Celebrating Swayambhu Restoration

Features Issue 105 Jul, 2010
Text by Discussion Conducted By Anil Chitrakar / Photo: Hari Maharjan, ECS Media

Fast forward to the future heritage conservation challenges

In 1912 AD, the Swayambhu Maha Chaitya was restored with financial support to the tune of Rs.75, 000 from Dharma Man of Ason, Rs.50, 000 from the Government of then Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere and support from the 13th Dalai Lama. The restoration took eight years to complete.

Participants at the Round Table

The Maha Chaitya has been restored again after 90 years and this time it took only two years to complete. To celebrate the successful restoration of Swayambhu Maha Chaitya, ECS hosted a Round Table of some of the best artists Nepal has to offer today. The goal was to discuss their work, aspirations, and challenges in getting young people on board and the initiatives they are undertaking to improve the state of affairs. The following is a summary of what we discussed.

Amrit Tuladhar began a very interesting conversation when he pointed out that the sand casting skills his family provides has huge industrial applications and potential. When he cast engine parts for a Thai client,  they were quite amazed with the result. He feels that if Nepal was to use his techniques to manufacture, they could contribute much more to the economy.

The group agreed that unless “academic” credentials or bonafide certifications could be provided to artists, they will opt for other work in the more formal sectors.

Rajesh Shakya feels that public recognition and formal credentials are the key challenges in the sector. He recalls how the only document he had while applying for a USA visa was a cover story done by ECS on him and his work. The group agreed that unless “academic” credentials or bonafide certifications could be provided to artists, they will opt for other work in the more formal sectors. Sajan mentioned that in Dharmashala in India there was a 12 year training program that won you a “degree” and certified you to take up such work.

Rajesh also feels that unless we can “glamorize” the profession of sculpting or artistry amongst young people we will not be able to “galvanize” their interest. There are a few but we need many more. The market competes for good young people and this sector is no different. Young people sometimes make the mistake of just understanding the material value of art work and do not realize the artistic and spiritual value of the pieces they craft. Public events that help promote these professions to young people would be a big help, he thinks.

Lok Chitrakar says that Nepali art needs to be raised to the level it had reached in the 13th century when artists like ARNIKO were going to work in Kublai Khan’s court. Authenticity is the key variable when it comes to style, materials, process and themes. Ancient pieces wear away and there is a need to restore them without compromising on the originality. He wants to look at the past and ensure that the future is authentic.

Rusam Amatya raised the issue of peoples’ names and why some feel that one has to be born into a particular family to do traditional art work. He says this needs to change and everyone who is capable should do this work irrespective of family background. The choice should be that of the interested individual and not by any force or coercion. This will also ensure that those art forms thrive for a long time.

Rusam also made a great observation, that the reason why Kathmandu valley was, is, and continues to be so attractive is because the artists here do not present anything as they appear in nature nor create something that is artificial; what they do is take a natural figure and add their creativity to make them appealing and give them a touch of the supernatural. Look at the eyes of the Buddha, the roar of the lion or the representation of a tree or animal. This is the most special feature of the Nepali art form.

Rusam feels strongly that the artists must work within the limits set by the original text and teachings. It is creativity that projects the artist, and not the creation of new forms. The limits are defined and it is a part of the discipline to be honest to those limitations.

According to Sanam Shakya, there is a market for ritual objects that are used by people on a daily basis. Patrons have different tastes, choices and also differ in their ability to pay. The real advantage of hand made objects is the fact that each object can be customized as per specifications. This is why the art has survived for so long. In doing this, again, the basics have to be maintained.

Rajan Shakya made the point of how specific and particular knowledge and skills are when it comes to Nepali art work. As an example, in his casting work, cow dung can be used, but not buffalo dung, to get the desired results. He says that Nepali artists have the same skill sets needed to cast hydro or plane parts. He says Nepali casting results are so good that no machine finish is required. This can be a special advantage in the world of manufacturing.

Competition from new and cost effective techniques can be a huge challenge. Rajan gave the example of how the local casting techniques cannot compete with Chinese mass casting, often done by automated processes. The difference in the final price could be massively different, as much as 12 times. Another related challenge is that these mass produced art is finding its way into the market and are sold as Nepali products made using the traditional methods and processes. This is very hard to beat. The demand is there but pricing will be a real issue.

Sajan Shakya sees that over the past decades some techniques are getting better while others are being lost. In Swayambhu he found old pieces of art that he and his colleagues did know how to restore. This is a good insight as to how things may be lost slowly. Even if there are people in Kathmandu who may have the knowledge and the specialized skills, we do not know who they are. Having an inventory would be key for the future Sajan feels. To get to the 13th century level plenty of research on lost techniques will have to be conducted.

