ritual / artisans

The first Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in Lumbini (current-day Nepal) in the 5th Century, BCE. Of the Shakya clan, the prince would eventually renounce his noble birth and embark upon a spiritual journey. In his search for the alleviation of suffering, he would create one of the world’s primary religious philosophies- Buddhism.

At the epicenter of Buddha’s Nepal is the stupa (a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) of Bouddhanath in the Kathmandu valley. Situated on an ancient trade route from Tibet, the site dates back to c. 590–604 CE. It was not until 1959, however, that the stupa assumed major significance with the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the arrival of thousands of refugees.

Those refugees settled in the Bouddhanath area and, over the past 6 decades, they have created a vibrant and pious community. Bouddhanath is now home to dozens of monasteries and is a destination for Buddhist pilgrims worldwide. The focus of the neighborhood is Bouddhanath Stupa around which, a continual migration of the masses flows. Intended as a meditative practice, the clockwise circumambulation is embarked upon by those of all ages. Elderly folks, their pursed lips often chanting mantras, shuffle along the cobblestones alongside children who scatter bird-seed to legions of pigeons. Under the stupa’s watchful eyes, the neighborhood’s residents, merchants, tourists and crimson-garmented monks and nuns share the tightly-packed warren of streets that radiate from the stupa’s hub. In a kaleidoscope of color and cacophony of sound, the atmosphere is both frenetic and serene.

Across the Bagmati river in the nearby city of Lalitpur, narrow and dusty alleys are a bit quieter. The occasional bark of a dog or giggling of children at play breaks the droning “tap, tap, tap” of metal-on-metal. Of the same Shakya family lineage as Gautama Buddha, the Newari artisans who comprise this community labor intricately in stone, wood and metal. Much of the work produced in this corner of the Kathmandu valley is ritualistic Buddhist iconography with copper statuary being the most significant.

For generations, the Newari have developed their intricate metal-smithing techniques. The “lost-wax” method of production has been a tradition passed down from father-to-son/mother-to-daughter over the millennia with the methods tightly-held amongst the Shakya clan. Families remain clustered in artisan communities where a virtual production-line has been established in their homes. One family is responsible for “chwojya”, the design and molding of the statue. Another fabricates and finishes the casting. Yet another is responsible for “katanjya”, the process of carving the designs into the copper, tin and silver alloys that are used. In the final finishing process, still other families are charged with painting and gilding the icons. Each household makes its contribution until completion of the final statue and its approval for ritual consecration and “awakening,” a process whereby the statue is taken to a monastery, filled with mantra scrolls and blessed by the resident monks. Duration of production of these statues varies depending upon the size and complexity of the piece, however, a 12” statue can take up to three months to complete.

The process and craftsmanship is unfortunately a dying art. Majin, in his early 30s, is a carver much like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He recounts stories of his childhood and the gifts bestowed upon him by his parents for birthdays and other occasions. Whereas we in the West may have played with toy cars and dolls in our youth, he received hammers and various chisels. I ask him about his family and if he has children. “Two girls and one boy.” he responds. “And your son, is he learning the craft?” I ponder. With somber disappointment while staring at the ground, Majin replies “No! This is the new generation. They’re not interested in these things. He’d rather play with his mobile phone.”

Despite the lack of interest from today’s youth, the craftsmanship does continue…..for now. Those that continue to labor on these pieces find that there is significant demand for their art. The statues are commonly purchased by monasteries and monks throughout the region who are proud to display the superior craftsmanship, artistry and tradition of the pieces. By many, these icons are considered to be the world’s finest Buddha statues.


Using Format