Nepalese art manifests itself in the form of sculptures, paintings. illuminate books and ritual objects and instruments. It has long been thought that Nepalese art was either Buddhist art grafted onto Hindu art or an imitation of Tibetan styles. But recent research seems to indicate that many Tibetan styles evolved first in Nepal and India, especially among the Newars and Nepal played a pioneering role in the development of Tantric art.

Moana Tregaskis wrote in the New York Times: “In Nepal, a land of Hindu-Buddhist gods where the triangle is a sacred figure and crimson-red the auspicious color, art surrounds the traveler...Even contemporary paintings have a visual impact that captures something of the spiritual quality of the natural environment — one feels it in paintings of the lofty and eternally snow-capped summits. [Source: Moana Tregaskis, New York Times, September 14, 1986]

Much of Nepali art is religious and Indian or Tibetan in style. Much of the best art is produced by Newars. Newari artisans produce detailed painted thangkas that depict Buddhist cosmology as well as create cast-bronze statuary of Buddhist and Hindu deities. . The creation and contemplation of such art is regarded as a religious act. Temples and houses feature intricately carved wood decorations. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Among the kinds of art found in Nepal are Madhubani paintings, bright and colorful works created in the Terai region of Nepal and Bihar in India. Traditionally produced by women on freshly plastered mud walls and floors of their huts, but now also done on cloth, handmade paper and canvas, these painting are made with fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens, and matchsticks, using natural dyes and pigments and characterized by vivid geometrical patterns and mostly depict people in nature and scenes and deities from the ancient epics. Lokta paper is unique Nepalese product made for hundreds of years and well known for its durability and softness. It is prepared from the bark of a particular tree found in the high Himalayan altitudes and has long been used for all legal and government writings of Nepal due to its durability compared to normal paper. Writings on Lokta paper remains unaffected even after soaked in water and paper eating insects cannot damage this paper. Today, Lokta is used to make diaries, note books, wrapping paper, carry bags and lamp shades. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel, Wikipedia]

History of Nepalese Art

According to the Asia Society: “Despite its relative inaccessibility, Nepal was long a renowned center of trade. It is known that by the fifth or sixth century B.C., Indian traders were regularly making their way to the Kathmandu Valley, which lies across one of the main pathways linking India with Tibet and the ancient east-west trade routes. The southern terminus of this route connects with two of the great Indian trade arteries, the Uttarapatha, which linked India with the Near East, and the Dakshinapatha, which flowed southward. Nepal became a gateway from China and the central Asian cities to the great monastic centers of India.” [Source: Asia Society Museum ]

Moana Tregaskis wrote in the New York Times: “Nepali art is a born-again pursuit. Considered to have emerged in the Lichhavi period (between the second and ninth centuries), it fell under a cloud, along with the general history of the country, until the rise of the Malla kings (between the 13th and 18th centuries) when it was reborn with vigor. [Source: Moana Tregaskis, New York Times, September 14, 1986]

“Encouragement by the Malla kings generated a keen interest in art at every level of society, and even small private homes were embellished with decoration, turning Kathmandu into an artistic city with street-corner shrines and immense carvings in windows and doors. Under the later Mallas, the painting of murals and scrolls flourished, and the pagoda style of architecture advanced rapidly. Nothing remains of the original Lichhavi watercolors, sculpture or architecture due to natural calamities; however, the techniques survived among the people.

“From 1846 to 1951 when Nepali democracy was proclaimed, the arts stagnated under the rule of hereditary Rana family prime ministers. This bleak 105-year period offered no person or government to protect or foster artists. After Prime Minister Jung Bahadur visited England and France in 1850, returning to commission portraits and hunting scenes of the Ranas, a Western academic style of painting was advocated by the few artists who managed to acquire an art education in India. With the return of King Tribhuvan (1951) a further rebirth encouraged Nepalis to produce what they knew best, using the old techniques.

