The Shakya Clan, Nepal's Master Metallurgical Craftsmen

The Buddhist Channel, 3 June 2023

Kathmandu, Nepal -- The ancient metallurgical arts of Nepal have gained widespread recognition for their historical significance and fine craftsmanship. Despite common complaints that Nepal's contemporary art no longer supports its traditional rituals and festivals, the art of repoussé (ornamented metalwork) in particular, continues to thrive. These highly professional craftsmen have demonstrated their class in making diverse forms of metallurgy artifacts, which Nepal is famous for.

Sakyamuni Buddha, Karmaraj monastery, Svayambhu, Nepal,
Height 3.66 m., copper repoussé, c. 1955-57 by Kuber Singh Shakya

Among the practitioners of repoussé, Kuber Singh Shakya stands as one of Nepal's greatest metallurgical craftsmen. His remarkable creations have sanctified not only the Nepali nation but also various surrounding countries.

Born in the Oku-bahal and Mahabauddha temple quarter of Patan (a.k.a Lalitpur) in 1881, Kuber Singh belonged to the Newar community, which has a lineage of scholars and artists tracing back to Abhaya Raj Shakya, the founder of the renowned Mahabauddha temple around 1564.

Repoussé image of Maitreya, Tongsa Dzong, Bhutan. Height approximately 3 meters.
Picture by Dorji Wangchuk.>>

Within this lineage, the Malla kings of Patan selected Kuber Singh's family to be their royal artisans specializing in repoussé. Kuber Singh received his training in his father's workshop, Bhima Narasimha Shakya, who was also a highly regarded artist. However, due to his religious duties as the thakali (elder) of Oku-bahal (one of the best-known Buddhist places of worship in Patan), Bhima Narasimha Shakya eventually abandoned the craft, passing it on to his son.

Kuber Singh quickly rose to prominence as the most sought-after artist in repoussé. He was commissioned to decorate and provide images and ritual objects for prestigious Hindu and Buddhist temples in the Kathmandu Valley, as well as Buddhist monasteries in Nepal's northern borderlands and far-off regions such as Ladakh, Tibet, and Bhutan.

His fame primarily stemmed from his creation of large and at times, monumental Buddhist sculptures using repoussé techniques. One notable example is his final masterpiece, a seated gilt-copper image of Sakyamuni Buddha over three meters in height, which can be found in the Karmaraja monastery adjacent to the Svayambhu stupa.

These monumental repoussé sculptures, including the aforementioned Buddha image, involved complex and multi-part constructions expertly joined together with rivets. They were meticulously fabricated on-site, taking up to three years to complete. Another significant achievement was the production of four multipart gilt-copper repoussé sculptures for the Dharmacakra monastery on Mañjusri hill, which predated the monumental Buddha by more than a decade.

Around the mid-1930s, Kuber Singh was commissioned by the King of Bhutan to create a three-meter-high repoussé image of Maitreya, the future Buddha. This masterpiece, enshrined in the royal chapel, was crafted in his workshop in Patan and subsequently shipped to Tongsa Dzong in Central Bhutan. An existing preliminary drawing showcases the enthroned Maitreya with pendant legs.

<< Preparatory drawing by Kuber Singh Shakya, the three-meter-high repoussé image of Maitreya commissioned by the king of Bhutan in the mid-1930s. The intersecting straight red lines are the iconometric diagram underlying the drawing. Handmade daphne paper, black ink, red jeweler's powder (geru).
320 x 195 cm.

Assembling the enormous multipart, gilt-copper repoussé image required the use of the street in front of the workshop due to its immense size. After its completion around 1938-39, the disassembled Maitreya image was transported to Bhutan using numerous pack baskets carried by Nepalese porters.

It is worth noting that although Kuber Singh frequently traveled to distant places in Nepal and Tibet, it is intriguing that he did not personally journey to Bhutan to construct the colossal Maitreya image on-site. Instead, he chose to construct it in his hometown Patan, leaving the final assembly and gilding to unfamiliar individuals.

His son, Rudra Raj, explains that this decision was influenced by the warning from the king's emissary, known as the "Dukpa lama," who advised Kuber to avoid setting foot in Bhutan out of fear that the king would never release him. The concern was that the king would keep him as a permanent resident artist and detain him within the court. Thus, despite the challenges posed by constructing the Maitreya from a distance, Kuber deemed it wise to remain in the safety of his homeland.

This account recalls the tales often heard in Nepal about exceptionally skilled sculptures, with rumors suggesting that petty kings would harm the sculptor to prevent them from creating comparable works for rival courts.

It is heartening to note that the art of repoussé craftsmanship is being kept alive within Kuber Singh's family. Starting with his father, Bhima Narasimha, this generational legacy forms an unbroken lineage deeply rooted in Nepal's ancient history.

This rich heritage continued to thrive under the skillful guidance of Kuber's grandson, Raj Kumar (1967-2021), who unfortunately died of Covid-related complications in June at age 54. His was renowned for leading a team of a team of 19 Nepalis, 30 Bengalis and eight Bhutanese to construct a 49m and 255 ton statue of the Buddhist guru, Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche in Lhuntse, Bhutan. The Padmasambhava statue was crafted using a repoussé metalwork technique similarly done for the Statue of Liberty in New York.

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