Pauba – An Ancient Newari Tradition

With its exact origins lost in the mists of time, pauba painting is a traditional art form of Nepal’s Newari people that is believed to date back to the 3rd century, and is still practiced today. The name “pauba” is believed to be taken from the Sanskrit word describing the depiction of gods and goddesses, specifically on a flat form. This is an apt description of this ancient form of art which not only draws on the artist’s skill, but on his spiritual state as well. Producing a pauba involves more than just putting a brush to canvas, as the completed work is displayed on private altars, in monasteries and in temples, being used as an aid to meditation.

The pauba shastra (a Sanskit term denoting a set of rules) calls for the artist to have certain qualities, including being humble, patient, pious, and benevolent, as well as being devoted to his craft. The Bajracharya (Newari priest) sets the time for producing a pauba and starts the process by a tradition known as “Hasta Puja” – a blessing of the artist’s hands and the tools he will use. From this time on, the painter must fast, consume only vegetarian food, and remain holy, which includes observing brahamacharya – a state of celibacy. Following a prayer and meditation to the deities, the painter will continue his work in isolation in a tranquil setting. The completed painting is consecrated by the Bajracharya, thereby giving the deity life.

Although there are no records to prove who developed this unique artwork, researchers believe that Newari artists developed pauba painting. A similar style of painting can be found in Tibet and parts of Nepal, referred to as “thangka”. Thangka paintings have become somewhat commercialized, and it is only the discerning collector who appreciates the effort that goes into a genuine pauba artwork. There was a time when worshippers would bring their paubas, many of which are very old, to Kathmandu valley for communal gatherings, however, this traditional practice has been done away with due to the threat of theft prompted by demand from international collectors.

In the past, paubas would only be seen and worshiped by the owner for whom it was made, and would not be seen by strangers. This practice has fallen away, and paubas can be seen in temples and museums accessed by the general public. One of the oldest surviving examples of a pauba, that of Ratna Sambhav, can be seen at the Los Angeles County Museum. Fortunately, this ancient art form is being continued by painters dedicated to producing genuine paubas.