Wood Carving in Nepal

Wood carving is an ancient art form that has been practiced for centuries in Nepal. It is a unique craft that has been passed down from generation to generation and is still highly valued today. In this article, we will explore the history, significance, and techniques of wood carving in Nepal.

Nepal boasts a long-standing tradition of wood carving, where artisans utilize tools like chisels, knives, and gauges to sculpt intricate artworks and sculptures from wood. The country’s rich cultural heritage is reflected in the exquisite masterpieces crafted by skilled Nepali wood carvers, with the medieval Durbar Squares and temples of Kathmandu Valley displaying some of the finest examples of wooden artistry.

Wood carved window, Bhaktapur
Wood carved window, Bhaktapur

The medieval buildings of Nepal’s Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur are adorned with stunning designs and patterns carved into the wooden doors and windows. These old settlements are a testament to the skill and craftsmanship of Nepali wood carvers, who have created breathtaking works of art that have stood the test of time. One such masterpiece is the “Aankhi Jhyal“, a traditional wooden carved window that is an essential component of Newari architecture.

History of Wood Carving in Nepal:

Wood carving has been an integral part of Nepali culture for over a thousand years. It has been used to create intricate and beautiful works of art for religious, ceremonial, and decorative purposes. The earliest known examples of Nepali wood carving can be found in the temples and palaces of the Kathmandu Valley, which date back to the 12th century.

During the Malla period (13th to 18th century) and the preceding Licchavi period, Nepal experienced a cultural renaissance that elevated wood carving and wooden architecture to great heights. The ancient cities of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur bear witness to this golden era through their stunning wooden buildings, temples, and palaces.

Among these treasures is the Indresvara Mahadeva temple in Panauti, believed to be Nepal’s oldest surviving wood carving dating back to 1396. Thanks to outstanding conservation efforts, the temple’s beautiful old wood carvings remain intact. In fact, even the Chinese traveler Wang Hsuan Tsang (643 AD) made mention of the Licchavi period’s (300-879 AD) exquisite woodcrafts and sculptures.

Wood carved decoration of the Kumari house, Basantapur
Wood carved decoration of the Kumari house, Basantapur

Another incredible example of wooden architecture is the Kasthamandap temple near Hanuman Dhoka. Built around 1143 Bikram Sambat as a shelter home for traders along the trade route, was constructed entirely out of a single timber wood. The traditional architecture included exquisitely carved doors, windows, and cornices featuring mesmerizing geometrical, floral, and animal designs.

The heavy wooden framework of the structure was an essential part of Newari architecture, with beams, struts, and pillars forming a load distribution and roof support. Wooden windows and doors were also used for ornamentation, further showcasing the skill and creativity of Nepali wood carvers. Fortunately, the local community has successfully passed down this traditional art form to younger generations, keeping it alive and thriving.

Significance of Wood Carving in Nepali Culture:

Wood carving holds a special place in Nepali culture. It is often used to create sacred objects such as prayer wheels, masks, and statues of deities. These objects are considered to be imbued with spiritual power and are used in daily rituals and ceremonies. Wood carving is also used for decorative purposes, such as in the intricate carvings found on the windows and doors of traditional Nepali architecture.

Nepalese wood carvings typically draw inspiration from the Holy Scriptures and mythical structures of Buddhism or Hinduism. Intricately woven patterns of deities, religious symbols, demons, animals, and other elements adorn these wooden artworks. Interestingly, some of these carvings even take on an erotic form, as seen in the wooden beams of roof structures.

Wood carved peacock window, Bhaktapur
Wood carved peacock window, Bhaktapur

In the Newar community, there is a specialized caste of people who dedicate their craft to carving these intricate designs. The art of wood carving in Nepal demands incredible craftsmanship, with the use of natural agents and the absence of nails or glue. The result is a stunning work of art that reflects the rich cultural and religious symbolism that is deeply ingrained in Nepali traditions.

Techniques of Wood Carving in Nepal:

The techniques used in Nepali wood carving are highly specialized and require years of training and practice to master. The most common tools used in wood carving include chisels, gouges, and knives. These tools are used to carefully remove layers of wood, creating intricate designs and patterns. The most skilled wood carvers can create incredibly detailed and lifelike sculptures, often depicting religious figures and scenes from Nepali mythology.

To begin the process of wood carving, the artist must carefully select a wood that closely matches the desired shape and size of the final figure. In some cases, multiple pieces of wood may need to be joined to create the desired size. Next, the artist uses gouges, which are curved blades, to shape the wood by removing large portions of the material.

One of the windows in Basantapur
One of the windows in Basantapur

A chisel, which has a flat cross-section, is also used to remove wood, along with a knife and saw for chopping larger pieces. Wood is never carved against the grain, only across or with it. Once the general shape is formed, a variety of tools are used to create intricate designs.

A “Veiner” or “Flutter” tool creates deep gouges, while a “v-tool” makes fine lines or decorative cuts. After the finer details are added, the wood carving is completed by smoothing the surface with rasps, which are flat-bladed tools with pointed teeth, and rifflers, which are double-ended tools used to create folds or crevasses.

The surface is then polished using abrasive paper, starting with a rougher surface and progressing to a finer grain to create a smooth finish. Finally, the sculpture is colored using natural oils such as walnut or linseed oil, which not only add color but also protect the wood from dirt and moisture. A layer of wax can also be applied to protect the wood and add a lustrous sheen. With this, the wood carving process is complete, and the sculpture is ready for display or sale.

Conclusion:

Wood carving is a cherished art form in Nepal, and is an important part of the country’s cultural heritage. The intricate and beautiful carvings found throughout Nepal are a testament to the skill and dedication of its craftsmen. Whether used for religious or decorative purposes, wood carving remains an important part of Nepali culture, and a true treasure of the country.


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Sailendra Bhatta

An adventurer, writer, and Founder of Nepal Travel Vibes.

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