15-21 August 2014 #720

Written in stone

Padam Bahadur Tamang has started on a clean slate by reviving an age-old art form
Sarthak Karki

For over two millennia, Swayambu has been a holy place visited by pilgrims. Today, tourists throng the curio shops and handicraft galleries that encircle the temple on the hill. Among the puppets, thangkas, and bronzewares, one form of art stands out: carved stone tablets.

Most of Nepal’s history is literally written in stone: inscriptions hewn on slabs of granite or slate found in ancient temples and archaeological sites. The practice of carving letters and drawings on stone is centuries old, and has found a new lease on life due to the tourist industry.

Unlike sculptors who carve stone into three-dimensional figures, Padam Bahadur Tamang etches intricate designs on stone tablets, finely hewing gracious curves, sharp angles, and elaborate calligraphy. It is called ‘Sila Lekh’ (writing on stone) and is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Hindu religious motifs.

The smooth dark slate on which Tamang carves is from quarries in Dhading, and its texture makes it ideal for engraving.

Tamang starts work on a clean slate, as it were, with a small chisel and mallet, and slowly the stone comes alive with intricate details. Once the work starts, there is no margin of error, mistakes once made cannot be erased or corrected.

Tamang has been working on his craft for over a decade and started selling his work nine years ago when he opened a shop at the base of Swayambu. Three years later, he started the Top Stupa Stone Art Gallery near the temple itself and this is where he spends most of his time now.

Tamang’s wife, Man Kumari, who is a student of the art herself, believes that many forms of local and indigenous art are dying because of lack of local patronage. Luckily, sales to tourists and pilgrims keep them alive.

“It is mostly the tourists who buy our work, they are attracted by its originality and uniqueness,” Tamang says, up from a piece of slate on which he has just started to carve.

Photos: Sarthak Karki

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The stone carver, Sujata Tuladhar

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