Chisel & Stone

Features Issue 46 Aug, 2010
Text by Shivendra Thapa / Photo: ECS Media

Legend has it that King Bhupatindra Malla was greatly impressed by the sculpture of Ugrachandi (1707 AD) and had the right hand of the sculptor cut off. However, the sculptor remained determined and went on to carve an image of Bhairav (destructive manifestation of Shiva) with his left hand, which was eventually amputated as well. Undeterred by such physical trauma, it is said that he used his feet to make another piece of art. Whether this story is a historical myth or not is anyone’s guess, but the fierce determination of the Malla kings to possess valuable artistic creations is quite true.

When Kathmandu valley was divided into different kingdoms (Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan) under three Malla kings, competition grew among the three cities regarding their wealth of architectural monuments and art collections. So strongly protective did they feel about this issue, that they had the hands of the most talented artistes cut off, fearing that the neighboring kingdoms would replicate their prized works of art. Such attitudes were not uncommon in archaic societies. Some may resent the gruesome mindset of these kings, but it also shows their obsession with art. If a piece of art can make sane men go insane, how wonderful must the art itself be? Creation is a phenomenon that can topple a state of mind.

In Nepal, the initiation of stone art is believed to be the result of artistic experimentation. During the reign of the Licchavi King Vrishdeva, the great grandfather of King Manadeva, a farmer named Balbala made a self-portrait in stone for the first time. He soon gained recognition in the community due to his innovative experimentation in this new field and ended up as the founder of stone sculpting in the country. For those with an eye for detail, stone images are abundant in Nepal. Beneath the water taps, around temples and stupas and along ancient and modern streets alike, there are images of lions and griffins, detailed and obscured gods that date back centuries and those that have been set there recently by the faithful, seeking a connection with the immortal. The history of Nepal has been told in stone. There seemed to be no other alternative. Few manuscripts have survived; the oral tradition fails to identify the nation’s archaic culture; wooden images have mostly rotted away, and metal work barely reaches the 10th century. For all those seeking an insight into Nepali history and cultural antiquity, stone tells the clearest stories.


Patan has a unique atmosphere due to its remarkable vivacity of temple architecture. It is more densely packed with Hindu temples than Kathmandu, and is blessed with 55 major temples. Although dominated by Hindu shrines, the city of Patan was designed and built in accordance to the Buddhist wheel of righteousness. Once again, Nepal’s unity in diversity is omnipresent in this country’s unique cultural landscape. In alignment with Buddhist tradition, Patan is surrounded by four big stupas at each corner of the cardinal points. These monuments are said to have been built by the Indian Emperor Ashoka, when he came to Kathmandu valley during the 3rd century BC.

Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, is one of the most revered and loved deities in the Hindu pantheon of gods. Patan Durbar Square’s (‘durbar’ in Nepali means ‘palace’) most famous and most spectacular temple is the Krishna Mandir (‘mandir’ in Nepali means ‘temple’). There are two Krishna Mandirs in the Durbar Square, both carved out of stone and the one known as Chyasim Deval is the unceremonious one, while all religious rites and festivities take place in the more popular Krishna Mandir that lies opposite the Patan Museum. King Siddhinarasimha Malla built this temple in 1636 AD. The images of Rukmani, Krishna and Satyabhma were installed the following year in 1637, after performing the Kotyahuti Yajna.

King Yoganarendra Malla’s daughter, Yogamati, built the other Krishna Mandir or Chyasim Deval in Patan in 1723 AD. At the time of her father’s death, 32 women committed sati at her father’s funeral pyre. Dismayed by the plight of women and their unnecessary sacrifices, Yogamati spent most of her wealth in constructing the Chyasim Deval temple. It is the only octagonal temple in Patan Durbar Square and is completely made of stone with some very fine and intricate sculpting. The structure is raised over three platforms. It has mini shikharas on all sides in symmetrical order and two lions named Jaya and Bijaya guarding its stairway. The images of Rukmani, Krishna and Satyabhma adorn the temple. Religious ceremonies have ceased to take place in this temple, but visitors still remain enthralled by its artistic stonework.

Amidst the glory of temples, we sometimes tend to forget about the less important, but more intricate and historic structures. Patan has many of these, and due to their sheer number, some have been cherished, while others have been forgotten over time. ‘Tusahiti,’ located inside Sundari Chowk (‘chowk’ in Nepali means ‘courtyard) within the Patan Durbar, is an outstanding work of art rendered completely in stone. King Siddhinarasimha built this marvelous hiti in 1636 AD as a royal bath. The bath signifies one of the finest artistic endeavors undertaken by the king and is decorated with numerous icons and images, which embellish this oval shaped structure. There are eight Mother Goddesses, eight Bhairavs and eight Nags. The water spout is treated in bronze, above which is an image of Vishnu with Laxmi riding the Garuda. Below the spout is a statue of Bhagiratha with elephants on either side. The most interesting aspect of this royal bath is the perfect miniature replica of Krishna Mandir which crowns the Hiti.

