| articles


A look at tribal arts and cultures in old Asia

By Christian Lequindre and Marc Petit
Excerpted from Nepal: Shamanism and Tribal Sculpture

text and photos © and the author except as where otherwise noted

June 07, 2010

(click on small images for large images with captions)

Black masks with facial expressions that are solemn, or occasionally grotesque, wild, or fantastic, but usually serene and strangely profound, incarnating the entire memory of the world yet rendered untamable by the spirit of the forests: statues both humble and haughty, their form reduced to essentials, furrowed by time, frozen in a pose of prayer and meditation: slighter objects such as boxes, cases, and butter-churn handles whose refined decoration apparently contrasts with the coarseness of the statues and the rawness of the masks, but in fact harmonizes in the way female does with male; all of these are part of the tribal arts of the Himalayas.

Ancestor mask

This art - whether it is labeled “primal,” “tribal,” or “archaic” is of little importance - comes from the Himalayas, and more specifically from Nepal. It is the most recent art, along with that of the Malay Archipelago (including the Philippines), to have made its way to the West. Nearly a century after the Cubists and Fauvists discovered the “Negro arts” of Africa and Oceania, half a century after André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss exhumed Amerindian and Inuit arts from the storerooms of ethnological history museums, a handful of adventurers, travelers, artists, collectors, and dealers, joined by a few ethnologists, have now unearthed the existence of a new, still largely unexplored continent.


Guru phurba

Why did this revelation occur so late? Because the kingdom of Nepal was never colonized. It opened itself to foreigners very cautiously, starting only in the 1950s. The local elite, comprised of the upper castes of Hindu society, felt nothing but contempt for the culture and crafts of the poor tribal and rural artisans, except when it came to a few strictly regulated services. Many orientalists unconsciously adopted these preconceptions, the main one still being held by many ethnologists, namely an over-emphasis on written cultures (not only Hindu but also Tibetan and Chinese) at the expense of popular, essentially oral traditions, associated with beliefs and practices judged superstitious by followers of the dominant religions of Brahmanism and Lamaist Buddhism, not to mention Islam and Christianity. Now, such bias not only devalorizes the tribal cultures subjected to the pressures of the dominant group (which in Nepal means the ”twice born,” wearers of the sacred thread), it also skews our view of the majority cultures and religions. India, Tibet, and China with their glamorous civilizations did not spring up completely formed by canonical texts and royal decree. Their roots and underlying mental structures are the same as the rural societies where worship of natural forces and veneration of ancestors is more important than the adoration of heavenly gods. In India, the persistence of a ”little tradition” alongside the ”great [Brahmanic] tradition” of the conquerors betrays the archaic, pre-Aryan foundations of popular culture. In Tibet, not everything began with the Buddhism taken there, according to legend, by Padmasambhava. The magical dimension pervading Lamaism and, even more so, the heretical practices of the bonpo, hark back to a pre-Buddhist past, to shamanism, and to what Rolf A. Stein calls the “nameless religion.” As to China - the China of the tribal minorities as well as the dominant Han ethnic group - it was not so long ago that shamanism and magic permeated popular beliefs and social life, as can be seen in the Nuo mask tradition that still survives in the southwestern provinces.

Ceremonial mask
These clearly multifarious, archaic roots of ancient Asian culture are the source of the objects, masks and statues generally known by the name of “Himalayan tribal art.” Such art should not be perceived as a fringe activity, still less as the product of a rural degeneration of forms familiar to us from the classical arts of India and Tibet. These works are original, powerful, and coherent from an artistic standpoint - the most remarkable of them display a rigor and mastery equal to much-admired works by master sculptors from Africa and Oceania.


Ceremonial mask

Neither the handling nor expressiveness of this ancestral art owes anything to the classical arts with which it occasionally interbreeds. When hybridization does occur, it is not unusual to detect, in palimpsest, an archaic style that goes against the grain of classical conventions. This phenomenon recalls the way the abstract tendency of Celtic art transfigured the Greek and Roman models that inspired Gallic coinage. Here, as almost everywhere throughout the realm of primal arts, frontality is king: there is none of the contrapposto and curvilinear composition seen in classical mannerism. Decorative elements and pretty details are eschewed in an art governed by necessity alone. Yet this art also displays great freedom, favoring a startling, unsettling inventiveness that functions as counterpoint to the austere, minimalist bias underpinning such simplified, basic forms.