Art in the Kathmandu Valley

Moana Tregaskis wrote in the New York Times: “Kathmandu, Patan (PAH-tanh) and Bhaktapur, the three cities of Kathmandu Valley, are crowded with pagodas, palaces and an eight-eyed Stupa, one of the largest in the world. Exquisite architectural design and artistic embellishment of temples shelter towering bronze and stone images that are often of great antiquity. Erotic designs in carved wood that are an individualistic feature of the country adorn temples. These sights are an introduction to the Nepali world of art and may be savored in small doses to preserve in the mind's eye the beauty of traditional painting and sculpture. A wide spectrum of folk arts offer magical, enigmatic pieces fashioned in processes that have not changed in 2,000 years. [Source: Moana Tregaskis, New York Times, September 14, 1986]

“The traveler in search of Nepali art should head for two prime locations: Panipokhari, a hilly residential district overlooking Kathmandu, where the Nepal Fine Arts Association maintains some enormous galleries exhibiting bronze sculptures and paintings, and Bodhnath, five miles northeast of downtown Kathmandu, site of a colossal Stupa dedicated to the god of wisdom. Bodhnath is a teeming mass of colorfully garbed Tibetans who walk down from high places in winter to trade in newly made silver jewelry, amber beads and chunks of gleaming turquoise. Jumbled together in shops are antique silver prayer wheels (with the written prayers rolled up inside) incised with thunderbolts and sacred diagrams, age-old silver coins on a chain and new cire perdu (lost-wax) images.

“The galleries in Panipokhari are in Sita Bhawan, a decaying, 100-year-old former Rana palace near the American Embassy, and are practically unknown to residents and visitors alike even though they are just a 10-minute cab ride from any hotel in Kathmandu. The palace, with huge tiled ceilings that bespeak past grandeur, houses 12 galleries of thangkas (painted scrolls) and sculpture for sale at fixed prices, plus a permanent exhibit in another 12 rooms. Descriptive paintings of temples and iconography, as well as experimental and contemporary works, cover walls; traditional and abstract sculpture pieces are on exhibit in the galleries.

“Other spots in the valley worth visiting are Patan (or Lalitpur, the city of beauty) three miles southeast of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, the city of devotees, nine miles east of Kathmandu. Patan is a treasury of thangkas and metal and wood folk art. Bhaktapur is an architecturally impressive town where a small inn can be found in a light and airy square.

“The city of Kathmandu is a museum, the old town dating from 723, where grimy, winding alleys dotted with shrines seclude clean and well-lighted ateliers offering non-iconic and traditional paintings. Kathmandu is also the place to find beautiful papers handmade by those who live in the high northern regions, along the caravan routes to Lhasa in Tibet.

Newar Art

The Newars are an ethnic group associated with the Kathmandu Valley. Regarded by some as the earliest inhabitants of the valley, they are both Buddhists and Hindus. They speak a Tibetan language with many Sanskit and Nepali loan words. The word “Nepal” is believed by some to have been derived from word “Newar,” or possibly the other way around. The Newar are the sixth largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 5 percent of the population of Nepal.

The Newars have a reputation for being highly skilled craftsmen and artisans, particularly in painting, wood carving and metal casting. During the Malla period (12th to 18th centuries) they produced high quality works of art. They are renowned for image casting in bronze, brass, copper and other metals and forming ornaments and repousse. The Newar also excel in arts like wood crafting, weaving, wood carving, straw weaving, pottery, music (mainly percussion and wind instruments), dance and paintings. Their arts today are mainly displayed in temples although many of their houses still have elaborate woodcarvings. Newars sculptures of gods are highly valued. They are used in rituals and taken home by tourists as souvenirs. There are beautifully carved metal replicas of temples and decorative items like singing bowls,

