Wood Carving Nepal: Keeping Rich Tradition Alive

wood carving nepal

Wood Carving is an act of using various tools such as a knife, chisel, and gauge to create an artwork or sculpture. Nepal has a rich history of wood carving with woodcarvers producing magnificent work of arts. The medieval Durbar Squares and temples of Kathmandu valley have incredible wooden artworks. 

Durbar Square Located in Patan: Source

There are beautiful designs and patterns in the wooden doors and windows of these medieval buildings. You can also observe the beautiful wooden arts in the old settlements of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur. The beautiful Aankhi Jhyal”, the traditional wooden carved window is an integral part of the Newari architecture.  

Moreover, a special community within the Newar ethnic group have a long history of producing these special arts and sculptures made from wood. The ancient tradition gets passed from one generation to another. However, these days many people from different communities get involved in this art form. 

Nowadays, these artworks have great commercial value and are even exported to foreign countries. Read further to know more about the wood carving in Nepal along with other important information. 

History of Wood Carving in Nepal 

The Malla period (13th to 18th century) and Licchavi period before that are the golden era for the cultural renaissance in Nepal. During this period, wood carving and wooden architecture grew in prominence. The ancient cities of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur have incredible wooden buildings, temples, and palaces. 

The Indresvara Mahadeva temple in Panauti that dates back to 1396 is the oldest wood carving in Nepal. There are beautiful, old wood carvings in the temple that are still intact due to the outstanding conservation efforts. A Chinese traveler Wang Hsuan Tsang (643 AD) has mentioned the beautiful woodcrafts, and sculptures of the Licchavi period (300-879 AD). 

Moreover, the architectural site of Kasthamandap near Hanuman Dhoka was another incredible temple made of a single timber wood. Built around 1143 Bikram Sambat as a shelter home for travelers in the trade route. The traditional architecture included doors, windows, and cornices that were beautifully carved in incredible geometrical, floral, and animal forms. 

Furthermore, the heavy wooden framework was an essential part of the structure in Newari architecture. Besides that, the beams, struts, and pillars formed a load distribution and roof support. The wooden windows and doors were also used for ornamentation. The local community have successfully passed the traditional art form to younger generations keeping it alive and well.

Also Read: Stone Sculpture: An Incredible Art of Carving Gods

The Symbolism in the Wood Carvings of Nepal

Wood Carvings of Nepal are generally based on Holy Scriptures and mythical structures of Buddhism or Hinduism. You will find the deities, religious symbols, demons, animals, and others woven in an intricate pattern. These wood carvings are also found in the wooden beams of roof structures in an erotic form. 

Even in the Newar community, there is a special caste of people that work specifically in carving these arts. The art has a specific design and patterns, and thus requires incredible craftsmanship. Artists use natural agents and neither nails or glue. Overall, the religious symbolism in these wooden sculptures is significant.

The Wood Carving Process

A woodcarver starts the process by selecting a wood that is closest to the shape and size of the desired figure. The artists might also use several pieces of woods to join and create the figure of the required size. The next step is the general shaping process using gouges. The gouge is a curved blade which helps the sculpture to smoothly remove large portions of wood. 

A chisel is a similar tool with a flat cross-section as opposed to the curved cross-section of a gouge. A knife and a saw get used to chop large pieces. Woodcutters never against the grain and only carve either across or with the grain of the wood. After the general shape gets formed, a variety of tools get used to create designs. 

A “veiner” or “flutter” makes deep gouges into the surface, and a “v-tool” makes fine lines or decorative cuts. After the finer details get added, the wood carving of the surface gets complete. “Rasps” with the surface of pointed teeth are flat-bladed tools. “Rifflers” are double-ended tools to create folds or crevasses. 

The finer polishing gets done through abrasive paper. The artist first uses a large-grained paper with a rougher surface and then finer grained paper that can make the surface slick. After the carving gets complete, natural oils made from walnut or linseed oil get used to color the sculpture.

 Oil protects the wood from dirt and moisture, which leads to a sheen, and by reflecting light the fine details of the sculpture. A layer of wax will protect the wood and give the sculpture a soft lustrous sheen. Finally, the wood carving process gets completed and the sculpture is ready for display or sell.

The State of Wood Carvings of Nepal

Historically Dhunsi or Chasi, (meaning strong as a tiger in Newari) was generally used as the raw material for wood carving. Sal, agrath, and Chapa wood are the common variety of wood used in Kathmandu Valley these days. Newari woodcarvers belong to the caste of Shilpakar. The Newari craftsmen use the reference of medieval texts for specialized instructions for the craft of the wood carving. 

Moreover, these Shilpakar and Kaisthakar families run family wood carving businesses. Wood Carvings is still very much alive in the Newar community. The younger generation takes more than 10 years to learn and perfect their carving skills. The traditional tools and process of wood carvings has remained intact for centuries. 

However, in the modern times, the true symbolism of the Newari art is disappearing or getting combined with other Asian cultures. Families have also turned into commercial art. This led to the creation of different wooden furnitures and souvenirs based on the art. These wooden carvings are also one of the biggest exports of Nepal. Wood carvings of Nepal have reached all over the world.

The Final Say

Wood carving in Nepal is an incredible art form that produces wooden sculptures and artworks. The history of ancient wooden arts and architecture in the country goes back to the Malla and Lichavi period. The historical Durbar palaces and temples of the Kathmandu Valley have beautiful wooden designs. 

Moreover, the wooden doors and windows of these medieval buildings are of historical significance. Family-run industries in Kathmandu valley keep alive the tradition of wood carving. These wooden carved sculptures are now sold commercially as well and even exported to foreign countries. 

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