Bhaktapur literally means, ‘city of devotees’. Its share of stone lion statues is unrivalled in all three cities of Kathmandu valley. Some might say Bhaktapur has the lion’s share of intriguing architecture and stone monuments. Since a temple embodies a sacred sanctuary where the god resides, it has to be guarded by a strong and resilient guardian that would protect the deity against all odds. Lions are unique in mythology because they are considered to be the most trustworthy of all animals and their strength is legendary. Walking through the main gate of the Durbar Square, one comes across two large stone lions guarding the images of Ugrachandi (dangerous manifestation of Goddess Durga) and Bhairava (destructive manifestation of Shiva). Further down, there are more significant stone lions. The entrance to the National Art Gallery is guarded by two lions in front of the sculptures of Hanuman Bhairav on the left and Narasimha (half lion half man) on the right. With all stone lion sculptures, there is a sense of gender uniformity in their placement. The lion on the left is a female and the one on the right is male. Though most of these stone images serve the purpose of guardians, their imagery varies a lot. There are two more interesting lions near the 55 window palace. They represent Mother Nature’s wrath as well as artistic ingenuity. These are the only two stone lions that seem to have nothing to guard, since the great earthquake of 1934 completely flattened the pagoda style temple that once stood behind them. Nature has its own sweet and strange way of displacing history.

Apart from these, there is an intricately carved stone temple adjacent to the Shiva Guest House. Near by is an interesting hiti (stone water spout) with unusual carvings. Another royal bath known as Lun Hiti decorates the Bhaktapur palace complex. Built during the reign of the Malla rulers, the water spigot is shaped like a goat’s head and a gilded snake statue sits atop a wooden pillar in the middle of the pond. The most common feature of nearly all hitis is the representation of the mythical water creature (Makaal). Through the Makaal’s mouth, many different kinds of animals are shown emerging or are seen seated in the water creature’s mouth.

A lot of the stone sculptures found in the valley are juxtaposed alongside wooden structures. They compliment each other. One such structure is the Nyatapola temple in Taumadhi Square. Nyatapola, the five-tiered pagoda is the tallest temple in Bhaktapur, and is dedicated to a tantric Goddess named Siddhi Laxmi. The stone guardians of the temple are placed in an ascending order of strength with the least powerful guardian at the bottom and most powerful at the top. The first two guardians are famous Malla era wrestlers, Jaya Mal and Patta followed by elephants and lions on the higher plinth. The final two plinths have griffins and two demi-goddesses.

Other significant stone monuments are to be found in the Kathmandu Durbar Square. Kaal Bhairav and a large stone Garuda stand out in the Kathmandu Durbar Square. A huge stone image of Kaal Bhairav representing Lord Shiva in his destructive manifestation occupies a significant portion of the square. The facial expression is terrifying and symbolizes death and destruction. The image is carved from a single stone. The structure was recently restored to its original glory by removing all the concrete additions. Such large images made of a single block of stone are a rarity in Nepal. ‘Budhanilkantha’, nine kilometers north of the city center, is the largest stone sculpture in the Kathmandu valley. The five meter statue of Vishnu lying on a giant nag was carved out of granite, and is known as the ‘Sleeping Vishnu.’

The search for more stone images takes us towards Swoyambhunath or the ‘self existent one’. In the vicinity of this magnificent stupa are many stone images of Buddha, some in the standing position while others are shown sitting. The museum next to the stupa houses a rich collection of old stone images and some of Kathmandu valley’s history can be recorded through these stone slabs and images. The historical evidence of Swoyambhunath as a religious site goes back to early Lichhavi period (5th century AD). This historical record is attested by inscriptions as well as chaityas from that time. Apart from being monumental manuscripts, chaityas are also fascinating stone sculptures steeped in mysticism. They are said to imitate the structure of the universe and are also the designators of sacred space. Many beautifully crafted chaityas are seen around Swoyambhunath.

Historical stone imagery is abundant in Nepal and the tradition of sculpting has not ceased. The tradition has been continued in contemporary Nepal as well. Stone carving shops are spread all across the valley. Mandala Stone Carving and Everest Mandala Stone Carving in Thamel are two shops that cater to all kinds of designs in stone. Almost any and every kind of design can be replicated or made according to your preference. Most of the stone carving here is two dimensional, but statuettes are also made. A majority of stone sculptors have learnt their craft from either friends or the numerous carving workshops in the Swoyambhu area. The designs they create portray symbolism from all religions including mandalas and extracts from prayer books. Any sample can be replicated, however complicated the design may be. Some of the carvings are traditional, while others are contemporary gift items.

Creation is a spiritual endeavor by an artist to bridge the gap between art and eternity. The continuous effort to do so conceives creation. Without this mystical dimension, our lives would be a little less meaningful.