Newars have produced some of the most beautiful Buddhist art ever made. Newar carvings are essentially Indian in style and are known for “smooth, plaint delicacy.” They produce religious paintings for walls, scrolls and manuscripts. Music making festival with drums, cymbals and wind instruments are common fixture of Newar shrines. Young men go through a initiation where they learn drumming in all-night, music-making sessions. Newars are famous for masked dances, in which stories about gods are performed to drumming.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Newars make the paintings for illuminated manuscripts and book covers as well as devotional paintings on cloth (paubhas). Newari artists were renowned throughout Asia for the high quality of their workmanship. In certain periods, their style had tremendous influence on the art of Tibet and China. Both countries also used artists from Nepal to work on important commissions. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Newar artistic talent is displayed in architecture and sculpture. Inspired by Indian tradition, unique styles developed. Religious paintings are found on the walls, scrolls, and manuscripts. Most arts are practiced by males. Much of the best art in Nepal is produced by Newars. Newari artisans create cast-bronze statuary of Buddhist and Hindu deities as well as intricately painted tangkas that describe Buddhist cosmology. The creation and contemplation of such art constitutes a religious act.”

Nepalese Painting

Moana Tregaskis wrote in the New York Times: “Nepali paintings fall into two categories, iconic and noniconic; the main type of iconic work is the thangka (tahn-kah), meaning ''written record'' in Tibetan. It is the name given to Tibetan and Nepali schools of canvas painting that have evolved in a long history of interchange between the two areas as visiting artists, traveling back and forth carrying Nepali-made paints, created murals and scrolls. This style of painting is devoted to translating the multifaceted aspects and themes of Tibetan-Nepali Buddhism, and like all Tibetan art it is graphic. [Source: Moana Tregaskis, New York Times, September 14, 1986]

Kathryn Selig Brown wrote for the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Nepalese religious painting, whether for Hindu or Buddhist patrons, is conservative in technique, style, and iconography. However, over the course of centuries, subtle changes can be seen in composition, palette, style, and motifs. Artists from the primarily Buddhist community of Newars, one of Nepal's many ethnic groups, made most of the paintings that illuminated manuscripts and book covers as well as devotional paintings on cloth (paubhas). Newari artists were renowned throughout Asia for the high quality of their workmanship. In certain periods, their style had tremendous influence on the art of Tibet and China. Both countries also used artists from Nepal to work on important commissions. [Source: Kathryn Selig Brown, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

“Painted manuscript covers constitute the earliest examples of Nepalese painting in the Metropolitan Museum's collection (Pair of manuscript covers with Buddhist deities, 1976.192.1-2). They protected pages written on long, narrow strips made from palm fronds which sometimes had small pictorial illuminations. These wooden covers, often embellished with carving and painting often have one or two holes in them through which strings were threaded that kept the manuscript together. The decoration on manuscript covers often bears little or no relation to the text inside and usually consists of hieratic images of Buddhas or deities, either Buddhist or Hindu. One remarkable exception is a twelfth-century cover that depicts two scenes from a secular play, a romance, written in India in the fourth or fifth century that was most likely made to contain a copy of that text (Manuscript cover with scenes from Kalidasa's play, Shakuntala, L.1985.42.28).

“The same lively and richly detailed style that appears in manuscript illustrations and book covers was also used in larger Nepalese paintings on cloth, as seen in the animated background figures in a Buddhist mandala (Paramasukha-Chakrasamvara Mandala, 1995.233), the earliest of such known Nepalese paubhas (ca. 1100). Two later paintings from the fourteenth and fifteenth century (Mandala of Chandra, 1981.465; Buddhist Guardian: Chandamaharoshana, 1994.452), also Buddhist, share certain characteristics with the earlier painting despite a time span of more than 400 years. All three paintings are animated and drawn with flawless precision. All share a shallow space that is uniformly illuminated. Vivid, bold colors are employed and enhanced by precise brushwork. However, the elaborate archway and more florid decorative tendencies in the fifteenth-century paubha of Chandramahroshana (1994.452) are indicative of the more baroque treatment that is typical of later Nepalese art.

