PAUBHA: AN INTRODUCTION TO TRADITIONAL NEWAR PAINTING
WRITTEN BY CHELSEA BEACH
The Traditional Buddhist painting taught at Himalayan School of art is known as Paubha. Paubha is a rich painting tradition developed by the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, known as Newar. Newar people have been esteemed for their extensive talent in creating art and decorative objects for centuries. They are well known for their exquisite paintings, wood and stone carving, filigree, repose, metal casting, and architecture. The most iconic creations are, the three celebrated Durbar Squares of Patan, Kathmandu, and Bhaktapur, as well as Changu Narayan and Swyayambhunath.
Newar artisans produced a massive amount of art. The oldest artifacts are from Changu Narayan 464 CE, the peak of production of "pure" Newar School of art was during the medieval period (5th to 15th Centuries). Kathmandu valley once had 80% more artifacts than the present day; many pieces have been stolen since the 1980s to be displayed in international museums. However, at peresent day, the exquisite statues in Newar communities in the Kathmandu valley are so plentiful that the streets are essentially outdoor museums. This is testament to the longevity and high demand of the Newar School of Art.
Newar art was particularly popular in Tibet. However, the Newar School of art was not limited to Himalayan Kingdoms; there is evidence of the influence of the Newar School as far away as Dunhuang (China), Mongolia, Ladhak, and Mustang.[i]
Newar art traveled alongside its most celebrated subject: Buddhism. As Buddhism spread during the height of the Silk route (500-800 C.E.) [ii], so did all of its art forms. The pantheon of Buddhist figures, symbols, and animals found in Newar Art and Architecture served continue to serve as teaching methods, maps for visualization meditation practice, and simply as an expression of some aspect of life on this earth. The superb skill of Newar artisans are still alive and well and it is our duty to honor the legacy of the Newar School by learning, understanding, and spreading awareness of the paramount features of their creations.
The word Paubha is derived from the Sanskrit term Patra Bhattaraka which means, “Divine in flat form.” Overtime Patra Bhattaraka was shorten to Pati Bhalada and finally to the common term Pau Bha.[iii] Paubha paintings are not only beautiful images on the surface but evoke deep philosophical insight into the art of life. Paubha is a tool for the viewer; it is an outward expression of Buddha and Hindu Dharma. Each symbol, color, figure, and pattern aid a practitioner in their visualization mediation practice, thus, Paubha is divine in flat form.
According to Acarya Asanga (350 C.E), every practitioner of the Bodhisattva path should learn the five subjects or Panchavidya: Philosophy, Art, Grammar, Logic, and Medicine.[iv] All artists, no matter which medium they chose to work in, must begin with basic drawing techniques. The unique advantage of the genre of Paubha is the greater diversity of themes in the paintings as well as its closer relationship to drawing. Whereas, sculptures are limited to figures and ritual objects, painters are able to depict narrative and environment of the divine figure. By engaging in Paubha techniques all artists benefit and can depart to all other mediums.
Paubha differs from other art forms we find in the modern world. Paubha is not an art for the sake of beauty, as the saying goes, “art for art’s sake.” Paubha is art for life. The paintings are skillfully created for a particular purpose, to inspire the state of liberation and the path to get there. In this sense, the artist is a medium of creation. The artist’s hand is the one who puts the paint on canvas, but the image that is created belongs to a lineage of wisdom passed down to us by our ancestors. It is not necessary to follow the tradition of Paubha in order to make images that represent universal truths; however, by taking part in an ancient artistic tradition, Paubha artists are able to use a system of symbols and icons that can be used to read a painting like a text. Once the language of iconography is understood the paintings become much more communicative. As Paubha artists, we walk on the path of our ancestors. Our ancestors have bestowed a foundation so that we can find the way; it is our responsibility to continue the path and pass on this information to the next generation.
Origin of Paubha
Traditional Buddhist painting can be linked to the historical lifetime of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (6th to 4th Century BCE). “While some scholars maintain the view that it took shape a couple of centuries later, there are some textual materials which suggest that the painting of Buddhist themes began during the Buddha’s lifetime.”[v] Some such sources are Divyavadana, Pratimalaksanama, and Vinayasutra. While we can rely on textual resources to estimate the tradition of Buddhist religious painting, dating the origin of Paubha is more difficult.
It is complicated to determine when and where Paubha painting originated due to the highly perishable nature of cloth canvas. “By their very nature, paintings cannot survive the passage of time as well as buildings or sculptures, and there are few examples of Paubha paintings from Nepal that date earlier than the 12th century. It is clear that pictorial art in Nepal at first developed side-by-side with sculpture: the earliest examples are quite simply two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional images.”[vi] The earliest inscription found in Nepal is 464 C.E. at Changu Naryan (400-880 C.E.). It is clear that the stone images at Changu Narayan are highly sophisticated and systematized; the motif patterns found in the archways (torana) are inextricably linked to the earliest surviving Paubhas even though there is a gap of 700 years. Although there are no surviving paintings from Nepal’s earliest recorded history, “judging by the rich sculptural remains, it can be postulated with a certain degree of confidence that the art of painting also flourished in Licchavi Nepal (400-700 CE).”[vii]
In addition to the overall continuity of Newar design, beginning with Changu Narayan, there is additional evidence from the Tanganals that, during the 7th century C.E. the Chinese ambassador Wang Hsuan-tse observed early sculpture and painting in Nepal. Wang Hsuan-tse wrote with admiration about the houses in the Kathmandu valley which were embellished with both sculpture and painting.[viii] This evidence demonstrates the conclusion that sculpture and painting were developed simultaneously and that the Newar painting tradition is much older than the surviving examples.
