The Many Masks of Nepalese Deities

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Early in the morning, I came across a shopfront covered in carved masks in earthen tones, many of them bearing frightening expressions — scowling, toothy, growling — while others were serene or humorous, maybe even hysterical.

While I had previously seen such characters at fairs back home in New York, now I was on their turf, and I thought to find out a bit about who they represented.

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Ganesh, Mahakala, Garuda and Narasimha, among other deities.

Buddha, I immediately recognized with closed eyes and an air of serenity. There were only a few, in subdued colors.

Ganesha, after some searching, became apparent from the elephantine features — “the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the deva of intellect and wisdom,” according to Wikipedia.

Narasimha, depicted with the face of a lion, was one of the more common masks, in hues of earthen reds and Indian yellows. Fierce!

Mahākāla, also more plentiful, was black “symbolizing his all-embracing, comprehensive nature,” and apparently also exists in two-armed, four-armed and six-armed variations.

Garuda, a large bird-like creature, or humanoid bird, was also easy to identify.

Many of the Nepalese deities cross over between Buddhist, Hindu and Jain traditions, which seemed to represent an acceptance of outsiders, or the natural ebb and flow of culture around the subcontinent.

There were a few faces I couldn’t figure out, but maybe somewhere down the line I’ll get better at it.

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Masks of Nepalese deities were offered for sale around the city. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)
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