Subjects and Themes in Nepalese Paintings

Moana Tregaskis wrote in the New York Times: “The Hindu path of devotion, called bhakti, often stuns Westerners — religious expression of this cult is in love and adoration and implies belief in a supreme being. It is a theme found throughout Nepali paintings; life is a rite and there is no dividing line between the sacred and the profane. Growing gradually over a period of five thousand years, Hinduism is a body of thought offering wide variety, yet a Hindu always considers himself alone to be responsible for his salvation. This explains the anonymity of many religious artworks, the painters and sculptors deeming it sufficient simply to earn spiritual merit. [Source: Moana Tregaskis, New York Times, September 14, 1986]

“Other themes central to Nepali painting concern the four truths of Buddhism — pain, suffering, desire and nirvana. In a recurrent design of Buddhist art, these are the subjects of the wheel of life. Containing ritual diagrams, the design is prevalent because it is as teacher and lord of the universe that Buddha turns the wheel. [Source: Moana Tregaskis, New York Times, September 14, 1986]

“A design seen in profusion on thangkas and in paintings at Sita Bhawan is always the same and never the same: the mandala, mystic symbol of the universe. Mandala, or circle, is a visual aid to meditation leading to insights by which supernatural powers are obtained. A circle filling the central portion of a canvas encloses a square divided into four equal sections. Sometimes the four sections are further symmetrically outlined into smaller squares.

“Painters have unlimited scope to depict within the squares deities from a pantheon of gods, goddesses and demons in every imaginable stage and activity of life and subsequent life; the erotic and the mundane. Atop the circle is Brahman. Out of Brahman, the metaphysical absolute, come all things and to Brahman all things return. Unknown and unknowable yet for mankind the source of reality, knowledge and bliss, Brahman is depicted in many modes above the mandala in Nepali thangkas and paintings.

Buddhist Art in Nepal

In ancient times, Nepal served as a link from the great Buddhist monastic centers of India to places in China and the central Asian. According to the Asia Society Museum: “Buddhist monks and teachers traveling the overland route between India and China would usually pass through Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. When it was secure, which was not often, the route through Tibet and the Kathmandu Valley was a preferred north-south highway for merchants and pilgrims alike because it was shorter than the safer land and sea routes that linked the cities and monasteries of northeastern India, the Buddhist homeland, with Chinese urban centers. [Source: Asia Society Museum |~|]

“The geographic position of Nepal's Kathmandu Valley was likely a crucial factor in its economic and, ultimately, its cultural development. In winter, snow closed the mountain passes leading north to Tibet, and in summer, malaria deterred caravans from using the jungle paths of southern Nepal. Traders therefore found it expedient to cross one or the other as they could, and then pause in Kathmandu to await the onset of a more conducive season before continuing their journey. In this way, Kathmandu became a vital cultural transfer point. Like the Silk Road cities of western China, Nepalese rulers bolstered their economies by exacting a tax on transactions conducted within their territory; this provided them with abundant wealth for the pursuit of religious and civic works. The Kathmandu Valley became a rich artisanal center patronized by both locals and foreigners, especially those from Tibet, where Nepalese artistic style was particularly popular. |~|

“Although it is impossible to give precise dates, it can be assumed that Buddhism was introduced to Nepal at a very early date, at least within a couple of centuries of the Buddha's death, circa 483 B.C. It is known that all three types of Buddhism were practiced in the country, although it was Vajrayana Buddhism, which was easily assimilated and open to Hindu influences (Hinduism is today practiced by more Nepalis than Buddhism), that continues to prosper into the present day. The main practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism in Nepal are the Newars, a predominantly Buddhist ethnic group that is also responsible for producing the majority of Nepal's art. |~|

“Two images of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion were produced in the Kathmandu Valley by its famed Newari metal-workers. Cultural influences brought in on the trade routes explain why these sculptures follow the same basic iconographic principles and artistic norms that prevailed in India and reflect the impact of India's styles of the Gupta period (ca. 4th – 6th century) and Pala period (ca. 8th – 12th century). However, the standing bodhisattvas' plump faces and hawk noses are distinctly Nepali, as is the beautiful reddish color of the metal visible where the gilding has rubbed off, which comes from the high copper content of Nepali bronze.” |~|

“A thangka is a Buddhist scroll or fabric temple banner, which is painted on cotton or silk fabric. In Darjeeling, thangkas are beautified with paintings depicting the various forms of Lord Buddha, as well as episodes from his life. Traditionally, these thangkas are as intricate as they are exquisite, and are kept unframed.