Ceremonial mask


It is not easy to define the specificity of this art, the pertinent features that distinguish it from other tribal arts of Asia and Indonesia, not to mention creative objects made by African, Oceanian, and northern Siberian peoples. The reason is partly due to the fact that Himalayan tribal art cannot be summed up in a convenient formula, an “ethnic style” as associated with the Batak people of Sumatra or the art of Nagaland, among others. The Nepalese mountains and surrounding areas do not seem to harbor schools or workshops similar to those found, for example, not only in Africa but also in other areas of the Himalayas, namely in and around Lamaist Tibet, indeed in the old royal Newar cities in the Kathmandu valley. Made by village craftsman, carpenters, leather-workers, and metal-smiths, the objects studied here do not at first sight seem to stem from the traditions of a sophisticated art with its conventions, codes, and centers of recognizable style. Little by little, however, an attentive eye begins to notice groupings and to recognize comparative differences - flat versus curved masks, square versus almond-shaped eyes, geometric stylization versus naturalistic handling of facial features, etc. Unmistakable family resemblances arise, given disparities as flagrant as the ones in Africa that distinguish hieratic work by Dogon carvers from the courtly art of the Congo.

It is no easy matter to hew a path through this dark forest, this world of innumerable faces. It is as difficult to grasp as a relief map of the Himalayan region, a huge sheet of crumpled paper with countless little compartments.


Map of Nepal

So here are a few landmarks: geographically, the map of Nepal includes three overlapping zones. The Terai plain is turned toward India in many respects, being basically populated by Hindus (the Madhesi people, and also Tharus, a native tribe, plus, on its eastern edge, Hinduized tribal groups - Rajbanshi, Dhimal and Satar). Tibetan enclaves, meanwhile, are found along the northern border, a land of high mountains populated by Buddhist Bhotia peoples of whom the best known are the Sherpas (“easterners”), whose origins and traditions link them to their northern neighbors. Between the two lies the less lofty region of the “Middle Hills,” a patchwork of Mongol ethnic groups (the main tribes being the Rai and Limbu to the east, then Tamang, Newar and Gurung, plus the Magar in west-central Nepal). They occupy, along with the majority of people of Indo-Nepalese origin, roughly two thirds of the country, excepting the Karnali river basin to the west with its predominantly Hindu population.

Figure of a dhami

On this latter point, geography is complemented - and also complicated - by history. Nepal’s identity as a Hindu kingdom with strong tribal elements, a mosaic of heterogeneous peoples and traditions, emerged in the modern era around the Gorkha dynasty in the eighteenth century. In its wake, people of Indo-Nepalese origin steadily extended their domination over the entire territory of today’s nation, pushing from west to east and from south to north, overwhelming and assimilating tribes, some of whom had themselves established important kingdoms in the past, such as Koch Bihar in the southeast (Rajbanshi people) and most notably the flourishing, refined Newar kingdom in the center of the country, around Kathmandu and other cities in the valley (Patan, Bhaktapur, and Kirtipur).


Guru phurba

Although this domination became complete during the twentieth century - practically before our eyes - it did not eliminate native traditions (as was the case, for example, when the Afghani Kafirs were converted to Islam). It did wind up extinguishing certain traditions and driving others underground, yet it often showed a certain tolerance, accommodating practices in a way similar to - in other times and other places - the interpretatio romana that assimilated barbarian gods to Rome’s own pantheon. This syncretistic trend, and the erosion of meaning it implied, now makes it tricky to identify objects that have indeed survived, yet without their original context. Even when their provenance is known - which is by no means always the case - the most recent owners do not necessarily know what these figures, masks, and statues truly represented, any more than they know the original purpose of tools whose use has been forgotten or diverted to a different end. Thus very old masks with a thick black patina, designed to commemorate ancestors, may resurface with fresh daubs of paint and carnival-like accouterments for some Hindu celebration alien to the ancient traditions. To understand these orphaned objects, whose names are no longer known, we sometimes have to go back several centuries, to a time when the tribal communities freely practiced their customs without worrying whether such activities conformed to imported codes; and we should be wary of concluding that a practice (or the objects themselves, especially masks) never existed in a given region or among a given ethnic group simply because their use cannot be reliably attested today. Even at the present time, a sufficient number of places can be found, here and there, where such traditions exist - at least in peoples’ memories - to support the hypothesis, based on analogical patterns, that these customs and objects indeed existed in the distant past. Ethnologists rarely come up with answers to questions that are ultimately the business of archaeologists, which is particularly true of tribal regions long subjected to the influence of Hindu society. Inversely, tribes such as the Rai and Limbu that have enjoyed relatively autonomy until quite recently have preserved ancestral practices longer, along with knowledge of related implements. Whatever the case, it is easier to obtain information on stationary objects such as votive statues and guardian figures on bridges in western Nepal than on portable items that may pass from hand to hand, as many masks have done. Once they are wrenched from their context, becoming objects of barter that then find their way onto the commercial antiques market, there is little chance of retracing their exact origin. Although study and comparison can be fruitful, nothing will ever replace information gathered on the spot. That is why we can only regret the lack of interest in archaic and tribal art in Nepal and neighboring lands displayed by most researchers in the field in earlier days. Ever since Nepal opened up and joined the modern world, followed by the political and social upheavals of recent years, there has certainly been a major decline and loss of sense of traditions that the dominant group has long - and increasingly - tended to marginalize.

