Stone Sculpture: An Incredible Art of Carving Gods

stone sculpture nepal

Stone Sculpture is one of the most beautiful art forms in Nepal. The old and ancient settlements of Kathmandu Valley offer a great display of stone arts. The medieval temples and durbar squares of Kathmandu are an open museum. You will find beautiful stone carved idols of gods, kings, and mythical animals as well.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

You can find the influence of both Hindu and Buddhist religions in these sculptures. There are statues of gods and goddesses in various temple premises across the country. Specific set of rules and guidelines are strictly followed while making these sculptures.

Moreover, the Newar community of the Kathmandu valley remains involved in this art form for centuries. In recent times, this art form has only grown in prominence, and people from all walks of life have started to learn and practice this art. With modernization, there are many sculptures made for commercial purposes as well. 

Want to know more about this beautiful art form? Read further for the detailed description of the forms, history, process, and other details about the stone sculpture in Nepal. 

Also Read: Top 12 Best Handicrafts Products To Buy in Nepal

Principles of Sculpting

There two principles or forms of sculpting are traditional sculpting and modern sculpting. The stone sculptures in Nepal are generally based on traditional stone sculpting. 

Traditional stone sculpting 

The traditional form of stone sculpting includes statues of gods, stone spigots, and other stone figures. These stone figures are commonly found over temples and shrines in the forms of nags (serpents), garuda (a mythical bird), lions, oxen, and others. The other famous stone sculpture is linga, which is a phallus-shaped structure denoting Lord Shiva. 

Shiva Linga in Pashupatinath Temple

Moreover, these sculptures are reproductions of ancient forms, designs, and images. Therefore, these art forms are rigid and do not have a broad scope of experimentation. Hence, these art forms are very complicated and require years and years of study and practice. Besides these, there are certain sets of rules to sculpt different idols as well.

Modern stone sculpting 

Modern stone sculpting is those sculptures that do not follow the old guidelines. Contemporary stone sculpting does not have rigid guidelines and is generally abstract and experimental in nature. 

Moreover, the artist has to follow religious texts of physical appearance and character. You can find these arts as show pieces and they are also sold commercially. 

Guidelines on How to Portray Gods

There are specific guidelines on how to portray the gods in their different forms in the stone sculptures. For example, the items in the hands of Lord Vishnu changes with the months of a year. The articles carried by gods are also symbolic and change according to the gods and the features. 

A conch portrays the deliverance of a message, whereas lotus in the hand means the god is in a calm state. Similarly, chakra in the hand of the god represents a weapon that threatens evil and wrongdoers. Shiva Puran, Vishnu Puran, Garuda Puran, and are generally the guide book in the descriptions of gods Vishnu, Shiva, and others. 

Similarly, the Pratima Lachhin Bidhi, an ancient book that describes the physical features of Hindu gods and goddesses is a great source of information. The book has a detailed description ranging from their facial features, the color of the god’s skins, gods wield, and others. 

Furthermore, the gods and goddesses who resemble human figures get sculpted by dividing into seven and a half parts from head to toe. Gods who do not have complete human figures like Ganesha and Bhairav get sculpted by dividing the body into five parts.  

The Sculpting Process

The sculpting process starts by knocking off the significant portions of unwanted stone by a point chisel. A point chisel is a long, hefty piece of steel pointed at one end. A pitching tool gets used for splitting the stone and removing unwanted chunks. It is a wedge-shaped chisel with a broad, flat edge. 

Besides that, these pitching tools are also combined with masons driving hammer. After the general shape of the statue gets formed, many other tools get used to refine the figure. A toothed chisel or claw chisel create parallel lines and add texture to the figure. 

An artist marks out specific lines using calipers to measure an area of stone. Pencil, charcoal, or chalk marks the removed area. Shallower stroke gets used in combination with a wooden mallet to form the general shape of the finished statue. Rasps and rifflers enhance the shape of the statue into its final form. 

A rasp is a flat, steel tool with a coarse surface that removes excess stone as small chips. A riffler is a smaller version of a rasp used to create delicate patterns like clothing, and locks of hair. Polishing is the final stage of the process. Sandpaper or sand cloth gets used in the polishing. This process reveals patterns in the surface, enhances the color of the stone, and adds a sheen to the sculpture.

History of Stone Sculpture in Nepal

Temple made out of stone in Bhaktapur Durbar Square

The sculpture of Gaja Laxmi at Chyasal Haiti in Patan dates back to 2,200 years. The Deepavali Mahavihar in Patan’s Guitol is around 3,500 years old. The stone idols in Changu Narayan Temple dates back to the Licchavi Period (5th century AD – 17th century AD). The stone idols at the Pashupatinath Temple premises date back to the Kirat Period (6th century BC). 

Lord Vishnu lying in Budhanilkantha Temple

Similarly, various sculptures were then destroyed in 1349 when Shamsud-din-Ilyas, the Muslim ruler, attacked the Kathmandu valley from Bengal. Many major Hindu and Buddhist sculptures were then destroyed. However, with the help of the locals, the beautiful Vishnu sculpture lying in the Budhanilkantha Temple survived.

State of Stone Sculpture in Nepal

The stone sculpting practitioners in Nepal are few in number. The large blocks of stone get extracted from a quarry in Hattiban, in the south of Lalitpur. The quarry extends through the Chandragiri hills from Makwanpur district to the Godavari. 

Moreover, Limestone is a favorite among sculptors in Kathmandu. Black, hard, and crack-free are the best stones for the sculpting process. The artform is generally practiced and transferred from father to son and other members of the family. 

However, the gradual surge in stone sculpture in Nepal started in the ’90s as Nepal opened up to globalization. The tourism industry helped the growth of the stone sculpting business in Nepal. After completion, these sculptures get placed in temples and shrines. Many small and large stone sculptures are also exported to foreign countries.

The Final Say

Stone sculpture is an incredible art form in Nepal. It requires great study and practice to carve immaculate designs and structures on a stone. The ancient settlements of Kathmandu valley are full of medieval stone sculptures. You can experience this spectacular artistry in Nepal.

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