Tibetan Art

Much of Tibetan art is oriented towards Buddha, gods and merit. Many works have complex iconography and symbolism that requires extensive knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism to unravel. Influences come from the Pala kingdom in India, the Newari kingdom in Nepal, Kashmir in India, Khotan in Xinjiang, and China.

The major art forms are: 1) Tibetan paintings, including thangkas (cloth paintings), frescos, rock drawing and contemporary painting; 2) Tibetan sculptures, including Buddhist sculptures, metal sculptures, clay modelings and stone carvings; 3) Tibetan handicrafts, including metal wares, masks, block-printing, textiles handicrafts and wooden wares; and 4) Tibetan architectures including ancient tomb architecture, monastery architecture, palace architecture and residence architectures;

Most Tibetan art has traditionally been produced by monks at monasteries. Most artists were anonymous and rarely signed their works, although names have survived in texts, in murals on monastery walls, and on some thankas and bronzes. Mark Stevenson, a lecturer on Asian art at Melbourne University told the New York Times, “Every monk has a need for artistic talent. They make alms and assemble tormas, which are offering cakes. Many have to work on mandalas as well. This is part of being a monk. Every monk needs some manual dexterity skill in designing ritual objects."

Thangkas from Nepal

Thangkas are traditional Tibetan painted tapestries or cloth scrolls designed as aids in meditation. Painted on cotton or linen, they usually contain images of deities and religious figures and often are representations of spiritual or historical events. Both making a thangka and gazing at one are regarded as forms of meditation. The idea is to lose oneself in thangka not express it. Traditionally, they were never bought or sold. Thanka painting in Nepal are regarded as sacred Buddhist scrolls. Many produced are linked with the teachings of The Buddha, episodes or his life or images of gods and bodhisattvas. Nepalese versions are often very complex and sometimes take months to complete. Most are painted or mounted on silk or cotton banners and have illustrations made with gold and silver paint. [Sources: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 29, 2009, Nepal Tours & Travel]

The content of thangkas varies quite a bit. They usually contain portraits of bodhisattvas, giant mandalas, and images of Buddhas. They often depict Tibetan gods and other religious iconography such gods like Padmasambhava and White Tara and Green Tara, and the circle of life with people reclining in heaven and roasting in hell. The setting, the background, architectural elements, secondary figures are all executed with special aims and symbolic meaning. One thangka artist told the Japan Times, “There is no room for originality in thangka painting. The iconography, the colors, even the way you hold the brush — everything must be done just so."

Moana Tregaskis wrote in the New York Times: “As the word thangka suggests, the basic intention is to enshrine faith in visual terms. Thangkas are usually painted on white linen stretched on a wooden frame, then treated with a mixture of chalk and glue and rubbed smooth with an ancient conch shell. A detailed charcoal sketch is finely drawn, overlaid in black ink, and basic colors filled in. The paints are traditionally made from such natural materials as pulverized lapis lazuli, cinnabar, sulphur, flower petals and gold dust, mixed in thin warmed glue. A full background in gold commands a high price even when aniline paints are used. Lighter colors are shaded in next, and as the final step, the whole is touched with gold powder. The finished thangka is mounted on either red or blue (sometimes yellow) Chinese brocade, with the bottom portion, or door of the scroll, particularly elaborate in differing colors and textures. A double bordering of brocade is stitched around the canvas, and veils of red and yellow silk are tied over the whole to serve as dust protectors. [Source: Moana Tregaskis, New York Times, September 14, 1986]

“Themes central to Nepali thangka art stem from the Buddha's life. Born a Hindu prince at Lumbini in southern Nepal and reared in secluded luxury, the child was protected by his father from seeing omens that would lead him to abandon the world. Gautama Buddha (Siddartha) nevertheless saw these signs on a trip through the city. Entering the forest to wander for seven years in search of truth, enduring temptations by the ingenious demon Mara (the Evil), he ended his quest in a long spate of meditation under a leafy tree, which grew at a site now known as Gaya, 200 miles east of Benares (Varanasi) in northeastern India. When he rose as the Illumined One (the Buddha), the bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) became sacred. The Buddha's childhood, his wanderings, the countless temptations of Mara and lesser demons, the solace of gods and goddesses, the bodhi tree and his long years of teaching provide an enormous reservoir for themes found in Nepali painted work.

