Thangka means "thing that one unrolls" or "something that can be rolled up" in classical Tibetan, alluding to the 'scroll painting' nature of thangkas. These paintings are an integral part of Buddhism and a unique art form combining art and spirituality. An ancient art form, Thangka painting roots back thousands of years and has been preserved to date through generational practice.
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These paintings are typically done on cotton or silk canvas with naturally pigmented paints. They are vibrant in color and depict the various deities of the Buddhist pantheon, mandalas, and scenes from Buddhist scripture that hold deep meaning for practitioners of Buddhism. These depictions aid in one's meditation and spiritual practice and have been practiced by Buddhists for over a thousand years.
Apart from being a spiritual element in Buddhism, the thangka paintings are also used as decorative pieces in homes and monasteries. They are filled with heavy symbolisms and signify various spiritual and divine ideas or concepts; hence, they are used in one's journey to enlightenment or religious ceremonies and rituals. Portable in design, thangka paintings have a variety of techniques involving different ways of painting, embroidery, and appliqué with standard practice.
History and Significance of Thangka Painting
As per the Buddhist lore, thangkas originated from the time of Sakyamuni Buddha. According to the story, King Uttrayan Bimbisara of Magodha commissioned a painting of Buddha to compensate King Uttrayana of Dadok for the armor made of gemstones. However, due to the blinding holiness of the Buddha, the painters could not paint him and, instead, observed his reflection in the water to complete the commission, capturing the Buddha's spiritual reflection in the Thangka, making it a spiritual force of divinity. This precisely marks the beginning of the tradition of thangka painting. This particular legend also encapsulates the spirituality of thangkas.
According to a historical perspective, however, the origination is not clear as there is no concrete evidence of when exactly thangkas arrived in Tibet. Still, according to records, the paintings became popular between the 7th and 12th centuries. Thangka painting roots back to India which then traversed to Tibet and formed a distinctly new Tibetan art style with heavy Nepalese and Chinese influence.
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The art form gained popularity in Tibet during the 7th century when Buddhism was introduced to the country by Indian monks. Thangka paintings were used as teaching aids by Buddhist teachers, who used them to illustrate the teachings of the Buddha. Over the years, Thangka evolved into a more sophisticated art form as Tibetan artists developed new techniques and styles. During the 13th century, a new style of Thangka painting emerged, known as the Newari style, which was influenced by the art of the Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.
Thangka Painting's significance in Buddhism
Thangka paintings carry rich Buddhist symbolisms and depict various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. These paintings, unlike regular paintings, have a specific meaning and are used to aid practitioners in visualizing Buddha's teachings. Meditating on a thangka is believed to connect with the divine and help gain a deeper understanding of the teachings of Buddhism. The deities, mandalas, or scenes from the life of Buddha are some of the frequent subjects of thangka paintings.
Thangkas also play an essential role in the ceremonial aspect of Buddhist practice that is very prominent in Tibetan Buddhism. Considered sacred, they are treated with great respect and revered during many daily rituals, festivals, and other religious ceremonies. They have the power to invoke the blessings of the deities depicted in the paintings. It also teaches Buddhist philosophy and history, as the paintings are filled with Buddhist iconographies and symbolisms that convey specific ideas and concepts. The deities depicted in Thangka paintings are not meant to be worshipped as external beings but as manifestations of the enlightened mind within us.
Besides their religious significance, Thangka paintings have become a staple of Himalayan art and Buddhist artistry and are valuable works of art. The paintings are highly sought after by devotees, art enthusiasts, and collectors worldwide. The industry of thangka painting has broadened, and recently, with the rise of global and e-markets, the thangka paintings are garnering significant interest. With newer techniques like embroidery and appliqué techniques and the corporation of newer materials like synthetic fiber paintbrushes or acrylic colors instead of historically used animal hair or natural mineral pigments, the world of thangka paintings is expanding.
