"Paubha" the traditional art of Nepal is believed to have been practiced from time immemorial. Due to the lack of documentary evidences it has become difficult to pin point exactly since when and how the painting was practiced and originated in the valley. The word "Paubha" is derived from a Sanskrit word Patrabhattarak. This means depiction of god and goddesses on a flat form. There have been some paintings found where instead of Patrabhattarak or "Paubha" the painter has written Patibahar.
However these evidences prove that the word "Paubha" must have travelled a long way from Patibahar to Patrabhattarak and however, a very intensive research is required to explore the original and development of the words "Paubha". This very old traditional art form was practiced from a historical time when there was a tradition of oral transfer of knowledge from father to son or the member of the family of their own caste or clan, and the knowledge was kept secret within the circle of their family. Sometimes the knowledge was also passed on to the devout pupil from a learned master, so it was a master to disciple tradition (guru sisya parampara). On the basis of historical evidences "Paubha" painting tradition goes beyond 7th century.
The use of mineral pigment and the process of making color signify its historic origin. To describe the method and historical time of practice of "paubha" painting a passage from an important tantric text "Manjushree Mulakalpa" dating from third century A.D is given below. "A cloth is to be woven by a pure virgin and its presentation is accompanied by an elaborate ritual. An officient (Sadhaka or Acharya) who may either do the work himself or employ a painter who works under his direction conducts the whole ritual. Pure colors are to be used. The Painter beginning his work on an auspicious day should work only from sunrise to mid-day. Seated on a cushion of kusha grass facing east his intelligence awakes, his mind directed toward the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. He takes in his hand a delicate brush (Vatrika) and with his mind at ease begins to paint. After the prescribed divinities have been figured he should depict the efficient himself in a corner of the canvas according to his actual appearances and costume, kneeling with bowed head holding an incense burner."
This is the earliest known description of the process of painting on cloth which has a great similarity with the basic process of "Paubha" painting. Therefore this statement suggests that the "Paubha" painting was practiced by traditional painters as early as during 3rd century A.D. However, due to certain reasons such as fragility of the medium, political disturbances and cultural practices (for instance, there was a tradition of replacing old "Paubhas" with the new one) earliest "Paubhas" have not survived till present time nor have been discovered so far. However among the oldest known "Paubhas" one of which is still surviving is an image of "Ratna Sambava" is now in Los Angeles County Museum. This "Paubha" belongs to the early 13th century. "Paubha" faced a threat of extinction toward the end of Malla era. The political disturbances led to decline in paubha painting. As a result the painters looked toward other way to explore and introduce "Paubha" painting, so over historical time there has been inflow of various art forms in Nepal. Nepalese art form such as "Paubha" also travelled outside the valley towards Tibet. The Chitrakars (the Newar traditional painters) believe that "Paubhas" taken to Tibet from the valley became as an inspirational tool or a basis for the development of the Himalayan Buddhist devotional art known as Thangkas. Because of the reason, Newar traditional artists regard "Paubha" as the precursor of Thangka.
Tradition of "Paubha" painting
"Paubha" is always painted for a spiritual reason and the painting process embraces painter's spiritual contemplation and guidance from learned master (Bajracharya priest). Therefore, the "Paubha" painters are advised to work in a quiet and secluded environment without outwardly disturbances accompanied by his master (Sadhaka).
The sastra says the painter has to be humble, meditative, detached from materialistic world and patience. He has to be devoted to his craft of skills and contemplated to the spiritual space "a real master of craft". A Buddhist text describes a quality of a painter as follows, 'A painter must be a good man, no sluggard, not given to anger, holy, learned master of his sense, pious, benevolent, free from avarice such should be his character.
An auspicious day, date and time is fixed by the Bajracharya priest to start "Paubha" painting. Before starting to paint there was a tradition of "Hasta Puja" (worshipping the hands) of a painter and his tools. After the ritual of hasta puja the painter would remain under the strict discipline for example, he would fast and eat only vegetarian food, remain holy and observe brahamacharya. The painting is initiated with short prayer and meditation to the deities.
Once the work is finished the painting is consecrated (given life to) by the Bajracharya priest. This signifies that the deity is alive. It has been suggested that the "Paubha" should not be unrolled in presence of strangers; it has to be worshipped by the initiated owner only. However this practice is long lost and very few traditional painters at present are struggling to continue this tradition of "Paubha" painting alive.