Who Makes The Best Nepali Buddha Statues?
Cast metal artwork has been used for thousands of years to create metal sculptures and metal jewelry. In Nepal the traditional art of cast metal sculpture is still practiced and the cast metal Buddha statues they produce there are considered the best in the world.
High quality cast metal artwork is very a complex art form and requires a lot of skill and patience. As a result, the tradition was mastered by a few families and then it was kept as a closely guarded secret. Therefore, over the centuries certain clans have passed on their knowledge to descendants who carry on the family name and tradition.
The Three Metal Working Families of Nepal
In Nepal the closely guarded secrets of metal cast sculpture has been held by primarily 3 families. However, in modern times outsiders have gained access to the knowledge of traditional metal artwork. Nonetheless, the impeccable worldwide reputation of these three families remains intact as the most renown masters of their craft.
The metal working descendants of these three families are primarily located in the southeast portion of the Kathmandu Valley. They are primarily based in the ancient city of Patan (now known as Lalitpur Metropolitan City).
Who Are The Three Families?
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. Thus, the Tamrakar family are 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. The Tamrakars are renown for hand working their metal sculpture and it is very time consuming (see the video below). Additionally, the Tamrakar in Nepal work with primarily bronze and brass sculpture to create cast metal Nepali Buddha statues and also other deities.
The word Shakya is thought to be derived from the Sanskrit word Sakya which means “the one who is capable”. Additionally, Shakya family history dates back to the Vedic age in approximately 1000-500 BCE. Prince Siddhartha was the founder of Buddhism and he remains the most widely recognized member of the Shakya clan. As a result, he is often referred to as Shakya-muni Buddha which makes reference to his Shakya lineage. Therefore, when someone refers to a cast metal Shakyamuni statue they are referring to the original Buddha. Unfortunately, this can be very confusing to western tourists to whom every Buddhist statue seems to be the original Buddha.
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 Buddha statues and other statue themes. Unfortunately, there was limited information available about the Swarnakar lineage in Nepal. Therefore, it may be prudent to go to Nepal to meet them firsthand.
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 preferred method of metal sculpting used by the three metal working families of Nepal is called the “lost wax method“. There is significant skill involved because a perfect wax replica of the cast metal Buddha statue must be created. As a result, the artist is initially creating a sophisticated wax sculpture.
The next step is to create a mold around the wax sculpture and then melt out the wax. Material used for the mold must be able to withstand the heat from the molten metal. It is common to use a clay based material for the mold. Once the wax is removed, hot molten metal is now poured into the mold and allowed to cool. After the metal has cooled sufficiently then the mold can be removed.
Common metals used for cast metal Nepali Buddha statues include brass, copper, bronze and precious metals. In liquid form metals are much more malleable than stone or wood. As a result, metal casting allows for intricate details to be included in sculpture which otherwise would not be possible. Therefore, metal casting has been the predominant method used by metal sculptors for thousands of years. In fact, there have been ancient sculpture artifacts found which indicate that metal casting was being used as early as 4500 BCE!
The Future of Cast Metal Nepali Buddha Statues
Several decades ago the winds of change began to lower the standards used in creating cast metal Buddha statues in Nepal. Unfortunately, for different reasons most of the statues are now purchased by tourists instead of Buddhist practitioners. As a result, the quality and diversity in statue sophistication has been drastically simplified.
In addition, the hand cast metal sculptures in the video are being replaced by cheaper versions made in India. By using reusable molds the statues can be mass produced to satisfy the tourist market. Therefore, if the traditional manufacturing technique is not cost effective then it becomes obsolete. Fortunately, for now, the market for high quality gold Nepali Buddha statues still exists in Nepal. However, it is getting increasingly difficult for the traditional metal workers to stay in business.