“Scrolls have evolved from a rich tradition in Tibet. Due to the nomadic nature of Tibetan life, a scroll was a practical way to carry an art piece. Artists today continue the old ways in the use of dust covers hung with red ribbons, which were originally intended to secure the paintings against the constant winds of the high plateaus. Thangkas are painted unsigned as meditation aids and to glorify the gods. Worthy of veneration and therefore sacred, these ceremonial pieces are hung in monasteries and private shrines. Sometimes they are hung in homes simply for decoration.

Nepalese and Newar Sculpture

Kathryn Selig Brown wrote for the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Nepalese sculptures in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art were created primarily by the Newars. Predominantly Buddhist, Newari artists became renowned throughout Asia for the high quality of their work. At times, Nepalese style had tremendous influence on the art of China and Tibet, as both countries imported art and artists from Nepal to adorn their temples and monasteries. [Source: Kathryn Selig Brown, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

“The majority of these sculptures were created in the service of religion, and although most of the artists were Buddhist, neither a Hindu nor a Buddhist style is discernible. As in medieval India, the same artists probably produced art for both religions. Nepal is one of the few places in the world where Buddhism and Hinduism have coexisted peacefully for almost 2,000 years. Although Hinduism is the state religion, the two religions are not only historically entwined but also share many similar aspirations that make them far less distinguishable than in theory. At the popular level in Nepal, it makes little or no difference whether one receives blessings from a Hindu or Buddhist deity as long as that deity is efficacious.

“Nepalese sculptors worked in many media, including stone, metal, wood, and terracotta. Their metal sculptures are either heavily gilded or, if the gold has worn off, have a slightly reddish patina that derives from their high copper content. Many of these, especially later ones, are decorated with inlaid semi-precious stones. Wooden sculptures were generally architectural, many serving as struts to support roofs, as door surrounds or as decorations. Works in terracotta are comparatively rare.

“Nepalese sculpture is a conservative tradition, with slight changes in proportion or decorative details appearing over hundreds of years. Stylistically, Nepalese sculpture grew out of the art of Gupta India, and later was influenced by that of Pala India. However, Nepalese artists created a distinctive style of their own, which can be recognized even on early bronzes such as the Standing Vajrapani (Standing Vajrapani, L.1993.51.5), dated to the sixth to seventh century. Nepalese artists later developed a distinctive physiognomy for their deities, with long, languid eyes and wider faces than those in eastern Indian models. A tendency toward ornamental flourishes, exaggerated postures, and a repertoire of unique jewelry styles is also symptomatic of the Nepalese sculptural tradition.

Nepalese Crafts: Pashmina, Masks and Gurka Khukuri Knives

Many of Nepal’s ethnic groups practice some kind of weaving.. The Tibetan-influenced people are known for their colorful clothes, bags and carpets. Other groups such as the Gurung and Magar weave cloth and rugs. Much of the best craft work is produced by skilled Newar craftsmen found in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur and elsewhere in the Kathmandu valley. Newar wood carvings can be found in temples, statues, photo frames, household items and windows. Nepal is also known for its rich array of jewelry and precious stones. Pieces made skilled craftsmen are often available at relatively low prices. Precious stones with significant protective qualities are used in amulets, talismans and religious objects. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Most people build their own houses and many carve wooden containers for holding butter and yogurt. Also, most villages have artisan castes such as metalworkers and tailors. Artisan specialization attained a high level of development among the Newars during the Malla period (twelfth to eighteenth centuries) in the Kathmandu Valley, where one still finds elaborate occupational specializations and refined traditions of painting, wood carving, and metal casting. However, the availability of inexpensive market goods and exposure to new cultural values have caused a decline in these traditions. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]|

