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Tibetan Thangka Paintings: The Unique Art of Tibetan Culture to Experience during Your Tibet Tour

October,16 2023 BY Sonam Tenphel 0 COMMENTS

Anyone visiting Tibet and exploring its culture should visit the temples and monasteries to view the vibrant and educational Tibetan Thangka paintings. Painted by hand on cloths of silk or cotton, these bright, colorful paintings usually depict a Buddhist deity or other religious scenes, as indicated by its name, Thangka, which in Tibetan means "recorded message".

How did the Thangka painting come about? How to read a Thangka painting? Where to buy high-quality Thangkas in Tibet and how to keep them at home?

Here we will give you a comprehensive overview of what you need to know about Tibetan Thangka painting. You will be able to better appreciate this unique Tibetan art while traveling in Tibet

The Origins of Tibetan Thangka

The Tibetan Thangka is an art form that originated in Nepal and was brought to Tibet by Nepalese princess, Bhrikuti, who was the wife of Songtsen Gampo, the founder of the Tibetan Empire.

Thangka PaintingThangka Painting

The Thangka paintings were developed over the centuries from the early murals that can be seen in a few remaining sites like the Ajanta Caves in India and the Mogao Caves in Gansu Province, China.

The Mogao Caves have extensive wall paintings and were previously a repository for many Tibetan paintings on cloth, which are some of the earliest surviving Thangka, as well as other manuscripts, paintings, and prints.

The earliest dated prints from the “Library Cave” were dated to be from around 780-848 AD when the region was under Tibetan rule.

The Development of Tibetan Thangka Painting

Thangka form was developed alongside the more traditional wall paintings of the Tibetan Buddhists, which were mostly found in monasteries and temples.

Historians note that Chinese painting had a profound influence on Tibetan painting in general.

Starting from the 14th and 15th century, Tibetan painting had incorporated many elements from the Chinese, and during the 18th century, Chinese painting had a deep and far-stretched impact on Tibetan visual art.

According to Giuseppe Tucci, by the time of the Qing Dynasty, "a new Tibetan art was then developed, which is a certain sense was a provincial echo of the Chinese 18th century's smooth ornate preciosity.".

Types of Tibetan Thangka Painting

Thangkas are traditionally painted on either cotton or silk, with loosely-woven cotton being the most common.

They are normally around 40cm-58cm wide, and the larger ones frequently have a seam in the support. The paints are made from pigments in a water-soluble form of animal glue.

The pigments used to come from both mineral and organic sources, and were mixed warm and applied almost immediately to the painting.

Black Thangka Painting in TibetBlack Thangka Painting in Tibet

Tibetan Thangkas can also be classified into many different types, depending on the technique and materials used.

Depending on the content, it can be divided into Buddha Thangka, Biography Thangka, Mythology Thangka, and Catechism Thangka.

According to the size, it can be divided into giant Thangka, normal Thangka, and small Thangka.

According to the different materials, it can be divided into embroidered Thangka, pile embroidered Thangka (also known as appliqué Thangka), painting Thangka, pearl Thangka, and so on.

The pearl Thangka is a special variety of Tibetan Thangka, which is extremely rare. The most famous pearl Thangka in Tibet is the pearl Thangka of Arya Avalokiteshvara treasured in Trundruk Monastery in the south of Naidong County of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It is made of thousands of pearls and other gemstones.

The most common hand-painted Thangka can be divided into the Thangka with the white background (the most common type), with the gold background (a very auspicious treatment which was used for peaceful deities and the fully enlightened Buddhas), with the red background (also a gold line but on vermilion pigmented cloth), and with the black background (uses a gold line on a black background).

Tibetan Thangka Composition

The Tibetan Thangka paintings are composed in the way of most Buddhist art, which is highly geometric and symmetrical in form.

All of the composite parts of the Thangka are laid out in a grid of intersecting lines and angles, and the artists would have a set of pre-designed “templates” to work from, ranging from the alms bowls of the Buddha to the size, shape, and angles of the individual facial features.

As Thangka are explicitly religious paintings, they must be laid out following strict guidelines that the artists are trained in.

Artists must also have a good religious understanding, background, and knowledge in order to create an appropriately accurate Thangka.

Everything from the color to the proportions to the position of the hands is laid out in the rules to correctly personify the Buddha and Deities.

