April 5, 2015 , by Sanyukta Shrestha, 1 Comment
If you have been to Kathmandu, you must have asked yourself, “Why these paintings of parrots and eyes around the front doors?” Well, I did that too. But then, I needed my answers, really!

The Uniqueness
Although the city of Kathmandu boasts of some 2000 years long history, it was opened to rest of the world only 65 years ago. During the 2 centuries of isolation, the culture of Newars, believed to have originated around 300 BC, flourished in and around the valley. Today, their cultural heritage forms a part of the proud collection of almost every museum of the world. Particularly noted for their mastery in art, Newars create artwork in almost everything and everywhere, and the building of their residence is no exception. Much has been written about the ritual act of drawing manda: or madala on the floor but their door art is yet to be studied in depth.

Unlike the floor art of manda:, or even the Indian counterpart of Rangoli or Kolam, geometrical patterns do not form the basis of door art. While the practice of door art is on rapid decline following the last two decades of urbanization, it is definitely one of the unique features of Nepali culture.


. HiranyaVarna MahaaVihaar
Caa-Cin (read ‘Chaa-Chin’)

Artwork around the front door is called ‘Caa-Cin’ (clay symbols). Also referred as ‘Anga: Kipaa’ (wall art) or even ‘Lukhaa Dvaa’ (entry gate), it is mainly associated with decoration used to welcome the new bride which also signifies the status of women in the community. It includes figures of a parrot, an eye and a kalash on either sides of the door.
Religious Connection
The idea of a sacred or honorific gateway, or a torana, is quite popular in most Hindu and Buddhist traditions in South Asia. From the stone-carved monumental gates to flowers, leaves and fruits hanging between two posts or uprights is a popular tradition in many parts of the sub-continent. They are generally linked with religious practices and help to create an auspicious atmosphere besides making the guests feel welcome.

In Nepal, while Buddhists paint Pancha Budhha on top, Hindus paint Bramha-Vishnu-Maheshwor-Ganesh-Kumar. This variation within the tradition of door art is in itself the hallmark of Nepal’s age-old religious tolerance. The artwork in Nepali doors is relatively simple, includes no elaborate design patterns and gives more freedom to the artists compared to how it is in classical painting; perhaps, due to the temporary nature of door art.


. Patan Gate
The Artists

Historically, skills were passed on from one generation to the other within the family lineage of Newars. Families involved in creating artworks were from the occupational caste called Puns or Chitrakars. According to Prof David Gellner, Newars can be divided into 64 castes; and in 1995, Gerrard Toffin estimated around 1200 (0.3% of total Newars) as Chitrakars in Kathmandu. Toffin further identified some 20 different occasions in which Chitrakars were supposed to provide their artistic services.
Nepalese artists have been heavily involved in creating art for centuries. However, least importance was given to documentation and dissemination. Hence the present situation where neither the practitioners are able to explain anything clearly, nor the consumers of art can appreciate in its essence. Even when the clients commission for door art, they have it around their doors as a ritual requirement without necessarily knowing its inherent meaning.
The Missing Knowledge
Struck by the lack of available literature on parrot-eye-kalash, I decided to set off for Nepal even in the much awaited British summer of 2013. There, I found myself knocking the doors of every other traditional artist of commendable repute. None of those discussions were much enlightening at all.

. Door art, Patan
While veteran PremMan Chitrakar rightly noted the varying design of eyes among Buddhists (meditative) and Hindus (wide-open), master artist Gyankar Vajracharya saw the Swasti-Chi (a unique auspicious mark with which most Nepalese scriptures start) as another regular inclusion just above the parrot. Lok Chitrakar agreed that in light of no available records, there is a lot of confusion as to why these symbols are actually painted.

Culture expert Tejeshwor Babu Gongah assumed parrot as a representative of wisdom or perfection, eyes for vision and kalash for completeness and prosperity. Prof TulsiLal Singh suggested if it had any connection with the Shuka-Baakha, an imported Nepalbhasha fable involving a parrot. These were but entirely their personal interpretations based on no available records.


. H. A. Oldfield’s paintings, 1850s
It was not until I examined British surgeon Henry Oldfield’s paintings from 1850, that I found the eyes as the original symbols on the doors, and then the kalash, but parrots were nowhere to be seen. Even when I try my best to remember, either peacocks as the vehicle of Kaumaari, or swans for Brahmaayani are the only two birds making frequent appearance in classical Nepalese paintings. Parrot is hence a more recent addition.
There was no ultimate answer but something struck me on my flight back to London. People never felt the need to preserve their tradition but they were well ahead in exploiting it politically.
The Exploitation
Perhaps Nepali door art can be considered as one of the most interesting and rare phenomena in traditional art history in light of how it was exploited by the Panchayat system (1960-1990) to fulfil its undemocratic policy of "one nation, one language". Not only did it marginalise ethnic languages, it also misrepresented traditional art; the evidence of which can be seen in various public gates erected in Kathmandu.

. From left to right: New Road Gate, Tundikhel Gate and a more recent Manakamana Gate.
In an attempt to force a false patriotism, the then ruling government insensitively contaminated the profound meanings of traditional art elements with symbolic replacements like a cow, which was declared the national animal, and rhododendron, the national flower. While it effectively catered to their plan of Nepalisation, it also grossly misled the known theories of iconography. I felt like I was returning from the biggest show of insensitivity towards an ancient culture.
The Forgotten Artists of Nepal
The hitherto isolated Nepalese traditional art took its biggest turn exactly 200 years ago when BhajuMan Chitrakar was allowed to join the team of Nepalis visiting Britain for the first time ever, led by de-facto ruler Junga Bahadur Rana. Although we know very less about how photography started in Nepal, thanks to Sussane Von De Heide’s account of DirghaMan Chitrakar’s career and works, we know that the Chitrakars were expert cameramen by the late 19th century, finding themselves busy taking portraits and family photos of the Ranas.

Puns or Chitrakars who were hired at every wedding or any other occasion for their painting services, today, stay away from the Newar doors which used to be incomplete without their art. Their clients happily go for a much cheaper alternative of custom-made prints on paper. Those who gave Nepal its artistic identity have far been forgotten.

. Door art, Sankhu

Words by Sanyukta Shrestha.
Follow Sanyukta on Twitter @sanyuktashr

To read more from Sanyukta, please click here.

[1] Late Min Bahadur Shakya, Gyankar Vajracharya, PremMan Chitrakar, Lok Chitrakar, Tejeshwor Babu Gongah and Bakhat Bahadur Chitrakar for their valuable insight.
[2] Dr BalGopal Shrestha, Basu Kshitiz, Keshav Koirala, Niyukta Shrestha, Ramesh Lal Nakarmi, Dr Renuka Gurung, Sewa Bhattarai and Sunita Junu for resources.


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Categorised in: Arts, Heritage Series

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