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Cultural Life

The cultural heritage of Nepal, particularly contributions made by the Newar people of the Kathmandu valley to sculpture, painting, and architecture, is a source of great pride. Hindu religious themes are reflected in sculpture, architecture, and drama. Music and dance are favorite pastimes. Drums and wind instruments required in religious ceremonies have been preserved from ancient times. Devotional songs with folk and classical elements are an important feature of most religious and family occasions.


People walking the streets of Kathmandu cannot fail to notice the abundance of religious buildings in the city. Temples exist near or around royal palaces, as well as at important geographical locations including the top of hills, river banks or near wells. Private temples were built anywhere and can be found in almost every neighbourhood.
The temples are sites of magnificent stone and wood carvings. Most of the stone carvings are from the eleventh and twelfth centuries and reflect the influence of Indian art from the Gupta (5 and 6th century A.D.) and the Palasena (10th to 12th century AD.) periods. Wood carvings are predominantly from the eighteenth century used to decorate pillars, door and window frames, cornices and supporting struts. Struts of Hindu temples usually contain an erotic scene which attracts speculation from visitors. The motivation for such motifs are natural; in countries where death is predominant, procreation is sacred in some respects as the embodiment of life-giving energies and fertility. Sexual union also represents the union of the individual with the universe in the Vedas which are Hindu texts.
Temples are usually one of three types; pagodas, shikaras or stupas. Stupas are exclusively a Buddhist temple, but pagodas and shikaras may be Hindu or Buddhist. Buddhist temples are almost always surrounded by a wall with a defined entrance way. A wall of prayer wheels often surrounds the temple. Whether Hindu or Buddhist, these temples are not places of religious gatherings popular within Christianity and Muslim religions but are sites of individual worship.
Pagodas (devala in Nepali) are usually square or rectangular with a simple geometric design. The base of the temple holds an image of the god honored by the presence of the temple. The temple has several roofs which get proportionately smaller with height. The number of roofs is usually odd, since odd numbers are more auspicious than even numbers. Many scholars believe that the pagoda style of roofing mimics the multi-tiered style of umbrellas held over royalty or images of deities during processions. The building is usually brick, although the foundation may consist of stone blocks. The doors and windows are wood with latticed patterns for adornment. A torana sits above the door, also of wood or bronze-plated wood, depicting the triumph of good over evil with the image of a gryphon holding in its grip a naga or kirtimukha. The struts of the temple (tunal in Nepali), carved wooden brackets which support the projecting roof eaves at a 45 degree angle, consist of a deity standing upon a lotus flower above a decorative scene, often erotic, carved upon the lower part of the strut. The struts in the corners of the pagoda often depict a roaring lion or mythical animal which conveys power. The roofs are plated with copper or gilded bronze and the corners of the roofs always turn upward. These corners end in a human or animal's head facing downward and a bird in flight on the upward slant. A metal ribbon hangs from the topmost point almost to the ground, symbolizing the path for the deity to descend to earth and people to rise to the divine. Kinkinimala adorn the edge of the roofs; unmoving bells with a thin metal clapper which tinkles against the bell in the wind. One or two bronze bells also stand near the entrance of the pagoda. Protecting this entrance are bronze or stone images of dragons or lions. Mirrors often hang from a temple wall; these are a modern addition to ensure that a woman's tika is neatly placed in the center of her forehead. Examples of pagoda style temples are the Taleju Mandir in Kathmandu's Durbar Square, the Golden Temple in Patan and the Nyatapola in Bhaktapur.
Shikaras are similar in design to Indian temples, best recognized by a majestic dome roof. Some describe the dome as an unopened lotus flower or a folder royal umbrella. The base of the temple is square with many stories of balconies. Two famous shikaras are the Krishna Mandir and the Mahabuddha, both located in Patan.
Stupas, designed as funeral mounds, usually have a cubic base with a spherical body and a towered roof. This design mimics the mandala design, a cosmic representation of the universe conducive to meditation. The cubic base symbolizes the earth's solidity, the spherical mound symbolizes water, the tower is fire, the ring above it air, and the crowned top symbolizes ether.
Thirteen steps between the mound and the tower represent the number of steps to attaining perfect knowledge. Most of the stupa is painted masonry white but the four sides of the tower hold the omniscient eyes of Buddha. The eyes watch over the universe, and the symbol between the two prominent eyes is the third eye which allows one to see beyond and inside the self. The symbol in the typical position of the nose is the Devanagari script for the number one, to remind people that only one way exists to salvation. The stupas, designed to hold remains or relics, are not hollow. People encircle stupas by walking clockwise, often spinning prayer wheels embedded in the wall surrounding the temple. Boudhanath and Swayambhunath, the largest stupas in Kathmandu, are approximately 2000 years old.


