nepal. Manuscripts consecrate to this deity were repeatedly copied. Besides these Buddhist manuscripts, illuminated manuscripts of Hindu divinities such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Karttikeya and Ganesh were also frequently represented.
Manuscripts continued to be painted and copied for centuries, for the act of donating a manuscript to a monk, priest, monastery or temple was considered by both Hindus and Buddhists to be an act of great virtue. Early illustrated manuscripts were executed in the same basic style but later examples, particularly paper manuscripts were executed in the same basic style but later examples, particularly paper manuscripts, clearly show signs of deterioration in quality.
Religious Paintings worshipped, as icons are known as paubha in Newari and thangka in Tibetan. The origin of paubha or thankga paintings may be attributed to the Nepalese artists responsible for creating a number of special metal works and wall paintings as well as illuminated manuscripts in Tibet.
Realizing the great demand for religious icons in Tibet, these artists, along with monks and traders, took with them from Nepal not only metal sculptures but also a number of Buddhist manuscripts. To better fulfill the ever-increasing demand, Nepalese artists initiated a new type of religious painting on cloth that could be easily rolled up and carried along with them. This type of painting became very popular both in Nepal and Tibet and so a new school of thangka painting evolved as early as the ninth or tenth century and has remained popular to this day. One of the earliest specimens of Nepalese thangka painting dates from the 13th /14th century and shows Amitabha surrounded by Bodhisattava. Another Nepalese thangka with three dates in the inscription (the last one corresponding to 1369AD), is one of the earliest known as thangkas with inscriptions. The “Mandala of Vishnu” dated 1420 AD, is another fine example of the painting of this period. Early Nepalese thangkas are simple in design and composition. The main deity, a large figure, occupies the central position while surrounded by smaller figures of lesser divinities.
Influence of Tantrism on Paintings
From the 15th century onwards, brighter colors gradually began to appear on Nepalese thangka. Because of the growing importance of the Tantric cult, various aspects of Shiva and Shakti were painted in conventional poses. Mahakala, Manjushri, Lokeshwara and other deities were equally popular and so were also frequently represented in thangka paintings of later dates. As Tantrism embodies the ideas of esoteric power, magic forces, and a great variety of symbols, strong emphasis is laid on the female element and sexuality in the paintings of that period.