Artisans: Goldsmiths of Patan

Features Issue 61 Jul, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai / Photo: Rajesh Shakya

Making superbly crafted statues of gold, the goldsmiths of Patan display remarkable skills and dedication to their chosen profession. Repoussé, an ancient technique is alive and well in this city of artisans.

On the third floor of his roadside house inm Patan, Rajesh Shakya sits by the computer,
asks us if we have a pen drive and goes on to show us his photographs on the monitor. They are well taken photos of his creations, and we are very impressed. The detailed work on the statues he has made look fabulous, and would make any artisan proud. Rajesh belongs to the new generation of goldsmiths who are computer savvy.

‘As good as gold’ they say, and certainly there seems to be no other metal that has the richness of gold. Man has forever been fascinated by gold and even today, many people possess this precious metal in some form or the other. In Nepal, gold plays a very significant role in religious affairs especially among Buddhists. With the growing number of monasteries that are cropping up, Nepal’s goldsmiths are busy keeping up with the demand for golden statues and various other ritual objects. If not of pure gold, they are either gilded or gold plated. But in whatever way it is used, there is a large demand for gold.

Rajesh Shakya of Spiritual Art Gallery in Okubahal, Patan works at home. Although most artisans have learnt from their fathers and expertise handed down from generation to generation, Rajesh is an exception. His ancestors were not goldsmiths and he had to learn from his cousin who is a skilled silversmith. It was seventeen years ago that he began to learn this craft and today, at 32, he is a master goldsmith. Beginning with ritual objects, he has now begun to diversify. He has even made thangkas (see Pg. 47) of metal which had never been tried before. He has also made pendants, but specializes in making exquisite statues of designs so detailed and so fine, that it takes him and his helpers four months to complete one. “I am like a conductor of an orchestra. I make the design and tell each of my helpers what to make. As the work progresses, I keep giving them instructions while I do my part, carving designs with my chisel,” explains Rajesh.

Most of the statuettes they make are 8 to 12 inches in height and are usually of Maitreya or Tara. When making a statue of gold alone, it is 93% pure with 3% other metals to make an alloy. “To work with 24 carat gold, it has to be thick, in order to maintain the shape since pure gold is very soft,” states Rajesh. The value of the statue goes up when gems like diamonds, rubies and emeralds are used. They also make the statues look exquisite. Rajesh’s clients are mostly Taiwanese, locals or Chinese.

Aided by a cast of eight artisans, Rajesh sits on a cushion on the floor with his little worktable. Their method of making statues is called ‘repoussé’ where a metal plate is beaten into the desired shape by constantly hammering it against a support. This is an ancient technique, which in Newari (Nepal Bhasa) is called ‘thoyu’. Nobody knows how far back this knowledge goes. The word repoussé is French and means “pushed up”. The original Latin word pulsare means “to push”. Repoussé refers to the technique of hammering the metal from the reverse side and technically, working on the front side is known as chasing.

Repoussé work can be seen all over the valley especially in the temples and stupas. Most of the tympanums over the temple entrances are repoussé work. The statues are made in parts and during our visit, we found Rajesh working on the head. Each part is worked on separately and later welded together by an expert welder. The welding job involves not only the putting together of parts but also filigree.

Welding and Filigree
Yagyandra Shakya sits in the corner with the gas cylinder by his side. That’s his usual working space. He holds the burner head with his left hand. Sitting cross-legged, he holds the tweezer with his right hand and gets down to work. When working with gold, you weld gold with gold but to give it strength, some silver is also mixed. He takes a piece of gold wire which he has prepared previously and melts it by applying intense heat through the burner and welds together two parts of the statue. It may sound simple, but it requires tremendous skill to put the parts together in exactly the right position. The heat has to be just right. “I haven’t learnt this skill in statue making,” admits Rajesh, which is why he says statue making requires teamwork.

Although Yagyandra is referred to as the man who does the welding, this is no ordinary welding job. Yagyandra is an artisan in his own right. After he welds the different body parts together, his next job is filigree. In order to fulfill this task, he has to first prepare the different sized and patterned gold wires. This is a long process, which starts with the melting of gold pieces. “My father and brother taught me this skill,” says Yagyandra. “The art of welding and filigree has been handed down from generation to generation.” The more he explains, the more complex the job seems as he goes on to say, “One has to know anatomy to get the shape right.” To make the wire, he takes a piece of gold and puts it in the small heat resistant vessel to which he applies intense heat until the gold melts. He mixes in the other metals and pours the molten alloy onto a frame that molds it into rods.

The next step is to turn the rods into thin wires. Yagyandra takes a metal tool that has many holes of different sizes. By forcing the rods through the holes, he gets wires of varying thickness. He puts them through successively smaller holes to make them thinner. But the work has only just begun. He now has to make the required patterns on these wires by placing them on a patterned mold and beating them with a hammer. Where flat wire is required, he uses a small hammer to beat it into shape. When the wire is ready, the real work begins. He now has to make intricate patterns by twisting the wires and welding them to the main body. They are what constitute those beautiful patterns that we often see on statues. Flat and round wires alone however, are not sufficient to make those elaborate designs, so Yagyandra also makes tiny balls out of the alloy, which are then welded like a chain and resemble a string of pearls. As these designs are added, the statue is slowly transformed into a work of art.

“My grandfather used to make gold jewelry and my father started doing filigree work in silver and brass. I moved on to working in gold,” says Yagyandra. “I usually start work from the morning and there’s been a lot to do. In fact, when there’s too much work for me to handle alone, my father and brother pitch in to finish the work in time,” he adds. Yagyandra started with silver objects, doing filigree work on replicas of animals and birds. His father and brother still work in silver. “I was fifteen when I started learning and I’ve known Rajesh for twenty years,” he informs.

At this point Rajesh explains, “We’ve known each other since we were kids and our friendship goes back about ten years. We’ve been working together for five years. My work wouldn’t be possible without him as I haven’t learnt this part of statue making.” Rajesh considers himself lucky to have found someone who is a close friend as well as a skillful worker. “Welding has to be very precise and requires years of training. He has to be in control of the temperature and must know how much heat the metal can take. He also must be very careful not to ruin one part while working on another,” he adds.