Buddhism Buddhist Art and Architecture in Nepal
Erberto Lo Bue
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0079


The earliest evidence of the presence of Buddhism in the Nepal Valley belongs to the 5th century. According to inscriptions of the Licchavi dynasty, the Buddhist ruler Vrsadeva (fl. c. 400 CE) founded a monastery at Svayambhu. Most Licchavi foundations have disappeared, but a few, such as the Gum monastery near Sankhu, have survived. The Buddhist pantheon in Nepal is obviously related to the Indian tradition, in which Buddhism and Hinduism coexisted and influenced each other through many centuries. Although the sophisticated artistic production in the Nepal Valley represents to some extent the continuation of the aesthetics prevailing in India under the Gupta, Pâla, and Sena dynasties, the art and architecture of its original inhabitants, the Newars, developed in a unique way. Even after their Buddhist tradition was cut off from its sources following the destruction of all Indian monastic universities by the 13th century, Newar artists continued to produce images for Buddhists not only in Nepal, but also in other countries, particularly Tibet. At least two Buddhist traditions and related styles may be distinguished in Nepal: the Newar ones of the Nepal Valley, where Buddhism followed its own local development; and the Tibetan ones, in areas inhabited by people of Tibetan stock and language, such as Lo (Mustang) and Dölpo, and in the Nepal Valley itself, where the number of Tibetan monasteries has increased significantly since the 1960s. That accounts for iconographic and stylistic differences in images produced even by the same artist, who traditionally can adapt easily to the requests of his client. The traditional style of architecture characterizing most of the 363 monasteries in the Nepal Valley, the earliest ones dating to the Licchavi dynasty, may be traced to Buddhist monastic structures such as those found at Sanchi, Ajanta, and Ellora, representing stone versions of now-lost Indian wooden architecture, but at the same time prototypes of the brick and wood monasteries of the Nepal Valley. Newar monasteries are characterized by three essential elements: the main shrine, a small stupa in the middle of the courtyard, and a tantric temple above the shrine. Their courtyards are surrounded by rooms that do not necessarily conform in their function to their Indian models, since, following the decline of Buddhism in the Nepal Valley, they have sometimes turned into residential buildings. Another feature deriving from Indian architecture is the tòrana, originally a decorated arch leading to a shrine, which in the Nepal Valley turned into a semicircular panel placed above the doors of shrines or gates.

General Overviews

There are no general overviews of Nepalese Buddhist art and architecture, both subjects being covered in works dealing also with Hindu art and architecture in Nepal. The first significant study of the art and sculpture of the Nepal Valley was produced by Pratapaditya Pal (Pal 1974, cited under Sculpture, and Pal 1978, cited under Painting), who has since published a series of catalogues on the subject, one of them being devoted exclusively to Newar art (Pal 1985, cited under Collections and Exhibitions). Hutt, et al. 1994 provides an introduction to the art and architecture of the Nepal Valley, devoting sections of this work to Buddhist sites. Also, Slusser 1982 deals with Newar Buddhist art and architecture, placing them in their cultural and historical context. Buddhist monasteries and stupas are surveyed in Locke 1985 and Gutschow 1997 (both cited under Architecture), whereas an inventory of sites and monuments in the Nepal Valley in the early 1970s was edited by Pruscha (Pruscha 1975). The only serious guide recording Buddhist as well as Hindu sites and temples all over Nepal is written in French (Rouvre 1975). Newar artists have been active not only in the Nepal Valley, but also in other parts of the Himalayas such as Lo (Mustang), Ladakh, and Bhutan (Lo Bue 1985), and beyond, from Tibet (Lo Bue 1988) to China (Jing 1994). However, the finest wall paintings in Nepal are found in the culturally Tibetan former kingdom of Mustang (Lo Bue 2010).

  • Hutt, Michael, David N. Gellner, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute. Nepal. A Guide to the Art and Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley. Gartmore, UK: Kiscadale, 1994.

    An introduction to Newar art and architecture dealing also with Buddhist sites and images in the Nepal Valley, it is intended for a general readership. It includes pictures, some of them in color; maps and drawings; and, being based on authoritative sources, it is useful for students and travelers alike.

  • Jing, Anning. “The Portraits of Khubilai Khan and Chabi by Anige (1245–1306), a Nepali Artist at the Yuan Court.” Artibus Asiae 54.1–2 (1994): 40–86.

    DOI: 10.2307/3250079

    This essay affords much more than what is suggested by its title, since it documents the life story of the great Newar sculptor, painter, and architect Anige, exemplifying the important role played by the Buddhist artists of the Nepal Valley well beyond the Himalayas.

  • Lo Bue, Erberto F. “The Newar Artists of the Nepal Valley: A Historical Account of Their Activities in Neighbouring Areas with Particular Reference to Tibet.” Oriental Art 31.3 (1985): 262–277.

    This essay, published in two parts, represents a first attempt to record the role played by sculptors and painters from the Nepal Valley in the production of images for Buddhist clients and monastic institutions in other Himalayan areas as well as Tibet and India from the 8th to the 20th century. Part 2 in Oriental Art 31.4 (1986): 409–420.

  • Lo Bue, Erberto F. “Cultural Exchange and Social Interaction between Tibetans and Newars from the Seventh to the Twentieth Century.” International Folklore Review 6 (1988): 86–114.

    This essay deals with the relationship between Buddhist Newars and Tibetans both in Tibet and in the Nepal Valley, with particular reference to the Newars’ organization in Tibet and to their production of Buddhist images for Tibetan clients and institutions (pp. 91–110).

  • Lo Bue, Erberto F. Wonders of Lo: The Artistic Heritage of Mustang. Mumbai: Marg, 2010.

    This monograph is devoted to Buddhist art and architecture in the culturally Tibetan former kingdom of Mustang, which maintained a degree of autonomy even after its inclusion in the Gorkha kingdom. Its authors deal with the most important and some hitherto unpublished sites in the region, with a special emphasis on painting.

  • Macdonald, Alexander W., and Anne Vergati Stahl. Newar Art: Nepalese Art during the Malla Period. Warminster, UK: Aris & Phillips, 1979.

    This survey deals with Newar cultural history, architecture, and painting during the Malla dynasties (1200–1768). It includes a section on the Newar pantheon (pp. 38–60), which it illustrates with pictures of Hindu as well as Buddhist statues, one on Buddhist architecture (pp. 71–82), and a chapter on painting (pp. 119–150), some of it Buddhist.

  • Pruscha, Carl, ed. Kathmandu Valley: The Preservation of Physical Environment and Cultural Heritage: Protective Inventory. 2 vols. Vienna: Anton Schroll, 1975.

    This inventory was meant to be a tool for the Nepalese government to preserve the cultural heritage and physical environment of the Nepal Valley. Although it failed in its purpose, it affords black-and-white pictures of and basic information on scores of Hindu and Buddhist sites all over the valley as they were in the early 1970s.

  • Rouvre, Évrard de. Népal. Paris: Robur, 1975.

    This French travel guide, handy, conveniently arranged in alphabetical order, and based on authoritative sources, describes and illustrates in color the most important sites in Nepal, including Buddhist ones.

  • Slusser, Mary Shepherd. Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

    Because of the detailed treatment of its variously related subjects, this exhaustive and clearly written study, based on many references to scientific publications and indigenous sources, provides invaluable information on the Nepal Valley, including Buddhist art and architecture, and its reading is compulsory for a serious approach to those subjects.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.