Thangka, An Introduction to Tibetan Art

What is a Thangka?

Thangka is the sacred subjects and images in the form of painting. The source of Tibetan thangka painting is the Buddhist doctrine. To acknowledge the depth of the artistic tradition of Tibet, we need to understand the philosophical foundation of Vajrayana Buddhism.
It is full of profound symbols which are strictly religious, made with a strict guidelines as mentioned in Buddhist sacred texts. It is used as a major tool for various functions by the practitioners. Some of these major functions are as below:
  • Used as tool for visualization while meditating
  • Teach student and monks
  • Describe various historical events associated with Buddhism
  • Used during ceremonies while offering prayers

However, the most important aspect of thangka art is that it offers a valuable manifestation of the deity. By stimulating the visualization during meditation, thangka is very helpful for the Buddhist practitioners.Thangka painting

 Click here to view original collection of the hand-painted Thangka.

Importance of Thangka in Tibetan Buddhism

In Buddhist practice, the art of painting thangka is regarded as one of the essential constituents of the five great subjects of learning. According to Acharya Asanga (ca. 350 A.D.), every practitioner of the Bodhisattva path should learn five subjects: PhilosophyArtGrammarLogic, and MedicineFurthermore, the discipline of Art has many branches, namely painting, sculpture, carving, engraving, etc. Painting is, said by Nagnajit, to be the best of these arts:
"Just as Sumeru is foremost among the mountains, Just as the Ganga is foremost among the rivers, Just as the Sun is foremost among the celestial bodies, Just as the Garuda is the king of birds, Just as Indra is the foremost among gods. So is Painting the foremost among the skills."

The portrayal of Buddha, Tara, Daka, Dakini in the thangka are in fact profound examples of what we can achieve and as reminders to tap our spiritual potentialFor practitioners, the thangka is a powerful meditational tool.
 
When one considers that creative visualization is a critical skill in Vajrayana Buddhism, one can begin to appreciate the usefulness of and the valuable function of thangka paintings. As Dietrich Seckel points out;
 “They take something that is in its essence beyond the form, but reveals itself in visionary forms, adapted to our earthly ability for visualization and conceptualization.”

In the practice of  Buddhist art, the proper creation of supreme images is the accumulation of merit, and the accompanying attitude and motivation is the accumulation of wisdomBecause of the sanctity of the origin of the deities' measurements and proportions, any adjustments or alterations to the tradition are allowed to only someone with higher realizations and knowledge of the profound meanings. 

The Buddhist aspiration is to attain Enlightenment, and supreme art is needed to reach the Bodhisattva levelsThe core purpose of the thangka painting is to help the sentient beings attain EnlightenmentThe depiction of Buddha's body in the thangka helps achieve Buddha's thirty-two major and eight minor marks. 

Origin of the Thangka Painting

Since Tibetan Art and thangka contain core religious aspects, the evolution and growth of the artistic styles are inextricably tied to the emergence and development of Buddhism in Tibet
The practice of depicting Buddha dates back to the time of the Buddha himself. Tibetan legends refer to two such works created during the Buddha's time. the first one is "Thupa Chu Lenma," a Tibetan term that means "image of sage taken from a reflection in the water." It is believed that the artist has painted the image of the Buddha from a reflection in the water as the Buddha's face was too glorious to behold.
 
The second one is "Hoed Zerma," meaning "radiation light." When the princess of Singala requested a portrait of Buddha, he emitted light rays from his body onto a cloth enabling the artist to draw his form.  

So what makes the Thangka, A Sacred Art?

"Sacred art is not just a representation of symbols and ideas. It is a direct experience of inner peace, free from attachment to the illusory solidity of the ego and the phenomenal world."

The Tibetan thangka meaning goes deeper than just sacred art and conveys reverenceAn art form is genuinely sacred when it awakens a direct experience deeper than our ordinary selves and the material world in the mind. 