Pashmina from Nepal is popular. Regarded as the softest and warmest cashmere, it is made from the inner wool of Himalayan Changthangi goats. Pashmina products include shawls and mufflers spun and woven by hand in the higher altitude mountain regions. Another interesting craft from Nepal is the wooden mask Masks are featured in many Hindu and Buddhist dance performances, ritual dances and music theater. These masks depict the Buddha and various Hindu and Buddhist gods and demons. The best masks are wonderfully carved from wood, beautifully colored and covered by shiny lamination. They serve a very important function in the community as they are believed to bring luck and protect from demons. Some are made of clay and ceramic. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel]

The khukuri is a sharp-edged and curved knife viewed as symbol of Gurkha pride and valor. Its origin is lost in time, but it closely resembles the Kopis, an ancient Greek knife that also has a curved blade. Some of the oldest ones found in Nepal date to the Mallas period, which began. While khukuri are still regarded as a close-range weapons of the Gurkhas it is used more for utility purposes than for combat. Many people in eastern Nepal them for chopping firewood, cutting meat and vegetable and various farm and household tasks.

Tibetan Carpets of Nepal

Nepal is a major exporters of woolen carpet, Carpet weaving is a household occupation in the hilly regions of the country. These carpets are still hand woven in Hindu and Buddhist themes in both traditional and modern designs. The weaving process is often laborious and complex to achieve quality and craftsmanship. These carpets are popular as wall hangings as well as rugs.

The Tibetan exile community living in Nepal is known for carpet-making.Barbara Crossette wrote in the New York Times: “In the heart of Hindu Nepal, a community of Tibetan Buddhist exiles who fled the Chinese occupation of their homeland, taking with them little more than their abundant energy, a shrewd business sense and an eye for design, have created in just over three decades a major international center for hand-loomed woolen carpets. The export of Tibetan rugs, most of them to Europe” outranked tourism in the early 1990s “as a hard-currency earner. But because the making of these hand-knotted carpets is still almost entirely a cottage industry, supplying local retail shops as well as foreign importers, visitors to Nepal willing to haul away bulky bundles can pick up a deep-pile, richly patterned rug at no more than $100 for the traditional 3 foot by 6 foot size, the dimensions of a Tibetan bed or couch. [Source: Barbara Crossette, New York Times, July 4, 1993]

“A folk art that once dealt in bright flowers and dragons in primary colors framed by the distinctive "chain of life" border is now increasingly moving into new abstract designs in subdued hues — often muted pastels or earth tones — demanded by Western interior decorators and department store buyers. Rugs are also being made in many different sizes. Carpets in general sell for about $75 a square meter. That works out at $540 for a rug measuring 8 feet by 10 feet and $729 for a 9 by 12.

“A visit to the Tibetan refugee center at Jawalakhel, on the edge of the Kathmandu metropolitan area, is a good introduction to the classic craft. There a rug-making workshop was established in 1960 to provide income for Tibetan exiles who had fled the year before. At the Jawalakhel Handicraft Center, set up initially with help from Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross, visitors can see workers spinning and dyeing wool and weaving carpets with a distinctive knot that has identified Tibetan work for centuries.

“The center's two-story retail shop has a large stock of 3 foot by 6 foot carpets in traditional patterns and designs, with those with 80 knots per square inch selling for about $88 and those with 100 knots per inch $144. ...The Jawalakhel center has become a magnet for dozens of independent carpet sellers and small-scale manufacturers whose shops now line the narrow street leading to the refugee compound gates. Prices for their rugs, in both classic and newer patterns and colors, are not always rigidly fixed. Buyers bargain, often reducing the asking price by a tenth or more. Because the Jawalakhel center's prices set a fixed standard, buyers know more or less what they can expect to pay.