Types of Thangkas
On a surficial viewing, thangka paintings can look like one same big style, but thangka paintings have had a variety of styles, each with its distinctive characteristics. Let us dive into the many styles of Thangka paintings:
- Karma Gadri Thangka:
An authentic Tibetan style of Thangka painting originated in the Karma Gadri tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, where the paintings are primarily used as aids in meditation. The inception of the Karma Gadri tradition is owing to the experimental artistic endeavors of the esteemed 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje (1507-1554). Renowned as a great Karmapa, a prolific learner, and an accomplished meditation master, he was also a visionary artist, deeply passionate about the arts. The style is also known as 'Karshöma,' an eastern region in Tibet where the thangka painting was preserved.
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The name Karma Gadri (gar-bris) means 'camp style,' referring to the Karmapa encampments, the early customs of Karmapa hierarchs of traveling with their followers where they would have to set camps called 'huge religious encampments of the Karmapa,' or the 'huge camp which adorns the world.' Depiction of various deities, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas with a gold or silver background and symbols from Buddhist mythology are frequent subjects in this style of thangka paintings. It is also renowned for its intricate details, vibrant colors, and precise technique, garnering it the title of the most highly regarded form of Thangka painting.
- Menri Thangka:
The style of Menri Thangka painting was founded by the talented artist Manthangpa Manla Dondrub during the late 15th and early 16th century. It is a testament to the cultural heritage of Tibet. The term 'Menri' signifies the 'Medicine Mountain' when translated from Tibetan, representing the earliest incarnations of thangka painting. The Menri thangka style has become the foundation for Tibetan painting.
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Menri style of thangkas is renowned for its vivid and dynamic hues, meticulous attention to detail, minimalist spaciousness, and depiction of Bon deities. Recently, some artists have asserted that there are three styles under the Menri umbrella, namely, original Menri, new Menri, and old Menri, which emerged later in an attempt to revitalize the original Menri style. One example of the Menri painting tradition is the Sarvavid Maha Vairochana painting, which contains an extensive inscription composed by the 5th Dalai Lama, who explained that the painting was completed in the Menri style for the funeral of a Mongolian prince.
- Ngor Thangka:
Originating in the Ngor Monastery of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism, this style of thangka painting flourished in the central region of Tibet. This style incorporates intricate detailing, ornate designs, and bold use of color, which are applied meticulously and precisely. It adheres to the Sakya tradition and its esoteric teachings that emphasize the importance of clarity, accuracy, and authenticity in its depictions of Buddhist iconography, religious figures, and wrathful deities. It is a highly revered style of thangka painting style in Tibetan Buddhism.
- Newari Thangka:
Preceding the Tibetan Thangka painting styles, the Newari style of thangka paintings, also known as ‘Beri,’ served as the influence for the Tibetan styles. The style came into prominence during the last decades of the 12th century within the Newari communities of Nepal. The style of Beri, or the Newari Thangkas, was a classic Indic style inspired by the Pala-Sena style. The characteristic manner of this style is intricate linework and using vegetal scrollwork as the embellishing components to occupy, for instance, body or head nimbuses or fields in the background of mandalas and the use of vibrant colors. This painting style was prominent from the late 12th to the early 17th century.
Making a Thangka Painting: Materials and Techniques
Historically, thangkas have been painted by lamas or Buddhist priests, however, lay painters eventually started thangka paintings as well after undergoing extensive training in traditional art under the guidance of lamas. Producing a thangka painting is a meticulous and protracted endeavor, commencing with the preparation of the canvas, sketching out the figure, and, finally, adding colors to the piece. First, the canvas is smoothly stretched. The outline of the deity and composition is sketched first in pencil and later with a delicate brush, with the application of colors to follow.
Thangka is the visual representation of spiritual truth, and the artist functions as a medium, with the figures and composition drawn according to strict guidelines. Buddhist art places great importance on stance, gesture, mood, and color. The artist sketches the outline of the deity in pencil or charcoal per the iconographic grids, and completing a fine thangka may take several months. Let us look into the steps of producing a thangka.