Fundamental Concepts of Thangka Paintings

The Traditional Thangka Painting is believed to be strung together with tradition. So, the common knowledge is the thangka’s tendency to disallow any ample artistic freedom. That is not to say that there isn’t room for exploring aesthetics and showcasing creativity.

The stylistic variations and artistic liberty within the parameters of the given traditional structure are appreciated. There is plenty of space for full creative expression since many of the figures are illustrated from personal mystical visions of the Buddhist saints.

The important thing is to establish the almost spiritual connection between the artist and the painting early on. No two paintings are the same by this virtue, even if they are copied. Each has a life of its own. Every time the artist handles a brush, there comes a different style and a new aspect. It is an enigma in itself. New ideas hence take form like pearls in the infinite ocean of creativity. Be it traditional art or modern art, the fact remains that an artist ‘creates’ and ‘communicates’ through the act of applying a brush to a canvas.

1000 armed AvalokiteshvaraClick here for High-quality Thangka prints.

And so, each form of art, no matter how it is classified, becomes an artist’s expression. There are different types of thangkas.

Types of Thangka

There are basically four types of Thangka:
  1. Regular (multicolored) Thangka
  2. Black Thangka
  3. Gold Thangka
  4. Red Thangka.

Regular Thangka:

Regular Thangkas are the most common ones found and being practiced by artists all over the globe. They have gained popularity over time through their simplistic yet eloquent style and the use of a diverse color palette. The artist has the liberty to experiment with shades and hues, and depict the various deities or Buddhas by bringing their imagination to the canvas and using many different colors. There is a great deal of stylistic variation observed in these regular thangkas as it is easier to mix around and experiment with the colors and see what works best to an artist’s particular style. Not only is it beautiful but it is also very creative and gives the artist enough room for self-expression, communication, and learning.

Buddha thangka

Click here to view the collection of Buddha thangka

Black Thangka:

The Black Thangkas contrast the other types of thangkas with their rather unique features. The background is completely black, and the work is done almost exclusively in gold. Perhaps these specific color combinations are chosen because they represent the powerful aura of the wrathful deities. This is why these types of thangkas are used to depict the wrathful deities.

Mahakala thangka

The most agreed upon the genesis of the Black Thangka says that the ashes of a holy lama were applied to a canvas and later a deity was drawn on in gold. There also exist black texts written in gold like kanjur and prajnaparamita. It is because it is widely accepted that this extensive use of gold, being such a pure substance, accumulates merit. Henceforth, there is every possibility that the Black Thangkas could have, in fact, originated after the black text.

Gold Thangka

To put it plainly, Gold Thangkas are not painted from an aesthetic perspective but rather completed only to earn merit on the part of the patron. It is because of the large amount of gold used in making the thangkas. It provides a similar context to that of Tibetans offering gold to paint the Jowo’s face in Lhasa and also painting the faces of statues in gold. 

An interesting Eastern Tibetan parable speculates the origin of the Gold Thangka. It concerns a highly spiritual Lama who once invited two famous artists one from Chamdo, the other from Central Tibet, to paint his shrine room from him. The Lama showed them his shrine room where they discovered the walls were covered with gold paint. The Lama explained that some time previously, he had actually experienced a vision of radiant gold figures.

He recounted his vision to the artists and asked if they could recreate these figures upon his wall He stated the forms were to be created without the use of sketch work or the application of a single brush stroke upon the gold. The two conceived the idea to utilize the technique of burnishing the gold, executing the outlining and shading with this method. The work was so finely accomplished that t is said the figures were animated in appearance. The artists then being renowned as divine artists The Tibetan term for the work is 'Serku jazer ma', translating into Serku (Gold image) jazer ma (rainbow with radiant), gold images with the radiance of rainbows.

Gold Thangka

Red Thangka:

Red Thangka (dmar thang) is particularly used for peaceful deities. The red background here symbolizes the color of the body of the deity. Vajrapani is the red wrathful protector. Hence, the Thangka that depicts the red wrathful protector showcases the wrathful and ferocious qualities of the deity. Thangka that depicts this deity, illustrates the symbolical stamping of Maya or illusion or any attachment to earthly illusions. This is the inordinate symbolism of the color red that is used in this thangka.  