The earliest paintings appeared in 11th century AD. and consisted of illustrated manuscripts on palm leaf or rice paper. Thangkas, a more predominant form of painting, are popular among Buddhists in Nepal as well as in Tibet and date back to the late 14th century. These paintings on cotton are rectangular in shape and usually longer than they are wide. They are framed with three stripes of Chinese brocade of blue, yellow and red which represent the rainbow which separates sacred objects from the material world. Older Thangkas consisted of mineral-based colors, while current Thangkas are produced with vegetable-based or chemical colors. Frequent themes of Thangkas include images of Buddhist figures, mandala designs, the wheel of life design, or depiction of scenes or stories.
Mandalas are geometrical patterns which assist in the practice of meditation, as well as symbolize the nature of the universe. The symmetrical pattern reflects the development of the cosmos from an essential Principle and its rotation around a central axis.
Other Buddhist symbols are common to Thangkas and wall paintings. A picture of four guardians may adorn the entrance to a monastery; two images are benevolent to greet worshippers, and two are fierce looking to protect against evil spirits. Other symbols are the wheel of moral law, the umbrella to protect against evil, the victory banner of Buddha's doctrine, two golden fish which represent wealth, the endless knot of eternal re-birth of everything, the flower-vase holding eternal bliss, the conch-shell proclaiming the benefits of enlightenment, and the lotus flower which symbolizes purity and the release of spirituality from earthly roots.
The fable of the four unanimous brothers involves an elephant standing near a fruit-bearing tree with a monkey on its back. The monkey holds a rabbit on its shoulder and a bird perches on the rabbit. All hold a piece of fruit. The bird maintained that while enjoying the shade and fruit of the tree, they owe gratitude to him since he planted the seed of the tree. The rabbit replied that while the bird sprinkles seed without regard, he watered the seed daily and conscientiously. The monkey stated that it was his dung, not the planting or the watering which was essential to the seed's growth. The elephant acknowledged their contributions, but said that it was his protection of the plant from other animals which made the tree's growth possible. The moral of the story is that cooperation causes fruitfulness.
The wheel of life symbolizes the endless cycle of reincarnations. A demon holds the wheel with fangs and claws to symbolize how repulsive it can be to participate in life. Buddha is portrayed outside of the wheel standing erect since he reached enlightenment and escaped the cycle of rebirth. The center of the image is a circle which contains the three vices; the rooster symbolizes lust, the snake symbolizes hatred, and the boar symbolizes ignorance. A ring around this circle shows the six stages of reincarnation; at the bottom is hell for the doomed, followed by the world of the pretas which are greedy and slaves to their desires, the last inferior world of the animals portrayed with a pastoral scene, the human world of towns and villages, the world of the Titans which wage war against the gods, and the world of the gods portraying beauty and serenity.
Another ring illustrates small images to teach a lesson; a blind woman using a stick to walk symbolizes impulses created from ignorance, the potter manifests these impulses with the focus on feeling, a monkey picking up fruit represents the consciousness of acting on impulses, men in a boat symbolize that consciousness can create individuality but also separation, an empty house with an open door represents sensory perceptions translated into action by the mind (perceptions enter through windows but leave as actions out the door), a couple embracing shows how sensory perception creates physical desires, a man hit by an arrow demonstrates that touch excites the senses with pain or pleasure, a woman filling a man's cup shows that excitement of the senses creates a thirst for more, a monkey grabbing for fruit shows desire becoming a demand for more, the expecting mother shows that such eagerness for more is part of existence, the child's birth demonstrates birth as a necessary condition, and a man carrying a body shows death as a necessary condition of existence.


Literature appeared in the valley during the 18th century. Poetry is the predominant form of writing from this period, but most authors are unknown. The following centuries brought more poets and writers inspired by religion as well as social problems. Musical lyrics celebrate the beauty of nature and life, or convey a legend.

Bronze Figures

Bronze figures, sometimes alloyed with copper, appeared in the valley around 8th century AD. These images usually represented religious deities or legendary figures. The most frequently used production technique is that of cire perdue, a form of wax casting. Images often contain embedded semi-precious stones, usually coral or turquoise, or are gilded with gold.


Jewelry of gold and silver reflects the preferences of ethnic groups. Gurung women often wear large disc earrings of bronze and copper, while Sherpa women often have turquoise and silver earrings. Other forms of jewelry include nose rings, pendants, engraved silver belts, anklets and bracelets.


Pottery flourishes in Patan and Thimi, a locality near Bhaktapur. Common forms of pottery are terra cotta oil lamps used to light homes during the festival Dipawali, and flower pots decorated with peacocks and elephants.

Preservation of Art

People constantly express concern about the preservation of art in the valley. Many temples and statues are in various stages of disrepair. Two earthquakes, one in 1833 and one in 1934, left a wake of destruction in the country. Until recently, Nepal lacked people with the scientific knowledge required for artistic restoration. Authorities also battle with the establishment of priorities; financing the development of infrastructure and addressing social and health concerns of the population detracts money from restoration projects. Foreign aid projects specifically addressing the maintenance of palace squares and other historical sites are becoming more popular and provide valuable assistance in the preservation of Nepalese art.

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