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Nepali Sculpture History and Future

Nepali sculpture has been created using the lost wax casting method since the 10th century. Unfortunately, this traditional method has come under pressure from low cost manufacturers using mass reproduced replicas. However, in Nepal the traditional art form has remained as their national heritage. As a result, the lost wax sculpting method is still used to create the world’s best Buddhist sculpture.

Guarded Secrets of Nepali Sculpture

High quality cast metal artwork is very a complex art form. Indeed, it requires a lot of skill and patience. As a result, the tradition was mastered by a few families and kept as a closely guarded secret. Therefore, over the centuries these castes have passed on their knowledge to descendants who carry on the family name and tradition.

Indeed, the lost wax sculpting method has remained a closely guarded secret in Nepal. However, in modern times some outsiders have acquired knowledge of the traditional method. Nonetheless, the impeccable worldwide reputation of these three families remains intact and they are the renown masters of their craft.

The metal working descendants of these three families are located in the southeast portion of the Kathmandu Valley. Additionally, they are primarily based in the ancient city of Patan (now known as Lalitpur Metropolitan City). As a result, Patan has become the production center for traditional sculptures. Indeed, all Nepali sculptures require a government certification from the department of archeology before they can be exported.

Buy Authentic Nepali Sculpture

15" Nepali Green Tara Sculpture
Hand Crafted Nepali Green Tara Sculpture created in Patan, Nepal.

Who Are the Three Family Castes?

The family castes in Nepal are identified equally by name and also by the sculpting methods they have perfected. Indeed, their secrets and techniques for statue creation have been fiercely guarded within the caste. As a result, the associations of the family caste have been passed down for many centuries and they remain intact.

Tamrakar Caste

The word Tamrakar is Sanskrit in origin and it can be broken down into 2 parts. Tamra means copper and aakar means shape or to give shape to. Therefore, the Tamrakar are historically a caste of coppersmiths and other metal casters found in both Nepal and India.

In Nepal, the Tamrakars are found in the Kathmandu Valley among the Newar community. Additionally, the Nepali Tamrakar caste works primarily with bronze and brass to create handmade Nepali sculptures. Furthermore, the Tamrakars are renown for hand working their metal sculpture which is very time consuming.

Shakya Caste

The word Shakya is thought to be derived from the Sanskrit word Sakya which means “the one who is capable”. Additionally, the history of the Shakya caste dates back to the Vedic age and predates the birth of Gautama Buddha. Indeed, the Buddha was born into the Shakya Kingdom in Northern India (modern day Lumbini, Nepal) – this makes the Shakya caste in Nepal direct descendants of the historical Buddha.

Swarnakar Caste

The Swarnakar are a Hindu caste of goldsmiths from India and Nepal. As a result, a unique characteristic about the Swarnakar is that they work primarily with gold Nepali sculptures and other statue themes. Unfortunately, there was limited information available about the Swarnakar lineage in Nepal.

Nepali Namgyalma Statue, Tibetan Long Life Deity

The “Lost Wax” Metal Casting Technique

Metal casting is the process of pouring hot liquid metal into a predefined cast. When it cools, it takes the shape of the cast and then can be broken out to reveal the desired shape. The next step is to polish the metal and any blemishes can be worked out if necessary.

The method used by the three Nepali castes is called the “lost wax method”. There is significant skill involved because a perfect wax replica of the Buddhist deity must be created beforehand.

The next step is to create a clay mold around the delicate wax replica and then melt out the wax. Once the wax is removed, hot molten metal is poured into the mold and allowed to cool. After the metal has cooled sufficiently, the mold can be removed.  

Common metals used for Nepali Buddha statues include brass, copper, bronze and also precious metals. However, in liquid form the metal is very malleable. Therefore, it is much easier to shape than stone or wood. Indeed, the lost wax method allows for intricate details to be included in sculpture which otherwise would not be possible. As a result, metal casting has been the predominant method used by metal sculptors for thousands of years. In fact, there have been cast metal artifacts found that have been dated to as early as 4500 BCE!

Fire Gilded Nepali Sculptures

The Shakya caste creates Nepali sculpture using copper alloy as a base material. Additionally, the statues are typically gilded with 24 karat gold using the traditional fire gilding method. This fire gilding method requires that a mixture of mercury and 18K gold are used to coat the statue surface. Next, using a torch, extreme heat is evenly applied to the surface of the statue. As a result, the mercury evaporates along with the impurities in the gold – the statue is left with a 24K pure gold finish.

Nepali sculptures are valued mainly from their religious perspectives. Indeed, a master artisan can complete a fully gilded Nepali sculpture with a surprisingly small amount of gold, but the aesthetic benefits are immense and long lasting.

Indeed, a 24K gold gilded Nepali sculpture is not cost prohibitive and it enhances the spiritual inspiration devotees will receive. Additionally, 24K gold gilded statues will never tarnish and indefinitely retain their brilliant golden luster.

Brilliant Golden Luster

Fully Gilded Tantric Vajrayogini sculpture in Naro Kacho form.

The 24K gold finish can have a high brilliance or it can be given a low luster which appears antiquated. Our artisans are predominantly from the Shakya caste and their Nepali sculptures are some of the best gold gilded statues in the world.

The Uncertain Future of Nepali Sculpture

Several decades ago the winds of change began to lower the standards used in creating Nepali sculpture. Unfortunately, in modern times most of the sculptures are now purchased by tourists instead of the Tibetan monasteries and Buddhist practitioners. As a result, the quality and diversity in statue sophistication has been drastically simplified.

Furthermore, original handmade Nepali sculptures are being replaced by cheap reproductions made in India. Indian Buddha statues are mass reproduced with reusable molds to satisfy the tourist market. As a result, if the Nepali manufacturing technique is not cost effective it will become obsolete. Fortunately, for now, the market for high quality Nepali sculpture still exists. However, it is getting increasingly difficult for traditional metal workers to stay in business and we must find new ways to promote Nepali sculpture.

Promotion of World Class Nepali Sculpture

We offer a wide variety of world class Nepali sculptures for sale in our gallery. Additionally, all of the statues were hand crafted using the traditional lost wax sculpting method. As a result, you have the opportunity to purchase a wonderful Buddhist sculpture that was made in the same way that is described in this post. Please enjoy browsing our wide selection of Nepali artwork. If you have suggestions on how to best promote Nepali sculpture, please contact me.