Buddha Shakyamuni in Red and Gold

Types of Figures in Thangka

In thangka painting, there are various types of figures that can be classified into these types:

  1. Peaceful Deity
  2. Semi-Wrathful Deity
  3. Wrathful Deity
  4. Worldly figures

Peaceful Figures

From the classifications of Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya, the peaceful figures comprise the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

The peaceful Dharmakaya forms include Samantabhadra and Amitabha. The Sambhogakaya forms include Amitayus and Manjushri. And the Nirmanakaya forms include Padmasambhava. Even so, it is not always that they appear in peaceful forms – they can sometimes appear to be semi-wrathful or wrathful too.

4 Armed ChenresigClick here to view our collection of Peaceful Bodhisattva Thangka.

Semi-Wrathful Figures

The semi-wrathful figures fall between the spectrum of peaceful and fully wrathful beings.

They can be either female or male. Kalachakra, Vajrayogini, and Hevajra are included in the Istadevata figures. Vaishravana and Tenma Chuni are included in the Dharmapalas.

Padmasambhava is an ideal example of a mundane semi-wrathful being. The form is less muscular than fully-wrathful beings, especially the female renditions. They are portrayed with varying backgrounds and colors, including ornate decorations, shimmering nimbus, smoke, clouds, or even flames and wind. It essentially depends on the level and character of the individual figures.

Guru RinpocheA perfect example of semi-wrathful figure in Thangka painting.

Click here to view our Collection of Padmasambhava Thangka

Wrathful Figures

The dharmapalas are the protectors of the dharma, so they are usually depicted in these types of figures, along with the occasional Istadevatas in wrathful forms.

For example, Vajrabhairava and Vajrakalika are the most common wrathful figures in the Gelupa and the Nyingmapa sect respectively. The wrathful figures appear in different forms, sizes, and expressions such as Yakshas, Rakshas, and Yamas. The wrathful deities wear the eight adornments. They also wear:

  1. Elephant skin
  2. Tiger skin 
  3. Human skin

There are also the five serpents, diadems of five human skulls, a garland of fifty freshly severed human heads. The last two are the sun and moon on each shoulder, and blood, fat, and ash.

Mahakala Thangka

Worldly Figures:

The worldly figures are generally depicted in the human form with varied and unique characteristics and expressions. These figures include but aren’t limited to the peaceful, semi-wrathful, or wrathful idiosyncrasies. In this type of thangka, the artist is allowed the greatest degree of creative expression and freedom in painting the mundane or worldly features. Their aspects include short stature with a shorter neck and visible skeletal structure and muscle definition, giving them a certain uniqueness among other thangkas.

The general figures can be classified as semi-human figures who showcase different expressions of human forms. The most common figures are Devas, the gods, demi-gods, asuras, nagas and serpent, Garuda, Yakshas and Rakshas, preta, as well as demons. All of these figures in the classification of the Eight Classes of Gods and Demons, display some, if not a lot of human-like features, more or less partially. Hence, they are grouped into this category.

 

Offering Goddess

Jambhala

Another perfect example of Worldly figures is Jambala

Click here to view our Dzambala Thangka collection.

Iconography in Thangka 

Iconography as defined in the sutras and tantras is necessary when depicting the forms of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other many deities, either in thangka or statues or any work of supreme artsIt is very crucial to depict the sacred images with a correct proportion as well as visually pleasing manner. There must be the appealing shape and natural, flowing posture of the deity. 
 
For the peaceful deities, they should be portrayed in calm and smiling and for the wrathful, the portrayal must be angry and terrifying
 
As Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa said, "An artist should not draw the supreme enlightened forms entirely from their own creative inspiration. They must follow the proper conventions of proportion according to the sacred text."
 