- Setting up the Canvas:
Choosing the appropriate canvas for the painting is the foremost and most crucial step. The canvas is strung on a bamboo frame, which is subsequently stretched onto a wooden frame to ensure uniform tension and make it easier to paint. It's essential to choose a light-colored canvas with a fine texture. Pure white poplin or cotton cloth is a good choice, as well as white silk without any pattern. Canvases that are too thick or hard are avoided as they can cause the paint to peel and the canvas to wrinkle and crack.
Before painting, a thin layer of glue is applied to the canvas as a "base color" and let to dry. Then, a thin layer of lime paste is applied. Once the second layer of paint is dried, the canvas is spread over a flat surface like planks or tables and repeatedly rubbed until the cloth on the canvas is no longer visible with a piece of glass, a shell, or a boulder.
- Sketching process
After perfectly setting the canvas, the next step is sketching the subjects out, but the lines are determined before that. The primary positioning lines, also known as the foundational lines, are drawn. These lines include sidelines, the vertical center line, two diagonal lines, and any additional characteristics that need to be marked. After positioning the lines, charcoal or black ink is used to sketch out a particular subject depending on the size and complexity of the thangka painting. This stage can take between 10 to 30 days to complete.
However, before setting ink to the canvas, the artists study the image's description in a religious text and might consult a lama to clarify any confusing details. It is also normal for artists to partake in purifying rituals by bathing, taking vows at dawn, and meditating on their duty. Repetitive recitations of sacred Buddhist syllables are simultaneously done throughout the entire thangka painting, differentiating the paintings from other works of art; it is inherently sacred.
- Constructing the Paintbrush
One of the critical components of creating a fine thangka painting is brushes. These brushes are constructed strictly and meticulously for the most quality results. The hair brushes are made from the hair of various animals, such as goats, ox, and squirrels. The finest brushes are made from the hair of the tail of a male sable, which is native to Siberia, while it is a tradition to use cat hair for the finest brushes in Central Tibet. However, fiber brushes made from synthetic fibers are also used as they are less expensive and more accessible. High-quality fiber brushes are made from nylon or polyester and are durable and maintain their shape well.
Different types of brushes are used to create the different motifs in the painting. Bamboo brushes, made out of bamboo shoots, are used for large, bold strokes, hence are suitable for painting on rough surfaces. Calligraphy Brushes made from animal hair or synthetic fibers are used for lettering. And detail brushes are used for small, intricate details. After each use, brushes must be cleaned thoroughly with plain soap and water or a specialized brush cleaner. Once cleaned, they should be reshaped and left to dry completely before storing them. Brushes should be stored in a dry, cool place, preferably with the bristles facing up to prevent damage to the shape.
- Incorporating Color
Before applying the paint to the canvas, mixing the colors to find the perfect color is very important. In the thangka tradition, colors use a variety of minerals and vegetable substances, such as precious stones, bark, leaves, flowers (especially the rock rose), gold, silver, copper, etc. Each substance has to be collected from its source in different areas of Tibet, cleaned, ground, powdered, crushed, or cooked. It should be pointed out, however, that chemical-based pigments are also readily available and used in present thangka paintings. The artist continuously tests the colors by applying them on the edges of the canvas and letting them dry. This is done so because the paint's actual color is only revealed after it has dried completely.
With the colors ready to be applied, the eyes, lips, nose, hands, feet, and other subjects are painted. Different scenes depicted in the painting are used with corresponding colors one color at a time, starting with light and then dark. The success or failure of a thangka frequently depends on how skillfully the face is painted. Therefore beginning the face painting on a good day is a usual ritual. It is an essential element of the painting. It is also quite common in the thangka tradition to incorporate gold color, especially to draw patterns on the clothes, called "gold painting." Other decorative parts of the painting may also be lined with colorful lines.
Different Thangka painting traditions in various regions:
Thangka paintings have been a prominent art form in the Himalayan region, especially in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. The art form has been practiced in these regions for centuries, but all regions have unique interpretations of thangka painting.
