When I was working on “Treasures of Nepal”, a book profiling national award winning artists/craftspeople of Kathmandu, I discovered that many of them lived in some pretty historic places. One such artist-cum-craftsperson is Mr. Chin Kazi Tamrakar, whose house is right behind the famous Kasthmandap Temple in Maru, next to Kathmandu Durbar Square, after which Kathmandu city was named. According to the octogenarian, the locality is inhabited by people of the Tamrakar clan, and 28 Tamrakar families live there currently. The famous temple was brought down to rubble by the devastating April 25 earthquake, and many of the houses in the locality have been damaged severely. While restoration of the temple is of prime concern today, there are also serious discussions going on about how to go about repairing the damaged houses of the Tamrakar locality. This is because all the houses are linked to each other, and anything done on one house is sure to affect the other. It’s all a bit challenging, one can be sure of that.
That having been said, the Tamrakar community in Maru is only a small part of the whole. Known as ‘Tamo’ or ‘Tamot’ in ‘Nepal Bhasa’ (Newari), the Tamrakars are widespread within and outside the valley, but mostly concentrated in the heart of Patan. As everybody knows, the Newars, especially those of Patan (or, Lalitpur, the ‘city of the arts’) are renowned for their artistic skills, and there are many different clans, each specializing in a certain vocation. The Tamrakars’ vocation is making copperware. The word ‘Tamrakar’ is derived from ‘tama’ meaning copper, and ‘aakar’ meaning shape or, to give shape.
Mr. Chin Kazi discloses that, once upon a time, the entire Maru Tamrakars were involved in copper work, but now they have all discontinued the profession. And, while his own family has a couple of workshops, they now only do work in silver nowadays. He himself is famous as a repousse artist, and as the pioneering maker of trophies in the country. However, as mentioned above, most of the Tamrakars are concentrated in the heart of Patan. If you wander along the streets south of the Patna Durbar Square, you will discover a row of shops displaying copper, brass, and bronze ware, and most probably, the names of these shops will have the word, ‘Tamrakar’ or ‘Tamot’ in them, for example, “Tamot Traders” in Tangal, and “Tamrakar Handicrafts” in Chakrabahil. As a matter of interest, one of the oldest such shops established was in Haugal by Mr. Tirtha Lal Tamrakar, whose grandson looks after “Tamot Traders”. Unlike Maru’s Tamrakar families, in Patan, the Tamrakars continue to do business as usual, making beautiful copper items down the generations.
While, originally, the Tamrakars mostly made household utensils and ritual items for worship, later on, they were drawn towards more artistic work involving various integral requirements of temple architecture, which of course also included deity images. You may have noticed the intricate toranas above temple doorways; they are mostly repousse works in copper, made by skillful repousse artists like Mr. Chin Kazi Tamrakar. Likewise, the deity figures, too, are made of copper, or its major alloys, bronze and brass. It is interesting to note here that, previously (before 1955, or thereabouts), nobody in the valley made deity figures using copper, mainly because it was difficult to attain the high degree of heat required to melt it. This is where a man called Mr. Bhim Shakya, a chiseler of acclaim (81 years old now), who leaves in the premises of the beautiful Rudrayana Mahavihar in Okubahal of Patan, came into the picture. Realizing the absence of copper figures, on which much finer chiseling and face painting could be done, compared to brass and bronze, he figured out that the valley craftsmen didn’t know how to bring in coal, which could ensure the high degree of heat required to melt copper. He went about doing the needful, and commissioned sculptors to make copper statues that he would embellish with his fine chiseling and painting skills.
Besides household utensils, deity images, toranas, and other temple decorative items, gagaris, ghyampas, and so on, ritual items for worship (by both Hindus and Buddhists) make up a significant part of the Tamrakars’ work. These include ‘mana’ (prayer wheel), ‘dhupdani’ (incense holder), ‘bhumbha’ and ‘sherkem’ (small vessels for holy water), ‘pauwahi’ (a vessel to contain rice for holy offering), ‘panas’ (tall-standing lamp), ‘kotaha’ and ‘kalaha’ (to carry puja items), ‘khadelu’ (hanging oil lamp), etc. Early in the mornings, and during festivals, you’ll see plenty of women carrying such items, on their way to some temple or the other. While such ritual items continue to make their presence felt, there’s a definite decline in the use of household utensils made of copper, due to the availability of more modern kitchenware. Be that as it may, there is a certain exoticism about copper utensils, which is why you’ll see plenty of them being used as decorative items in both houses and hotels. Copper has a charm all its own, that’s for sure! And, the Tamrakars of Patan will keep on at their traditional vocation, no doubt about it.