Depiction of Buddha in Thangka 

Proportional measurement of Buddha's Head in Thangka
 
Buddha face
The upper part of the Usnisa, also called the "Jewel-Tip" (nor.tog), is two small units in height. Narrow at the tip and wide at the base like a jewel. Below this, the main part of the Usnisa is four small units high and four wide. It is in the shape of an inverted alms bowl or a pile of grain. 

The Forehead: 

The hair of the head is four and one-half small units from crown to hairline and shaped like an inverted pan. The forehead is nine small units wide; from the center of the hairline, it curves gradually to both sides like a bow. 
At a point, four small units below the hairline, in the center of the forehead, is the Urna or mid-brow point (mdzod, spu). Formed by thirty-two fine white hairs coiled to the right. It is drawn as a round dot with a diameter of one small unit. 

The Eyes:  

The eyebrows begin with three basic units (or three-quarters of a small unit) to the right and left of the urna. They are four small units long, one basic unit thick in their centers. And curved in shape like crescent moons. One small unit below the Urna is the lower lines of the eyes. The eyes are drawn as the "gaze of the fourth level of Dhyana (meditative stability)." And are one small unit to either side of the central vertical line. The eyes are four small units long and one basic unit wide, shaped like bows. The upper lines are tapered thinner, the lower lines thicker, and curved upwards.The inner and outer corners of the eyes are red for one-half of a small unit's width. The central white of the eyeball is three small units wide. In the center is the Iris (also, ‘kalita'), round and one small unit (diameter). In the center of that is the Pupil ('sutali'), round with a diameter of one-fifth of a small unit. Surrounding the pupils is a band one-fifth of a small unit wide, called the 'Rim' (mu.khyud). 
Surrounding the pupils is a band one-fifth of a small unit wide, called the 'Rim' (mu.khyud).
This band is traditionally yellow for peaceful divinities. And red and blue for the wrathful ones. The pupil is black, the eyeball veined with red. The eyes are clearly detailed, wide, and lovely. With the outer corners pointing towards the orifices of the ears.

The Nose:

From the mid-brow point (Urna) to the tip of the nose is a distance of four small units. And the tip of the nose is two small units wide. The bridge of the nose between the two nostrils is one-half of a small unit wide. The nostrils are each one-half of a small unit wide. The fleshy outer rims are each one-half of a small unit in thickness. Although some artists draw the nostrils and bridge of the nose one small unit each in width, this is somewhat lacking in beauty. 

The lips:

From the base of the nose to the upper lip is a distance of one small unit. The area above the upper lip has the shape of a lotus petal. The upper lip is one-half of a small unit thick, while the middle of the lower lip is a full small unit in thickness. The distance between the dimples is four small units. The lips are curved upwards for one small unit at the corners, in a gentle smile. There are some traditions where the upper and lower lips are drawn of equal thickness.
And the dimples of the smile curving up only six grains (three-quarters of a small unit). Beneath the lower lip, at a distance of two small units, is the Chin, four small units wide and rounded. 

Ears:

The Earlobes are two small units wide from the outer edge of the face, and four or four and one-half small units at the middle part. The lobes reach just below the level of the chin. Besides the jaw, in front of the orifices of the ears, are lobes of flesh shaped like flower petals. They are one-half a small unit wide and high. The orifices themselves are also one-half a small unit long and wide. The folds, termed (komo), are one small unit wide and high. It is encircled by the two-grain wide folds termed the 'shaku’. Outside these are the folds termed 'kani (ka.ni), which are two small units lengthwise and one across. Outside these are the rims of the upper ears, called 'curves' ('khyil.ba), one-half a small unit in width. They arched over the top of the upper ears to curve in to join the head. And circling down to meet the earlobes: these are also termed 'beka patterns'.

2 comments

Thangkas are amazing tool for meditation. Specially the Kalachakra ones. It gives me peace. Readers interested to know more about Kalachakra can visit: https://www.artoftibet.com/collections/kalachakra-mandala-thangka

Art of Tibet May 08, 2022

This post is so peaceful to look at and learn. Thanks for posting :)

Buddhists December 19, 2021

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