Before it is too late, we must hasten to gather the information, however sparse and incomplete, held here and there by the last eye-witnesses to a world of beliefs and of secret and festive practices that constitute a living conservatory of ancient Asia.

East and west

Ceremonial mask

As already mentioned, in Nepal the four cardinal points of the compass designate very different horizons: the north looks toward Tibet, the south toward India. With the exception of the Tharu people on the Terai plain, neither of these two zones has witnessed the significant flowering of an art that might be described as tribal or archaic. Tibet and Tibetan enclaves favor art forms based on Lamaist culture - their statues, like the masks used in religious theater, respect classic Indo-Buddhist canons. The same is true of the theatrical masks of southern tribes steeped in Hindu culture, such as the Rajbanshi, Gangai, and Dhimal. Tribal influence on the artistic output of these two regions can indeed be perceived, but it plays on subtle inflections and variations on classic forms, and rarely leads to original artworks. The most eloquent examples of a specifically Himalayan art are therefore found primarily in the intermediate region, namely the Middle Hills in the east and center, and the Karnali basin to the west.


Votive statue

This middle zone, a haven located between the windswept plain and the inhospitable heights, generally boasts fairly fertile soil favorable to crops, and thus has always attracted conquerors as well as migrant peoples in search of land. A poorly understood paleo-Indian ethnic substratum - from which some of the “broken tribes” have probably descended - was subjected to successive migrations from east and west that ultimately shaped an amazing human landscape of great complexity, which the late unification of the country under a royal dynasty has not managed to reduce to the convenient concept of a “Hindu kingdom.” Beneath the Indo-Nepalese veneer - the main components of which are Hinduism, the monarchy, the caste system, the military tradition, and the Nepalese language - there lies a mosaic of peoples, beliefs, customs, and languages, simultaneously older, richer and more varied than the picture painted by official historiography.

Ceremonial mask

This diversity, however, is not so great that we cannot aspire to clarify the picture. Roughly speaking, two poles - or if you prefer, two zones of dissemination corresponding to “east” and “west” on the compass - can be distinguished within the landscape of archaic and tribal cultures in Nepal and neighboring regions. To the east are three tribes collectively known as the Kirant (or Kirat) people, namely the Rai, Limbu, and Sunwar, who have most persistently and most faithfully preserved the beliefs, practices, and social organization of Mongolian peoples of the Tibeto-Burman language group dispersed throughout the eastern Himalayas. Arriving in successive waves (as the Germanic tribes did in Europe), these peoples with their rich paleo-Asian cultural heritage settled, over the centuries, in a corridor in the Middle Hills running from the current Kirant zone (narrowly defined, i.e., Rai and Limbu tribes) in the eastern part of the country to the Magarat region, that is to say the lands of the Magars in central-western Nepal.


Ceremonial mask

Taking a cue from Nepalese ethnologist D. B. Bista, the term Kirant will be applied here in a broad way to all the eastern Himalayan tribes who share with true Kiranti a common stock of beliefs, practices, and institutions, a key element of which is shamanism (this term being understood here in the strict sense of Siberian-type drum shamans, rather than in the more general sense that has led to much confusion). Thus both the Magar and Gurung tribes will be included in the “Kirant” label. In many respects the Newar people also belong to this family, as does the archaic Chepang tribe and even, according to tradition, certain ethnic groups from the Terai such as the Dhimal, to which Bista blithely adds the Tharus, whose dark complexion is more evocative of the native populations of neighboring India.

Votive statues

The other pole is the one represented by the Khas group that occupies most of the Karnali river basin in western Nepal. Along with its tributary Seti and Bheri Rivers, the Karnali forms a kind of trident crossing the country from north to south, from the lofty Himalayas to the Terai plain.


