Ancient scripts and art forms are a gateway to history and culture — there’s so much to learn from them about a place and its people that I wonder why we don’t spend more time, energy, and resources on preserving them by learning them. On my recent visit to Nepal, I had the opportunity to attend two interesting workshops: one, to learn Ranjana Lipi – the ancient script of the Newars, and the other, on Paubha painting – a traditional religious painting technique of the Newars. Using one’s hands to create something is an intimate and meditative process, as I discovered while learning pottery in the Himalayas, but Ranjana Lipi and Paubha painting also require razor-sharp focus and concentration.
The Ancient Script of the Newars
Ranjana Lipi is an ancient script dating back to the 11th century and is used by the Newar people to write Sanskrit and Nepalbhasa. It is also used by Tibetan Buddhists (known as Lanydza in Tibet) and is considered to be the standard Nepali calligraphic script. Although it looks similar to Devanagari, it is quite different.
The workshop I attended was organized by the Community Homestay Network at Traditional Stay in Patan and was conducted by two members of the Kirtipur Community, Buddhilal Maharjan ji and Gyan Maharjan ji. We were greeted with Sagun, a traditional Newari drink called Aila (liquor made of rice, grains, and millet) and Samay Baji (an assortment of traditional Newari snacks that included dried fish, beaten rice, pickle, and jerry) – typically offered to guests during festivals, weddings, and any celebration that involves a feast.
Using bamboo pens, ink, and canvas paper, we learned how to write the main alphabets in Ranjana Lipi. It was easier for those familiar with Devanagari, though writing a calligraphic script like Ranjana Lipi for the first time with a bamboo pen was no easy feat. After getting a grasp of the alphabets, we proceeded to practice writing a word of our choice.
There’s only so much one can learn about a new language and script in a few hours, but I enjoyed every bit of the workshop. I hardly paint or write by hand these days, so using my fingers for something other than writing in English felt extremely invigorating.
You can read more about Ranjana Lipi here.
A Traditional Art Form of the Newars
Paubha painting is a traditional religious painting style practiced by the Newari people of Nepal. It is similar to Buddhist Thangka painting and portrays a mix of Hindu and Buddhist mythological characters and scenes replete with deities, mandalas, and monuments.
I attended a workshop organized by the Community Homestay Network at Narshing Homestay in Patan and was taught by Ujay Bajracharya, a renowned Paubha artist. He explained the history and nuances of the art form (covered extensively in his book ‘Paubha: Where the Divinities Reside’) and was kind enough to spend a few hours teaching me the basics while answering my mother’s questions about the art form.
He gave me a stenciled drawing of ‘Om’ in Ranjana Lipi on a thin piece of canvas cloth taped to a wooden board. Using this as my base, I had to paint it with poster colors. I would’ve liked to learn more, especially making the base drawing itself, but given the limited time we had at hand, it made sense to focus on learning about the colors and strokes.
Paubha painting is treated as a form of meditation by its practitioners, and mastering the pattern of even a single leaf, wave, or cloud can take weeks. The paintings are considered to be an offering to God and serious artists don’t eat or drink anything until their work is complete. Like in the case of other forms of meditation, they observe (and regulate) their breath while painting — the calmer they are, the sharper their focus. Even though I only got a taste of the art form, I enjoyed holding a brush and painting with colors – something I haven’t done in a long time.
You can read more about Paubha painting here.
For more details about my Nepal trip, read issue #19 of my newsletter.