Karma Gadri Tradition: An introduction

This Tradition of Tibetan thangka painting originated from the artistic experimentations of the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje (1507–1554). He was one of the most renowned Karmapas, a great meditation master as well as a prolific, and learner. Passionate about the arts and himself an artistic visionary. He always encouraged his disciples to learn painting and rejoiced in this activity.

The name Karma Gadri (gar-bris) came from the Karmapa encampments (gar: means "encampment").

It was set up when Mikyö Dorje and his entourage had to travel. He authored the great book on art entitled "the Great Sun Art Manual". It was very helpful for future artists.

This thangka painting tradition was also maintained in a place called Karshöma, in eastern Tibet. This is also why the tradition is known as Karshöma.
Because the source is from the 8th Karmapa, it is indeed, a pure Tibetan style of painting thangka. 

So, Why is Thangka a Sacred Art?

The source of Tibetan thangka painting is the Buddhist doctrine. So thangka painting always depicts sacred subjects and images. Artists in these traditions must follow the criteria outlined in the original texts. It follows that one who practices the supreme arts should be very learned in the dharma. The measurements, adjustments to the tradition can be decided only by masters with great knowledge.

Those who initiated and adopted the traditions realize and learned Buddhist masters. So anyone who would like to train in this tradition should understand. It is not appropriate to change the traditions according to their fancy. If artists follow the traditions as outlined, no major mistakes will be made.

The Chinese Influence in Karma Gadri Art

Some authors attribute the origins of this peculiar tradition to Queen Wencheng. She was the Chinese Queen of King Songtsen Gampo. This may refer that the Gadri may have been originated from a Chinese tradition.
This tradition may draw influence from the Chinese artistic traditions. 
So, a question might arise, Is karma Gadri a Tibetan Tradition?
Yes, it is derived from the experiment of the 8th Karmapa. He first learned Old Menri from the E region and started the Karma Gadri tradition. He has been acknowledged as the originator of the Karma Gadri tradition in all the authoritative texts. He himself was trained in the Menri tradition. Although it has some stylistic influence drawn from Chinese painting, Karma Gadri is a uniquely Tibetan painting tradition.
This view was confirmed by Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche. He said that the first art lineage in Tibet was Nepalese. After this, the lineage of Metangpa, Khyentse and the Three Tashis (refers to the Karma Gadri Tradition) were originated.
Many other smaller traditions also evolved over this period.

Karma Gadri Thangka Masters

Menla Dondrup:

This tradition originates from Menla Döndrup, the founder of Menri. We must follow the criteria set up by him. He was the first Tibetan artist to outline a unique Tibetan tradition.

As an incarnation of Manjushri, he was the first to compile the supreme art teachings. Translated into Tibetan from the original Indian Buddhist texts. As he translated them into Tibetan, his work is hail as the beginning of Tibetan art. Hence, any artist from Tibetan art traditions must acknowledge the source of his or her lineage.
Eventhough Tulku Leu Chung's disciple Tulku Chiu came before Menla Döndrup, he is placed second in many traditional historical accounts. This is because Menla Döndrup is the first artist of a Tibetan tradition. Thus all other art traditions are counted after him.
From this common source of Menla Döndrup evolved many other styles such as Menri, Mensar, Tsangdri and Karma Gadri.
This also proves that he is acknowledged as the founder of all Tibetan painting traditions.


He himself drew from Nepalese and Indian traditions while developing his style as something unique. It is the same as saying that all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism are different. Even though, they are derived from Buddha Shakyamuni.

Hence, all Tibetan traditions of Thangka paintings originate from Menla Döndrup. He should be appreciated. Although they follow the guidelines and measurements of the Indian Buddhist texts exactly, they are uniquely Tibetan tradition

The Great Three Tashi:

1. Yardo Tulku Namkha Tashi:

This tradition was further expanded in the late 1600 or early 1700s. Yardo Tulku Namkha Tashi further, experimented with this tradition of thangka painting. He was considered to be a manifestation of the 8th Karmapa as his art emanation. Born in Yardo, he followed many teachers and became very learned in the five sciences. He went to E regions and studied with Queen Wencheng's emanation. Könchok Pende(named), who taught him the style of the Old Menri tradition.

After this, the 8th Karmapa went to Beijing. He brought back an embroidered thangka depicting his journey back to Tsurpu Monastery. When Namkha Tashi saw this beautiful embroidery, he had a memory of his previous life as a Chinese artist. From that time started to change his painting style.

Zhamar Könchok Yenlak and Gyaltsap Drakpa Döndrup also gave him the idea. To change the landscape features in his paintings to a Chinese style. But he kept the deities' bodies exactly as he had learned from the Old Menri tradition. Thus he founded the Karma Gadri lineage, which continues to this day.

2. Chö Tashi: A great artist who studied and propagated the Karma Gadri tradition.

3. Karshö Karma Tashi: He developed and propagated this lineage in the place named Karshöma.
These three artists, the three great founding teachers of the Karma Gadri tradition. Thus became known as the Three Tashis'.

Other Famed Tibetan Thangka Masters:

Dakpo Gopai Zhalngo:

He was one of the great artists of the Karma Gadri tradition. He was prophesied by the 8th Karmapa. He and Karma Rinchen became great sculptors. But their sculpture lineage no longer exists.

10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje 

In 1604 the great 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje was born. He first learned Menri in Lhodrak Chukhyer from Tulku Tsering. Later he saw the Chinese thangka depicting the sixteen Arhats known as the Sitang Yerpa Rawa. He copied the painting and then replicated it many times. He learned more about the Chinese landscape and followed the Karma Gadri tradition. But he adapted it to his own technique, thus starting his own style of painting. He was a great master. He was considered to be sent by the Avalokiteshvara to create art and poetry. He wrote the Radiant Victorious sun Art Manual.
The detailed explanation on Deity Paintings, which by merely being Seen Brings Success.

Situ Panchen, Chökyi Jungne (1700-1774):

The 8th Tai Situ Rinpoche, was born in Derge in eastern Tibet. One of the greatest masters of the Kagyu school, he was the famous artist of Karma Gadri style. At 5, he already knew how to read and write. At the age of seven, he was given the name Situ Chökyi Jungne by the 8th Zhamarpa. He studied the five sciences under the tutelage of Deumar Geshe Tenzin Puntsok. He became one of the most famous and learned masters of the Karma Kagyu lineage. His name resounding as far as China, India, Nepal, and Mongolia.

In 1727 he started to build Palpung Monastery. Once it completed, he designed and oversaw all the interior murals. He wrote thirteen books, many on astrology and medicine, and notably commissioned. He painted many thangka, improving the Karma Gadri lineage and making it renowned in the world.

He painted about 40 thangka depicting the tales of the past lives of Buddha Shakyamuni, as well as the Karma Kagyu lineage masters.

These thangka and his other artworks in the Karma Gadri style are famous around the world, as some of the greatest artworks this lineage has produced. 

He improved the Karma Gadri lineage by investigating all the other Tibetan painting traditions. Incorporating the best features from each on of them. One of his disciples, among many other high lamas, was the thirteenth Karmapa.

 Source: Art of Awakening

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