- Nepalese style: Known as Pubhas, the tradition of thangka painting in Nepal dates back millennia, with the oldest Thangka dating back to the 14th century. The Newar people were extensively involved in the Nepalese thangka tradition and had their style of Thangka called 'Beri.' Typically, the Nepalese style is characterized by its fine line, delicate details, and vibrant colors. It features more realistic depictions of Buddhist deities with intricate patterns and designs filling the background. Another unique feature of the Nepalese style is the depiction of many Hindu gods and goddesses like Ganesha, Lakshmi, etc.
- Bhutanese style: Incorporating bold colors and expressive brushwork is prominent in the Bhutanese style. At the same time, the subjects or figures are often minimalist in details and shading but significant and iconic. This style reflects the influence of Bhutanese architecture, known for its bright colors and geometric shapes. Historically, the tradition dates back to the 17th century.
- Tibetan style: Perhaps the most well-known, the Tibetan thangka style is characterized by its intricate patterns, bold colors, and expressive brushwork. This style often features stylized depictions of Buddhist deities and mandalas, and the images are designed to be contemplative. The depictions can also range from realistic to highly stylized and symbolic representations. The Tibetan style of thangka painting is rich with a complex history. The thangkas were first introduced to Tibet through India, where the painting style originated. Tibetan thangka painting was heavily influenced by Nepalese artistry and Chinese, which underwent many changes over the years, forming a unique tradition of their own.
Preserving and Conserving Thangka Painting
Thangka is, by design, made to be rolled up. However, this results in physical and mechanical damage to the composition. Rolling up the Thangka compresses and wears down its surface, especially when the cover is missing. Additionally, the various components varying in thickness and design of the Thangka result in uneven pressure when rolled up. Rolling up thangkas, especially for larger thangkas, causes folds and creases weakening the overall structure of the artwork.
Amongst the many components of a thangka, the silk brocade that borders that Thangka is the most vulnerable one as they are highly susceptible to damage from damp walls, the weight of the painting, and the heavy bottom rod. They are also easily fractured with the repeated rolling and unrolling of the painting. The borders are usually the first to fail. Hence original borders are rare. As thangkas paintings popularly involve painting on silk, cotton, or paper repeatedly rolled up or down, they are incredibly fragile and can quickly deteriorate if not properly preserved. So let us find some ways to conserve better and preserve our precious thangka paintings:
- Handle with care: The first step to conserving a thangka painting is handling the piece carefully. It is highly suggested not to hang the paintings over damp walls. Showcases can be used to protect the thangkas from environmental dust. Even when handling the painting, it is advisable to handle it with clean hands or protective gloves, and it should be handled by the edges gently.
- Careful storage: Thangkas are usually stored or hung over a wall when not in use. However, keeping in damp, unclean spaces can harm the paintings, and similarly, hanging the Thangka for a long time can form creases. Hence, storing it in a clean area or displaying the artwork on a flat surface rather than in a hanging position is highly suggested.
- Understand the significance: Thangka paintings are not just works of art; they are also sacred objects holding religious and cultural importance, so conservation is a highly sensitive task. People in charge of conserving thangkas should be highly knowledgeable of Thangka's iconographic content and social significance as to not compromise the object's original purpose. Considering the original methods and materials used while conserving the Thangka is also crucial.
- Restoration or repairing: In case a restoration or repair is needed, a professional conservator must be contacted who conducts a scientific investigation on the original materials used before any actual treatment takes place. Professional conservators use different methods like removal of previous repair stitching, surface cleaning, humidification, pest eradication, relining, and even technologies to conduct the restoration.
Thangka painting is an ancient and sacred art form that has been practiced for millennia. A combination of artistic expression with spirituality, thangkas are a unique form of artistry that holds deeper meanings and aids devotees on their spiritual journeys. After reading this article, we hope you have a thorough grasp of the Thangka painting. We suggest going to a Tibetan monastery or an art gallery to see these exquisite paintings up close if you want to learn more about this type of artwork.