Unmasking The Culture of Nepal

4, May 2022 | nepaltraveller.com

The art of mask making flourishes in our country and holds as much significance in our culture as they hold undiscovered secrets inside them

They say the masks we wear are the true reflections of our characters. What then would be the verdict of the masks sold in Nepal? Would it be an apt reflection of a country so immersed in culture and tradition? Within the oldest mask made in Nepal dating back to the 17th century, this craft still carries the charm that it used to back then. Nepali communities adorn different types of masks during festivals signifying various beliefs and traditions that have been followed in our ages. The masks which are used in ritual dances are made of materials like paper mache, wood plastered with clay and linen, and are painted in lively colours. 


Photo Courtesy: [Suraj Belbase/Wikimedia Commons]

Anyone who has visited Nepal for the first time is fascinated by the cultural carousel the country presents. With such an indelible mark left on visitors, a mask seems like the perfect takeaway from Nepal. It is loud, reflects the traditional heritage and is perfect to decorate walls with. Moreover, every mask is unique and can be an excellent story for those who are not familiar with the culture of Nepal as most of these masks are religious gods Nepalis worship.


Generations of Craftsmen


Mask makers too have been in the business for generations following the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers and passing on the delicate art of wood carving. One such ingenious mask maker in Kathmandu Valley is Pancha Kumar Sunar. The proud owner of a tiny shop tucked away neatly amidst the tumult of Thamel and the successor of skills of three generations of mask making, one will find Pancha Sunar deeply engrossed in his work even visiting his shop, Kalinchowk Masks Shop. 


Sunar's grandfather started this business carving masks for dancers like 'lakhe' and ritual purposes only. Soon his skills spread all over Kathmandu and he produced about 25 pieces of masks per year. Their family has come a long way. But even though the number of masks has increased, the quality remains undeterred. Each cut, crevasse, and fold is delicately carved with accurate precision and all with his bare hands. 


Photo Courtesy: [Cheryl Marland/Wikimedia Commons]

The time taken to make masks varies from three hours to three months depending upon the size and the design. When asks why mask-making he replied, "it provides for the food." But any onlooker can see how passionate about the work he does. After a long pause, he says he enjoys making masks because they reflect his family's traditions and the satisfaction he gets out of it is unparalleled. Being a perfectionist himself, Sunar can only rest when the masks are as perfect as the picture in his mind. 


In his little shop, one will find masks of different colours, shapes and sizes, some of which are as old as 50 years and others will be whiffing of fresh paint. Tools used in making: hand tools and wood. In this modern machine-driven world, these mask makers still thrive on handwork. "I only get satisfaction from making masks with my hand. I have never used machines," he said. Machines can never replicate the expertise of the naked hand. 


Photo Courtesy: [Roman Raghu Shrestha/Wikimedia Commons]

Apart from wooden masks, various other types can also be found in the markets of Nepal. Kamal Thapa who has been in the business for about 10 years sits in his shop surrounded by masks of all kinds. "Our speciality is skin masks - they are made out of buffalo skin et cetera", Kamal said. His shop, Mountain Handicrafts, is situated in the heart of Thamel and sells different types of masks such as wooden, skin and metal. Most of the masks sold are made by the locals who believe truly in the power of masks and their cultural significance. This, he says, adds an emotional component to the masks. 


The Intricate Process


Mask making is an art in itself. However, this art like all others needs years of experience to perfect! A rough outline of the image is drawn upon the soft wooden plank. Next, a chisel, mallet and other tools are used to carve through the outline. The intricate parts need more precision and concentration. Slowly, with both deep cuts and little cuts, the wooden plank takes the shape of a face. After hours, when the craftsman is finally satisfied with the base of the mask, one may think the task is over. However, the most important part which makes the mask look attractive is still left. The colours! The wooden carving is then painted with bright colours depending upon the type of mask. A coat of varnish is finally added as the last layer. After this process of deep concentration and creativity, a mask is created! 


Photo Courtesy: [Swarnima Shrestha/Wikimedia Commons]

The sweat, hours, skills and hard work that goes into making a single mask is phenomenal. All workers create their masks with imagination, without referring to any physical image. Moreover, the makers don't stop unless every angle is perfect. All these factors make it almost impossible to not appreciate this craft and the people behind it. 


Masks are of a great variety from Bhairav to Ganesh and dragons to skulls. Kalinchowk Masks Shop also creates special gold plated masks on request. Because it isn't made by a mechanical machine, no two masks will be exact replicas of each other but isn't that the beauty of it? Each mask tells a story of its own, waiting to be discovered. It is believed that masks ward off evil spirits and ensure safety for all. In many Nepali communities, masks are used in dances on the death of a family to ensure successful passing to the netherworld. Yet again in some, it's said to garner good luck and prosperity. Nonetheless, Nepali culture in its loudness, vibrancy and immersion in traditions is rightly portrayed by masks thus making it the perfect souvenir to take back memories. More often than not we use the metaphor of masks to imply something is being hidden but in the case of ornamental masks as a souvenir, they unfurl some of the richest cultural gems of Nepal.


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