One big question for the Round Table was on how resources should be mobilized for conservation efforts in the future. In the past, local artists were compensated in grain from the collective land trust - GUTHI. Now there are examples of Bhaktapur paying for restoration with tourist fee. The second and long term issue is whether or not young people can make this a profession that pays for a decent livelihood. The key is that children need to start early (12-13 years) if they are to become wage earners at 19-20 years. Secondly there must be a system for accreditation and certification. Right now you work for a master and then get paid in wages. This is the reason why only those families who are financially weak are encouraging their children to take up this trade.

The Round Table also felt that the heritage of Nepal and Kathmandu are truly global in nature and hence with the right education and promotion, resources can be mobilized globally.

The Round Table also felt that the heritage of Nepal and Kathmandu are truly global in nature and hence with the right education and promotion, resources can be mobilized globally. Participants also felt that the skills and techniques must be applied for commercial and industrial application for national development and hence generate the needed resources. We need to diversify the product-base and their applications to the modern economy. Ultimately, it is the government that should take charge, but the participants felt it will take a while for this to happen.

The need to have an accredited institution was expressed by everyone. The artists have taken their own initiative to launch the SUMERU Art Village to fill this gap. There are schools for contemporary art but there traditional art is taught only for a couple of credit hours with more focus on modern art. The need to attract more women was also discussed. They are few and mostly involved part time due to family responsibilities.

Raj Kumar Shakya related his experience of currently constructing a 113 foot tall statue of Rimpoche in Bhutan. He related the story of how it was going to be very expensive till the clients came to Patan and saw what he could do with sheet metal. The previous cost estimates were based on casting. Raj Kumar was asked to build the big statue and he says that it would be completed at one-fourth the original estimate. He made a 1:10 scaled statue in 2004 which the clients liked. Now work is going ahead in full steam in Bhutan. In the 13th century, Nepali artists traveled to other countries to make beautiful palaces and monasteries. Raj Kumar feels proud to be carrying on the same tradition.

Short profile of artists who participated in the ECS Round Table on
July 11, 2010 in Kathmandu:

Amrit Tuladhar comes from a long line of Newar sand casting professionals who used to cast cannon turrets till the 1930s. He feels that the family moved to making handicrafts only because their skills were not used for industrial purposes. His family also makes uniform insignia for the army and police.


Rusam Amatya learned how to carve metal with the master, Bhim Shakya. He says he spent 9 years learning, and supported his formal education from the wages he earned. His family was the one who cast the big bells around Kathmandu and contrary to belief, Rusam says the Pradhans and  Amatyas also did craft work in those days.

Lok Chitrakar is a painter by profession, by birth and by name. He has maintained the name of the family and continues the tradition of painting “Newari style” paintings of both Buddhist and Hindu themes. He has been painting Newari style paubas for 37 years now and has the aspiration to take this art form to the same height that it had reached between the 13th and 16th century. He is very particular about the authenticity of the ‘Newari style’ and the materials and process as used.

Rajesh Shakya comes from a family in Mangal Bazaar who specialize in filigree. His family supplied precious metal wires and flat plates to other artists and were also traders. His grandfather was a master in carving crystals and polishing them.  Rajesh himself is a repousse artist and makes ritual objects. He is grateful to all the artists who taught him and is obsessed with producing pauba (painting) in metal medium. He is inspired by the fact that art is a medium to get to the teachings of the Buddha.

Raj Kumar Shakya is one of those artists specializing in repousse art and has excelled in his field. His family tradition was documented and published two decades ago. At that time his techniques were not well known and few families practiced it anywhere in Patan. Today he has made the repousse technique very popular and many families are able to support themselves doing this traditional work.

Sajan Shakya has worked for the past two years on the Swayambhu restoration and is a repousse metal artist. The experience of the past years has given him a real opportunity not only to do what he is good at but also to learn new techniques. He is surprised by how easy some of the work has become since the last restoration.

Sanam Shakya specializes in Tibetan ritual objects. These include objects used during worship, objects that serve as offerings and also objects for prayer and mediation. He continues his family tradition and has been involved in this field for the past two decades. Many of the objects are made to order and the quality and size of the objects are made as per the request of the client.

Rajan Shakya is currently experimenting with the ancient art of making clay sculpture that does not crack under sunlight and is practically water proof. He began early and now specializes in casting work, which is based on the use of organic materials only. He feels proud that he is able to preserve the clay molding technique but fears many such art forms could be lost if nothing is done.