Tibetan Festivals and Thangka Display

Thangka is so much a part of Tibetan culture that there are dedicated Thangka Unveiling Festivals that showcase this unique art, as well as Thangka being shown at many other festivals throughout the year.

Shoton Festival with Giant Thangka Display

The most popular Festivals with Thangka Display is the famous Shoton Festival, which every summer in Tibet.

Drepung Monastery Buddha exhibitionDrepung Monastery Buddha exhibition during Shoton Festival

On the morning of the first day of the Shoton Festival, a huge Thangka (42-meter-long and 38-meter-wide) is unveiled at the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.

As the sound of the horn echoes through the valley, a host of lamas carry the huge portrait of Qamba Buddha from the Coqen Hall and towards the western end of the monastery to a specially erected platform.

As smoke rises from all sides and monks chant scriptures, the lamas slowly unroll the Thangka to cheers from the crowds, who rush to the painting to offer their white hada, or prayer silks.

This Thangka is only open for around two hours. After that, it will be carefully stored away for the next year’s Shoton Festival.

Ganden Thangka Festival

The Ganden Thangka Unveiling Festival is held on the 15th day of the sixth lunar month of the Tibetan Calendar at Ganden Monastery, one of the three great monasteries of Gelug in Lhasa.

Ganden Thangka FestivalA giant Thangka is unveiled in front of Ganden Monastery.

Thousands of people will come to take a Ganden kora around the monastery.

Then they will all gather outside to view and pray before the woven image of Buddha.

On this festive occasion, pilgrims dress in their finest clothes and move from temple to temple with offerings and hoping to receive blessings from the monks.

The Thangka that is displayed here is around 200 feet wide and 150 feet tall and causes an uproar of the crowd as it is unveiled.

Tashilhunpo Monastery Thangka Festival

The Tashilhunpo Monastery Thangka Festival, also known as the Buddha Exhibition Festival, is one of the most important religious festivals in Tibet. It is held on the 14th to 16th day of the fifth month in the Tibetan Calendar in Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse.

The event was initiated in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama, Gedun Drupa to celebrate the inauguration of Tashilhunpo Monastery. The Thangka on display combines features of early Indian and Chinese Buddhist paintings.

Where to buy Thangka Painting in Tibet for Souvenir?

Most Thangkas are small in comparison to a traditional western portrait, but those used for displays can be several meters long and can be seen at many of the Tibetan Thangka festivals.

For those who wish to have a Thangka of their own, they only need to pay a visit to Barkhor Street in Lhasa old town. Part of the kora around the Jokhang Temple, the street is full of things for sale, from Tibetan rugs and crafts to broadswords and Thangka.

There are also Thangka painting stores on East Barkhor Street, where you can buy this beautiful Tibetan artwork, and learn more about the art and history of the Tibetan Thangka.

How to Keep Thangka Painting?

Unlike an oil painting or acrylic painting, the Thangka painting is not a flat creation but consists of a painted or embroidered picture panel, over which a textile is mounted, and then over which is laid a cover, usually silk.

Generally, Tibetan Thangkas last a very long time and retain much of their luster.

However, because of their delicate nature, they have to be kept in dry places so as to prevent the quality of the silk from being affected by moisture.

When they are not in use, they remain rolled up like scrolls, with coverings on the back and front to protect the painting. Kept this way, the Thangkas can last for a very long time.


Thangka, an important part of Tibetan art, is a must-see on your visit to Tibet. Whether you're looking for antique Thangkas in temples and museums, or choosing modern Thangka crafts in the art shops on Barkhor Street, we hope that our introduction to Tibetan Thangka painting can help you better understand the Tibetan art you see and experience the unique culture of Tibet.

If you have more to learn about Thangka, feel free to contact us, or join us on a Tibet tour to explore the local art of Thangka.

Sonam Tenphel

About the Author - Sonam Tenphel

With 20+ years of guide experience and tons of great reviews, Sonam Tenphel is one of the top-rated local Tibetan guides in our team. Polite, enthusiastic, and extremely attentive to every traveler’s needs, he is your best travel companion in Tibet and a walking dictionary of Tibetan culture and history.

Additionally, being a great photographer, Sonam helps you capture great Tibet travel moments and maximize your Tibet experiences like no other.

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