Painting in Nepal has come a long way from religious paintings to mordern style oil painting. Nepalese paintings reveal a lot about Nepalese culture, both past and present. Besides archaeological excavations. Paintings cannot survive the passage of time as well as buildings or sculpture, and there are few examples of painting in Nepal that date from earlier than the 14th century. Fortunately, there are few fine and well-preserved articles that have survived the passage of time and thus enabled detailed research to be made. Looking briefly at the history of Nepalese paintings, it appears that ancient icons and religious paintings entered the Valley during the Lichchhav period. Lichchhavi inscriptions dating from the mid-fifth century A.D. inform us that traders, monks and Brahmans, as well as artists from neighboring areas visited the Kathmandu Valley from time to time.
Due to Kathmandu Valley , located at the crossroads of the major trade routes from India to Tibet , was the place of various contacts between these countries and consequentially became the cultural center for the exchange of icons and paintings. It is clear that pictorial art in Nepal at first developed side by side with sculptures: the earliest examples are quite simply two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional images. Later, however, Nepali painters did not limit themselves to the depiction of icons, but produced pictorial representations of narratives and myths, and incorporated a wide variety of stylistic influences.
The Chinese envoy, Wang Hsuan Tse, who came to Nepal in the seventh century A.D., described quite eloquently the houses in the Valley which even that time were embellished with sculptures and paintings. Although there are no suriving examples of paintings in Nepal from the Lichchhavi period (400-740 A.D.), it can be surmised that the murals or wall paintings noticed by the Chinese envoy, were probably like those that adorn monasteries, temples and houses today. Since the sculpture tradition of Nepal during the early centuries of the Christian era was so vital and creative, there seems no reason to believe that the tradition of painting in Nepal was not equally sophisticated.
All surviving illustrated manuscripts, whether Buddhist or Hindu, are illustrated with hieratic images of gods and goddesses. A large number of manuscripts are devoted to the principal events from the life of Buddha or the hieratic representation of Vajrayana deities, which bear little relation to the text. During the early medieval period, Prajnaparimita, the personification of wisdom, became one of the most popular deities in Nepal . Manuscripts consecrated to this deity were repeatedly copied. Besides these Buddhist manuscripts, illuminated manuscripts of Hindu divinities such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Kartikeya and Ganesh were also frequently represented. Manuscripts continued to be painted and copied for centuries, for the act of donating a manuscript to a monk, priest, monastery or temple was considered by both Hindus and Buddhists to be an act of great virtue. Early illustrated manuscripts were executed in the same basic style but later examples, particularly paper manuscripts, clearly show signs of deterioration in quality.
It was through Nepal that Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into Tibet during reign of Angshuvarma in the seventh century A.D. There was therefore a great demand for religious icons and Buddhist manuscripts for newly built monasteries throughout Tibet . A number of Buddhist manuscripts, including Prajnaparamita, were copied in Kathmandu Valley for these monasteries. Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita for example, was copied in Patan in the year 999 A.D., during the reign of Narendra Dev and Udaya Deva, for the Sa-Shakya monastery in Tibet . For the Nor monastery in Tibet, two copies were made in Nepal-one of Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita in 1069 A.D. and the other of Kavyadarsha in 1111 A.D. The influence of Nepalese art and paintings extended till Tibet and even beyond in China in regular order during the thirteenth century. Nepalese artisans were dispatched to the courts of Chinese emperors at their request to perform their workmanship and impart expert knowledge. The exemplary contribution made by the artisans of Nepal, specially by the Nepalese innovator and architect Balbahu, known by his popular name "Arniko" bear testimony to this fact even today. After the introduction of paper, palm leaf became less popular, however, it continued to be used until the eighteenth century. Paper manuscripts imitated the oblong shape but were wider than the palm leaves.
From the fifteenth century onwards, brighter colours gradually began to appear in Nepalese Thangka painting. Because of the growing importance of the Tantric cult, various aspects of Shiva and Shakti were painted in conventional poses. Mahakala, Manjushri, Lokeshwara and other deities were equally popular and so were also frequently represented in Thangka paintings of later dates. As Tantrism embodies the ideas of esoteric power, magic forces, and a great variety of symbols, strong emphasis is laid on the female element and sexuality in the paintings of that period.
Religious paintings in Nepal worshipped as icons are known as Paubha in Newari and Thangka in Tibetan. The origin of Paubha or Thangka painting in Nepal may be attributed to the Nepalese artisans responsible for creating a number of special metal works and wall- paintings as well as illuminated manuscripts in Tibet . Realizing the great demand for religious icons in Tibet , these artists, along with monks and traders, took with them from Nepal not only metal sculptures but also a number of Buddhist manuscripts. To better fulfil the ever - increasing demand Nepalese artists initiated a new type of religious painting on cloth that could be easily rolled up and carried along with them. This type of painting became very popular both in Nepal and Tibet and so a new school of Thangka painting evolved as early as the ninth or tenth century and has remained popular to this day. One of the earliest specimens of Nepalese Thangka painting dates from the thirteenth /fourteenth century and shows Amitabha surrounded by Bodhisattva. Another Nepalese Thangka painting with three dates in the inscription (the last one corresponding to 1369 A.D.), is one of the earliest known Thangkas with inscriptions. The "Mandala of Vishnu " dated 1420 A.D., is another fine example of the nepalese painting of this period. Early Nepalese Thangkas paintings are simple in design and composition. The main deity, a large figure, occupies the central position while surrounded by smaller figures of lesser divinities.