Mask with schematic
human face

Who are the Khas? Their very name has become unflattering and seems to be falling into disuse; under the name of Chetri (or Chhetri, from the Sanskrit Kshatriya, or warrior caste), they tend to merge with the bulk of the middle-ranking Nepalese population. They are thus inferior, from the standpoint of caste hierarchy, to the Brahmin and the warrior aristocracy, yet superior to the castes of Hindu craftsman who are often impure, indeed untouchable. In fact, while certain Chetri have, over time, attained the enviable status of ”twice born” - wearers of the sacred thread - many of the Khas people, dubbed Matwali Chetri (“Alcohol-drinking” Chetri) remain on the fringes of the authentically “pure” castes. In all likelihood, they are descendents of the same Indo-European people from central Asia who settled in the western region of Nepal long ago, well before the Brahmin and Rajput warriors moved in. Nominally Hindu, the Chetri practice a rather unorthodox form of religion, worshiping local deities, mainly the twelve (or eighteen) Masta brothers and the nine corresponding sister goddesses (Durga Bhavani). These Matwali Chetri, along with local occupational castes such as Kami (metal-workers) and Sarki (leather-workers) - who are thought to be descendents of subjected native inhabitants - are the people who use the impressive archaic-style statues sometimes mistakenly called ”spring guardians” but which in fact are pious votive figures, whose existence was known to travelers in the previous century (such as Giuseppe Tucci and David Snellgrove) but which have only recently attracted the interest of art lovers.

Votive statue

Interest in these statues was preceded several years earlier by tribal masks, revealed to the public through the writings of Éric Chazot and Marc Petit (A masque découvert, 1995; twenty-five masks from this author’s collection, reproduced here, were donated to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris in 2003). It might be tempting to link statues to masks, but the two do not necessarily spring from the same cultural sphere. Most of the statues, as well as archaic bronze or iron figurines and stone carvings, come from western Nepal. Meanwhile, the most remarkable masks, notably the portraits of ancestors with a thick black patina, whether smooth or rough, come mainly from the east (Rai and Limbu peoples) or indeed from central or central-western Nepal (Kirant culture). There furthermore exists a tradition of masks in the west, but the ones from this region are quite different from those in the east, being flatter, often in the shape of a disk or shield, and less realistic. Kirant tribal art generally displays a more refined handling that is less crude than eastern carving. Above all, however, the art of Khas lands and surrounding regions lack an entire category of objects that is ubiquitous to the cultural sphere of the Middle Hills, namely the items associated with the paraphernalia of the tribal shaman such as a drum with handle or crossbar, a phurba (ceremonial dagger), and so on. Such objects are absent for good reason: there are no shamans in Khas lands, at least none of the “drum shaman” type whose henceforth well-known image often goes by the generic Nepali term jhakri, in competition with various tribal names such as selewa or bijuwa among the Rai, with their headdresses of porcupine needles or peacock feathers and their phurba engraved with symbolic motifs or topped by a figure of a “spirit guide.”


Ceremonial mask

Among the Khas, shamans are replaced by - or rather, a role similar to theirs is played by - a dhami. This latter is a medium or intercessor rather than a shaman. Assigned to a temple and a deity, a dhami performs rites of possession in which trance transforms him into a vehicle for the god, inciting him to utter oracles. There is a big difference between jhakri and dhami, between shaman and soothsayer, when it comes to their relationship to the sacred. A jhakri is an active healer and hunter of souls, one who leaves himself and his world behind in order to track down lost souls and do battle with demons in one-on-one combat. A dhami, on the other hand, is invaded by the divine; he doesn’t act on his own, but is a spokesman for the god or goddess, indicating the task to be accomplished - usually an act of reparation - which occasionally calls for an offering of a statue.

Ceremonial statuette

A line of divide separates old Asia from the Indo-European tradition, distinguishing “medicine men” from the Pythian oracle at Delphi (to whom the dhami is related). It is therefore not surprising to find a connection between Khas sculpture and the art of the Kalash people in Pakistan, the last surviving representatives of the archaic Indo-European world-view, prior to the division of the Iranian branch from the Indian branch. Similarly, we should not be surprised at the resemblance between the funerary masks of the Liao people in Manchuria and those of the Kirant in Nepal, not to mention the shamanic masks from Siberia that are so similar to certain Himalayan models. Almost the same drum is used in an area that ranges from deepest Mongolia to the Tibetan borders, from the Evenk and Buryat peoples on Lake Baikal to the Magar and the Chepang. The names of the gods and the shapes of the spirits may change, but the dagger used by the shaman to pin down a demon remains astonishingly similar and perfectly adapted to its function, as is the gesture that brings it life.

Excerpted from Nepal: Shamanism and Tribal Sculpture | articles