In contrast to Paubha paintings, manuscript paintings offer a few earlier examples. The earliest textual reference to manuscript painting dates to 998 C.E., during the reign of Narendra Deva.[ix] The earliest surviving painted manuscripts date from the 11th Century C.E.[x] As manuscripts were highly popular in Nepal and Eastern India during the 11th and 12th centuries, their styles are closely related. “At the same time however, a close scrutiny of the illuminations makes it clear that the two styles were quite distinct.”[xi] Dr. Pal argues that the painting of the Pala dynasty in Eastern India were more conservative and illustrative while the Newar School was more expressive and painterly. This further emphasizes that the Newar School Art was relatively unique, innovative and had been in practice for many centuries previous.
The earliest carbon dated Paubhas from Nepal are, Ratnasambhava (12th C), Vairochana (12th C), and Amoghsiddhi (12th C), as well as Arya Tara (12th C). Through these examples we can see that their style and format is comparatively sophisticated and uniform suggesting that they represent the continuation of an earlier tradition that is not represented by any surviving examples.[xii] The earliest Paubha with an inscribed date is that of Vasudhara Mandala 1367 C.E. The complexity of the geometrical design complete with a variety of delicate figures is testimony to the artist’s skill and the intricacy of the Newar School of Art. “We are at once struck by the enormous iconographic complexity of the mandala but how deftly the artist has handled the subject.” The rich repertoire of early Puabha paintings is testimony to a highly developed tradition.
Many scholars attribute the styles and techniques of Paubha as well as major Buddhist developments to more ancient traditions that were imported from India; however, this is only partly true. Scholars like Huntington and Bangdel have proved that Newar Buddhism, too, evinced significant creativity and international influence. The Circle of Bliss, a book devoted to the Chakrasamvara Tantra says, “Clearly, the Nepal Valley—now usually called the Kathmandu Valley—was one of the great centers of Buddhism from the very earliest days.”[xiii] Furthermore, Buddhist art serves as a subtle vehicle of teaching and guidance. Therefore, wherever a center of ancient Buddhism exists, so does the art. Although the gods and goddesses portrayed in Nepali art originated in India, only the basic concept was borrowed and the Nepali artists created new iconographic types not familiar in India.[xiv]
After the Islamic invasion of India there was a great exodus of artists, spiritual leaders and philosophers to Nepal. However, this only happened after the 12th and 13th centuries.[xv] Many scholars attribute Nepal’s artistic traditions to this mass migration, however, the Newar artistic traditions are much older and, as stated previously, their unique use of foliage design is highly developed in the earliest examples such as the Newar Hindu temple, Changu Narayan (ca. 464 C.E.), and therefor cannot simply be attributed to outside resources from centuries later.
The great artistic traditions of India and Nepal were developed simultaneously before the formal territories of Nepal and India existed. Shakyamuni Buddha himself lived on both sides of the current boarder between Nepal and India. Dina Bangdel argues that when Nepal is better known to academic scholarship, it will gain recognition as one of the major centers of ancient Buddhism, as a rich repository of crucial historical and textual sources, and most importantly, as home to a distinctive and vital living tradition.[xvi]
[i] Lecture: Naresh Shakya
[ii] Valerie Hansen, <> "The Silk Road: A New History."
[iii] Lok Chitrakar research at Nepal Basaya Jatah, Patan Campus.
[iv] Min Bahadur Shakya, Sacred Art of Nepal, Nepal Handicraft Association, 2000, P.1.
[v] Min Bahadur Shakya, Sacred Art of Nepal, Nepal Handicraft Association, 2000, P.1
[vi] Micheal Hutt, Nepal: a guide to the Art and Architecture of Kathmandu Valley, Adroit Publishers, 2010, p. 64
[vii] Pratapaditya Pal, Arts of Nepal, University of California, 1974, P.1
[viii] Pratapaditya Pal, Arts of Nepal, University of California, 1974, P.1P.1 Arts of Nepal
[ix] Min Bahadur Shakya, Sacred Art of Nepal, Nepal Handicraft Association, 2000,P.9
[x] Pratapaditya Pal, Nepal: Where the Gods are Young, New York Asia Society, 1975, P.16
[xi] Pratapaditya Pal, Nepal: Where the Gods are Young, New York Asia Society, 1975, P.16
[xii] Micheal Hutt, Nepal: a guide to the Art and Architecture of Kathmandu Valley, Adroit Publishers, 2010, p. 64
[xiii] John C. Huntington and Dina Bangdel, Circle of Bliss, Los Angeles Country Museum 2003.
[xiv] Pratapaditya Pal, Nepal: Where the Gods are Young, New York Asia Society, 1975, p.11
[xv] Micheal Hutt, Nepal: a guide to the Art and Architecture of Kathmandu Valley, Adroit Publishers, 2010, p. 64
[xvi] John C. Huntington and Dina Bangdel, Circle of Bliss, Los Angeles Country Museum 2003.