Metal art work in Nepal begins in 17 Century AD, but there is not exact evidence when it actually started. Early works of the Licchavi era indicate that bronze was the commonly used alloy but later creations feature copper and valuable metals such as gold and silver.
Metal workers in Nepal used copper and bronze as well as other metals for casting and gilding, jewelry, making coins, and setting crystals, coral, and gems. By the tenth century, metal art is believed to have surpassed stone in quantity and demand. Metal art work in the higher hills and mountains were influenced by several civilizations that developed in the plains of the Indian Subcontinent. It was the Pala dynasty (750 - 1150) that had a great influence in areas such as Kathmandu, Nepal, during the late Lichhavi period (fourth to the ninth century). Local influences, mythologies, religions, and social requirements created a great divergence in styles and content. An example can be the Uma Maheswor (Parvati Mother Goddess and Lord Shiva) theme that entered Kathmandu from the South. Local artisans re-created the image with Uma leaning against her husband and Maheswor with his arm around her shoulder or waist. Other work that portray such slight but important changes are a Boddhisattva Avalokitesvara, a standing Vishnu, and a Shiva.
It is believed that many metal workers at this time were Buddhist monks working for their vihara religious schools. As the number of gods and goddesses increased with legends, outside influences, and new scriptures, metal workers were kept busy making more and more deities. Demand of the people, skills of artisans, and productivity of metal workers also developed. Goldsmiths decorated temples and made ornaments. The artists sometimes used a high percentage gold in bronze, e.g. Tara, seventh century, held anonymously and there seems to have been contact between metal workers of Nepal and the area that was ruled by the Guptas about this time though styles remained distinct and unique. Kathmandu Valley had begun to export metal art to Tibet by the tenth century.
The human figure seems to have reached a transition phase between 880 and 1200 according to Pratapaditya Pal, author of "The Arts of Nepal". Samples from the tenth and eleventh centuries show slender forms and long, well-shaped limbs and fingers. These features are in sharp contrast to the more voluptuous Licchavi sculptures which feature full bodies, broad hips, and full breasts. Influences that led to the fuller bodies are believed to have come in from the Mathura Kingdom. Kathmandu artists before then and after the influence wore off made human bodies that were slimmer and less prone to the voluptuous curves that particularize Mathura images.
The Sena dynasty influence entered Nepal with Nanyadeva's brief invasion in 1094. The Muslim influence came in at the end of twelfth century as they fought to conquer the Indian Subcontinent. Many artists sought refuge in the remote Kathmandu Valley and other parts of the Himalayas during these periods of uncertainty and war. They brought with them new skills, styles, and technical expertise. By the fourteenth century, metalworkers in Kathmandu seem to have come onto their own in terms of imagery, expertise, and quality in content and execution. Their clients were usually kings, traders, and priests.
Then began the transition period. The Licchavi influence was to remain throughout Nepalese art history and continue on to modern times, note modern day Boddhisattvas and Manjushree images. Towards the eleventh century, art was created according to the descriptions found in scriptures and the dictation of shamans, priests, and tantrics (example: Navatmaka Heruka, seventeenth century). Clients preferred art with religious content or representation of themselves and their rulers. This trend continued on to the eighteenth century. A short-lived trend of representing idols in a short chubby forms came and went. The trend, however, left a permanent mark among Bodhisattvas and Vajrapurushas. This trend can also be seen in Malla era sculptures of Garudas, Karttikeyak and Krishna according to Pratapaditya Pal. The period of transition saw a great increase in the use of metal ware (such as water containers, pots, plates, cups, and bowls).
At this time a caste system that organized the society into families and clans that concentrated on specific work such as metal art was introduced. Metal workers built workshops on the ground floor of their own homes, a trend which has been continued until today among some Newari families. The system of working at home, with workshops on the ground floor, and specialization in that particular artform by up to four generations at a time that the young learned techniques and metal crafting skills early on.
The period of 1200-1382 is least documented in the history of metal art in this region and some scholars refer to what went on then as a continuation of the transitional period. Arniko (1244-1306) headed for Tibet in 1260 and demonstrated his skills in metal, clay, and lacquer to the emperor of Tibet and then to the Chinese Court. He built monuments and images in bronze and his work is believed to have left an impression in China. He was asked to build a golden stupa for Kubilai Khan.
The best metal art of the period was created during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Examples include Mahalaxmi (thirteenth century bronze),Vasundhara (thirteenth to fourteenth century), Buddha Sakyamuni (fifteenth century). The Kathmandu Valley was divided into three kingdoms in 1484 after the death of Yaksa Malla. The three kingdoms were great rivals and their most successful wars were fought using art and architecture. Each kingdom tried to create metal, wood, stone, and other forms of art better than that of its competitor. Their jealousy and rivalry created beautiful monuments, palaces, and temples and artists were encouraged and rewarded to produce the finest work possible.
All traditional arts, including metal art flourished under the Mallas. As in previous centuries, metalworkers were in great demand. They needed to supply temples and vihars, the Tibet trade was excellent, they made home utensils for the Nepalese rich, and during the Malla period, due to rise of tantrism, they had to work hard to supply a new series of images. Tantric idols challenged artists to look at a new ways of imagining and deal with greater detail in expression, jewelry, and clothing.
An exceptional bronze cast of the Malla period (ending in the eighteenth century) is that of Raddhilaksmi Malla, the widowed queen ordered this statue and offered it to Changu Narayan in 1694. With the coming of the Shah dynasty, the concentration was on expansion of the Gurkha Kingdom and the men and the battles that were achieve this goal. By this time Tibet was ruled by the Buddhist religious leader, the Dalai Lama. Buddhist metalwork was being produced in Tibet and in greater numbers. Along with other cultural texts and influences, Buddhist art was flowing from Tibet into Kathmandu, opposite to what had been happening earlier.
Still the work continued, excellent work like the Garudadhvaja at Dattatreya (Bhaktapur, 1851) and Seto Bhairava at Hanuman Dhoka, (Kathmandu, 1795) were produced. Copper became more popular, gold was used to paint the faces of deities increasingly. Nepalese sculptures became almost modest in outlook, they featured simple ornaments, if any, and smooth forms. Nepalese metal art, historically, did not feature duplicates and multiple copies of a single image are rarely found. By the twentieth century, tourists began visiting the Kathmandu Valley and hundreds of copies of Shakyamuni Buddha, Shiva, and other deities were made. The trade became more and more dependent upon tourists and prices increased beyond the pocket of the people and temples. Religious institutions were seriously affected due to significant decrease in contributions. However, orders came from Japan, Koreas, and Taiwan among other countries. The spread of the Eastern philosophy in the West created a greater and more profitable market for the artists.
Metal art in Nepal
Process of making metal sculptures.