Feb 16, 2010

Thangka - An Artistic Tribute to Bodhisatva

I came across Thangka on flickr and loved it. I read more about it and had drafted a post for The Design Enthusiast. The subject of Thangkas was so expansive that I was lost among the number of documents, library material and books I had collected to write this post. However, I still feel I could have written more on this ancient art form.
Image Source : wiki
This is a Bhutanese thangka depicting the Jataka Tales, from Circa 18th-19th century,
Location: Phajoding Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan

 I saw the Calender version of Thangkas framed in a house tour posted in one of my oft visited blogs :) "Once Upon a Tea Time Design Stories" and was inspired to finish and publish this post. I am glad that Thangka is going to be my come-back post after a month long hiatus.

 wiki's definition - Thangka....
A "Thangka," also known as "Tangka", "Thanka" or "Tanka" (Pronunciation: [toːnkoː], the "a" as in the word "water;" the "g" is silent) (Tibetan: ཐང་ཀ་, Nepal Bhasa:पौभा) is a painted or embroidered Buddhist banner which was hung in a monastery or a family altar and occasionally carried by monks in ceremonial processions. In Tibetan the word 'than' means flat and the suffix 'ka' stands for painting. The Thangka is thus a kind of painting done on flat surface but which can be rolled up when not required for display, sometimes called a scroll-painting. The most common shape of a Thangka is the upright rectangular form."

History and Origin of Tibetan Thangka and  Fresco
The origin of Thangka dates back to the early Tubo Kingdom in Tibet region. This art is said to have been prevalent as early as 3rd century AD, in Nepal.

Circa, 605 CE, King Srong Tsan Gampo united Tibet. As part of a political diplomacy,  he married Princess Chizun, also known as Princess Bhikruti of Nepal and Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty. He constructed Potala Palace and decorated them with murals and Fresco, and there by promoted Tibetan style of painting. Princess Bhrikuti, a devout buddhist, is said to have brought the images of Aryawalokirteshwar and other Nepalese deities and the Nepalese art form - Thangka to Tibet.

Fresco and thangka are two most popular forms of Tibetan painting and a major Buddhist art form in monasteries. Thangka is thus one of the oldest art forms still in existence. There are records of fresco on monastery walls which date back to the times of Lord Buddha and the early Buddhist monks who lived in Himalayan monasteries of Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and India. This makes Thangka at least 2000 years old. Over the centuries, Nepali and Chinese art have had a significant influence on Tibetan painting and art in general. This is reflected in the facial features of an image or the depiction of scenes and backgrounds in a Thangka.

As of today,  we can find exquisite Tibetan, Nepali and Bhutanese versions of Thangkas on murals and fresco in monasteries and palaces, and as scroll on cotton and silk.
Image source: artsfish.com

There are prints and postcard version for those who cannot afford original Thangkas.

Thangka  - technique and process
Painted Thangkas are done on cotton,  canvas, or silk cloth and mounted on silk brocade. Colours used are water soluble mineral and organic pigments, treated with herbs and natural glue.

Thangka painting techniques follow stringent iconographic rules. From the way a canvas is prepared to the actual drawing, painting, and mounting the finished work in brocade, are all done with meticulous detail.The technique used to paint arms, legs, eyes, nostrils, ears, and various ritual implements are all laid out on a systematic grid of angles and intersecting lines. It is more like assembling a painting with icons of existing clip art for example, objects such as the alms bowl, animals, or even the shape, size, and angle of a figure's eyes, nose, and lips etc are painted using strict geometric grids

Although the process seems to be too mechanical and very scientific, an artist needs to have a strong understanding of the symbolism involved to capture the spirit of the thangka he creates. Most of the Thangkas are explicitly religious and every symbol or emotion depicted must follow the guidelines laid out in Buddhist scripture.

 Image source: tibettrip.com
Mural of Chenrezi - the bodhisattva of compassion, Palkhor Monastery, Shigatse

Image source: wiki
Bhutanese thangka of Mt. Meru and the Buddhist Universe, 19th century
Location: Trongsa Dzong, Trongsa, Bhutan
Buddhist monks who traveled from one monastery to another used thangka paintings as a teaching tool which could be rolled up and carried around. As of today, Thangkas are more than just wall hangings or art. A well made Thangka is an exquisite piece of art and is used  - 
  • as a teaching tools when depicting the life of Buddha
  • as a medium describing historical events related to Lamas, narrating myths associated with various deities. 
  • as the centerpiece during a ritual or ceremony 
  • as a meditation tool to help bring one closer to divinity
Image Source: wiki
About the Thangka (above) : 19th Century Mongolian distemper with highlights of gold, depicting Shakyamuni flanked by Avalokiteśvara and Manjushri The form of Manjushri depicted here, is not wielding the characteristic flaming sword, but there are many forms of the eight great bodhisattvas, some are based on the Indian tradition, and other from visions of historical masters.

Image source: Flickr

Thangkas are believed to create positive influences in their surroundings and awaken the mind and energize consciousness. It is also believed that we could accumulate good deeds by just looking at a thangka. Also, one could attain inner salvation by meditating on thangkas.

Types of Thangkas
  • The most common ones are painted in colors
  • Cloth Appliqué
  • Blockprints
  • Embroidered 
  • Based on the Background - Gold, Black or Red

Popular Subjects
A thangka generally portrays the Life and teachings of Buddha, any other religious deity, or a concept in Tibetan cosmology, astrology or medicine. These paintings generally represent Buddhist and Hindu Gods, Goddesses, meditating Buddha and His life cycle, wheel of Life, Mandala, Bhairab, Manjushree, Green Tara etc.

Image source: thangkas.com
Thangka artists
The thangka painters are mostly men who start while they are very young. They are trained by an experienced artist in the family for over 10 years. The art of making Thangka is passed down from one generation to another and is generally maintained as a family secret. Economic conditions of these artists was deplorable until a few years ago. However, a few of them have been able to open their own galleries owing to a nominal demand for this art form in the international market.
Image source: wiki
Times have changed and the Art of Thangka making has spread to the west. I get to see quite a few Thangka workshops being held by monks across various locations in the USof A. Back in Nepal, Students are also trained in Thangka schools. Here is a detailed video about Thangka making...You could find the remaining parts posted in youtube...(I recommend that you see them to understand this art form better) 

I would love to own a Thangka one day or at least visit a Tibetan Monastery to appreciate it in its original splendor!!! Ah!! Before I end this post...here is a beautiful video I d like to share .....


  1. wow,what a post,sudha,amazing research on this

  2. hi Lakshmi
    Thank you and I am glad you liked the post....I loved reading about Thangka and sort of got lost in the research...and I guess it shows !! :)

  3. Beautiful paintings... the colors, curved shapes, intricate details... everythign together makes these paintings a veritable treasure. Each painting seems to be an epic on its own. I love this post, and thanks for sharing this wealth of information.

  4. I m glad we both feel the same way about the richness of this art form....I first saw a Mandala being drawn with colours in my University Cultural fest and fell in love with it...it was while writing this post that I could relate to the Mandalas from Tibet and the Thangkas.

    Every mandala they create is so intricate and beautiful that you need to see it in person to believe its awesomeness!

  5. Absolutely lovely post and very informative..

  6. hi anuradha
    thank u..im glad u like the post

  7. I have been wanting to read this post for a very long time. Finally completed it today. Lovely post. Iam a fan of your research :)
    I had done a post on a Tibetian Temple and after reading thins post, iam looking at it differently. Here is the link http://www.in2s.us/li you take a look too.


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