“Throughout the Himalayas, where the climate is harsh, rugs are an important part of life in palaces, monasteries and farmhouses and along the trails of pilgrims and merchants. Once used as horse blankets, rugs now cover car seats too. Unlike the intricately patterned carpets of Kashmir, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, the Tibetan rug has most often been distinguished by a monochrome background into which designs frequently based on natural or semi-religious patterns are woven. Historically, the art of the Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms left little scope for expressionism or even originality, and folk arts reflect this adherence to canon, not only in carpet patterns but also in the decoration of houses, furniture and clothing.

Tibetan Carpet Entrepreneur in Nepal

Barbara Crossette wrote in the New York Times: A recent trend in Tibetan carpet making in Nepal that began in the early 1900s. “and one that is radically changing the craft, is the appearance of bigger and bigger carpet factories owned by Tibetan entrepreneurs who employ thousands of Nepalis, whom they train to make rugs almost solely for export. The story of Thupten Paljor and his Shangri-La Carpet Company is illustrative of the trend. It is also testimony to the remarkable tenacity and hard work Tibetans have demonstrated in building new lives away from their homeland. [Source: Barbara Crossette, New York Times, July 4, 1993]

“Mr. Paljor was in his early teens when in the 1950's he volunteered to serve as a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader. Like thousands of other Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama himself, Mr. Paljor was forced to flee Lhasa, the capital, in 1959, leaving with only the clothes he wore. At 16 he turned up at a school in the Indian hill resort of Mussoorie and asked to be admitted to first grade. The child of Tibetan traders, he had been given scant education in Lhasa. His schooling completed, Mr. Paljor was working for Tibet House, an exile center in New Delhi, when he heard that his sister had settled in Nepal. After one visit to Kathmandu, Mr. Paljor returned to India, collected his family, and with barely 1,000 Indian rupees (then about $65) started life over in Nepal.

“THE extended family was able to buy a cheap cafe in Kathmandu's hippy quarter. While his mother cooked, Mr. Paljor began to take in antique carpets for sale on consignment. With the profits, he bought a minibus and started a regular tourist service to Pokhara, Nepal's second-largest city and the gateway to the Annapurna trekking and mountaineering area. A second bus and a long-haul truck later, he was able to begin investing in property, including a restaurant and a general store in Thamel, now Kathmandu's most active tourist neighborhood. He turned the store into a trekking-supply shop and, in his own words, "did very well."

“The carpet factory, on a hillside above the Bodhnath Buddhist temple and monastery complex in a neighborhood called Jorpati, came next. Built two years ago by Mr. Paljor and a business partner, it now employs up to 700 Nepali weavers, most of them working at home in their villages under the direction of master craftsmen who act as subcontractors. Some weaving and all the spinning and dyeing of raw wool, imported from Tibet and New Zealand, is done at the factory, which last year opened a wholesale and retail showroom next door called (sad to say) "Carpet City." The factory office is managed by Mr. Paljor's daughter, Tsering Dolkar (who is also a news reader on Nepali television, the first Tibetan to hold that job). There are dozens of stories like Mr. Paljor's. Carpet factories are springing up with such speed in the Kathmandu Valley that environmentalists are pressing the national Government to regulate the industry's growth. The washing of finished carpets, which uses millions of gallons of scarce water and discharges chemical pollutants into streams, is now being curtailed by law, a first step.

“Ms. Dolkar said the younger generation of carpet manufacturers was keenly aware that unacceptable business practices — creating pollution or using child labor, common in South Asia — could destroy the industry by provoking Western boycotts. Talking about the craft of rug making, Ms. Dolkar acknowledges that in factories like her family's there is very little of Tibet left in Tibetan carpets. The employees are Nepalis and Indians; the designs come mostly from Germany, where one importer has offered to buy every carpet the Shangri-La factory makes — strictly to his specifications. “Five or six years ago, people bought the carpets that were available here and integrated them into their homes," Ms. Dolkar said. "Now carpets are part of interior decoration in the West, integrated with textiles and furniture." One market still bucks the trend, she noted. "We haven't changed the tastes of Tibetans."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (, Nepal Government National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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