Tibetan Thangka Paintings
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 scene. 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, but are affected by moisture, so need to be kept in a very dry place.
Traditionally, the Thangka are designed to tell the life of Buddha, as well as other influential lamas and deities. The Tibetan word THANG KA means “recorded message” in English. The composition of the Thangka is very complex and elaborate, and often incorporates the central figure - normally a deity - surrounded by many smaller figures, in a symmetrical design. Although they are less common, narrative scenes are also depicted on Thangkas. Thangka are also used as devotional pieces during religious rituals or ceremonies, and can be used as a medium for prayer. Moreover, Thangkas can aid in the spiritual path to enlightenment as the religious art is used as a meditation tool. Devotees often have Thangka paintings hung in their homes, bedrooms and offices.
The Origins of the 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. The paintings were developed over the centuries from the early wall 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.
Thangka form was developed alongside the more traditional wall paintings of the Tibetan Buddhists, which were mostly found in monasteries and temples. Many of the early Thangka were commissioned by rich individuals who believed they would gain merit for doing so. Many notable monks also had their own Thangka, as personal meditation images, and would have an inscription on the back. Many of the older Thangka in Tibet now are from the 11th and 12th centuries, and were already complex in their design. However, the backgrounds would be mostly sky with a little landscape. The Thangka continued to develop in style and complexity over the following centuries, with the different monastic orders developing slightly different characteristics and styles.
Types of Thangka in Tibet
Traditional Thangkas come in a variety of types, based on the different techniques and materials used. They are generally divided into two rather broad categories: painted Thangka and appliqué, or embroidered Thangka. They are then further divided into another seven sub-categories which are:
1. Painted in color, which are the most common type
2. Appliqué, an ornamental needlework made from pieces of fabric
3. Black Background, which uses a gold line on a black background
4. Block-prints, the paper or cloth outlined renderings, made by woodblock printing
5. Embroidery with multicolored threads
6. Gold Background, a very auspicious treatment which was used for peaceful deities and the fully enlightened Buddhas
7. Red Background, this was also a gold line, but on vermilion pigmented cloth
Thangkas are traditionally painted on either cotton or silk, with a 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 come from both mineral and organic sources, and were mixed warm and applied almost immediately to the painting.
The paintings are composed in the way of most Buddhist art, being 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. At Tashilunpo Monastery, the monks unveil the big Thangka with an image of Buddha and the people will all gather in front of it to pray.
In August, the Ganden Thangka Festival, held at the old Ganden Monastery, there are thousands of people who walk a kora around the monastery before going inside to pray. 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 normally around 200 feet wide and 150 feet tall, and causes an uproar of the crowd as it is unveiled.
And at the Shoton Festival, one of the most popular of Tibet’s traditional festivals, the Thangka 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, before the monks move it carefully back inside for another year.
Where to Buy Thangka Painting 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 Lhasa’s Barkhor Street. 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. You can easily bargain with the sellers, as this is almost traditional, and you can get your souvenirs for a very good price. And don’t forget to circumambulate the kora clockwise, as the other pilgrims do.
There is also a Thangka painting store on East Barkhor Street, where you can buy this beautiful Tibetan artwork, and learn more about the art and history of the Tibetan Thangka.
Thangka are a beautiful and very spiritual part of Buddhism, and a huge part of the rich Tibetan culture. It is easy to see why these paintings are so popular, and how the art has survived in the region for centuries.