A Tibetan Sacred Art: Origin of The Thangka Painting

Introduction to Thangka Painting

Thangka painting is  the depiction of sacred subjects and images. The source of Tibetan thangka painting is the Buddhist doctrine.  In order to acknowledge the depth of the artistic tradition of Tibet, we need to understand the philosophical foundation of the Vajrayana Buddhism.

The Art of Painting:

In Buddhist practice, the art of painting is regarded as one of the important constituents of the five great subjects of learning. According to Acarya Asanga (ca. 350 A.D.), every practitioner of the Bodhisattva path should learn five subjects: Philosophy, Art, Grammar, Logic and Medicine. Furthermore, the discipline of Art has many branches, namely painting, sculpture, carving, engraving and so forth. 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 Buddhas, Tara, Daka, Dakini in the thangka are in fact the profound examples of what we can achieve and as reminders to tap our spiritual potential. For practitioners, thangka is a powerful meditational tool. When one considers that creative visualization is an absolutely critical skill in Vajrayana Buddhism, one can then begin to appreciate the usefulness of, and the valuable function that thangka paintings have. As Dietrich Seckel points out;

 They take something that is in its essence beyond 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 wisdom. Because of the sanctity of the origin of the deities measurements and proportions, any adjustments or alterations to the tradition is 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 in order to reach the Bodhisattva levels. The core purpose of the thangka painting is help the sentient beings to attain Enlightenment. The depiction of Buddha's body in the thangka helps to attain the thirty-two major and eight miner marks of Buddha.

Origin of the Thangka Painting:

Since Tibetan Art and thangka contain core religious aspects, the evolution and growth of the artistic styles is inextricably tied to the emergence and growth of Buddhism in Tibet. 

The practice of depicting Buddha is said to date back to the time of the Buddha himself. Tibetan legends refers to two such works created during the Buddha's time. the first one is "Thupa Chu Lenma", a Tibetan term which means "image of sage taken from a reflection in the water". It is believed that the artist have painted the image of the Buddha from a reflection in the water as the Buddha's face was too resplendent to behold.

The second one is "Hoed Zerma" meaning "radiation light". At that time, 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. 

 buddhist iconography

 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."

An art form is truly sacred when it awakens in the mind a direct experience deeper than our ordinary selves and the material world.

Iconography in Thangka Painting:

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 arts. It 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 the sacred text".

Leave a comment