Buddhist Art: Tibetan Thangka Paintings

June 16th, 2014

Buddhism lies at the heart of all Tibetan art with thangkas (in Tibetan thang yig meaning ‘recorded message’) emerging as one of the most important Tibetan art forms. Tibetans have always revered thangkas as a treasure of great value and today the popularity of Tibetan thangkas has spread throughout the world.

Tibetan Thangka Paintings available at sabai designs gallery

The beginnings of Tibetan art can be traced to the time of King Songtsen Gampo of the 7th century who married Nepalese and Chinese princesses, both Buddhists, who each brought with them their Buddhist shrines. By the 8th century, Buddhism was established as the state religion and Tibetan Buddhist art began to flourish, embracing the iconographical art of India as well as notable influences from China and Persia.

Thangkas or scroll paintings first originated in India and served as a richly symbolic portrayal of the cyclic nature of the world of samsara or illusion and the means of transcending it as taught by the Buddha. This form of thangka is commonly referred to as the ‘Wheel of Life’. Buddhist pilgrims would travel with thangkas rolled up, unfurling the paintings in village squares to help convey the basic tenets of Buddhism including the binding nature of desire, ensuing suffering, and the source of karma which keeps one ‘lashed to the wheel’ of material existence with inevitable rebirth.

In Tibet, where a significant number of the population was nomadic, thangkas developed a wider use. They always accompanied the caravan of monks and abbots in what was essentially a mobile temple. It is recorded in the ‘Book of the Crystal Rosary’, that when the 7th Karmapa, Chotrag Gyamsto (1454-1506) traveled, over 500 donkeys were required to transport the tents, religious documents, portable shrines, decorated banners and other paraphernalia. To provide a sense of the magnitude of this traveling monastery, it’s thought that as many as 10,000 monks would participate in this style of itinerant Buddhist camp, or in Tibetan, gar.

Iconography of Tibetan Thangkas
Iconography of Tibetan Thangkas

The art form of creating thangkas was most often passed on from father to son as a family tradition with a long apprenticeship requiring commitment and discipline. Typically, a thangka would be commissioned by a monastery and the master artist would be surrounded by students including his sons while he worked. The apprentices would fill in colour and perform the less demanding aspects of painting the thangka. Master and apprentices would be well taken care of by the monastery while the work was being completed with weekly feasts held and gifts presented. Final payment for the thangka may have included livestock, butter, cheese, grain, clothes, and jewellery.

Most thangkas are painted on linen stretched over a wooden frame, though Chinese silk was sometimes used. The linen would be prepared with chalk mixed with a thick gummy substance such as animal based glue.  With the excess base scraped off and the cotton dry, a charcoal outline would be drawn. Natural pigments used to apply colour included blue from lapis lazuli, pink from flower petals, red from cinnabar, green from tailor’s greenstone, and yellow from sulphur. After the basic colouring of the various elements of the painting had been completed, the master would add shading and 24K gold which would be burnished with an agate stone. The eyes of the celestial spirits, and lastly the Buddha, signaled the completion of the painting of the thangka in the “opening of the eyes” celebration. Later, silk brocade would sometimes be added in blue, green, red and yellow, with a curtain falling over the front of the thangka regarded as a ‘door’ leading into the ‘world’ depicted in the painting. Wooden dowels act as support rods top and bottom. Thangkas were sometimes created using silk appliqué or embroidered silk. Mantras written in the ancient language, Sanskrit, may also be added in designated panels at the bottom of the painting.

Tibetan Thangka 'Life of the Buddha'

While the creation of thangkas was mostly undertaken anonymously by lay people whose family had a long lineage of passing on the tradition from one generation to the next, occasionally artistically disposed gurus or abbots painted thangkas to express their own deeps insights and thereby enrich the body of spiritual understanding for future students of Buddhism.

As well as being used as instructional aides to convey the teaching and life of the Buddha, thangkas serve as subjects of meditative inquiry, particularly when in the form of the mandala. As well as monasteries, thangkas are found in the homes of lay people, though sadly, most were confiscated or destroyed during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

For information on the specific iconography found in the “Life of the Buddha” and “Wheel of Existence” form of thangkas, please visit the individual pages for the thangkas currently offered in the gallery in the Buddhist Art category. The three thangkas listed are from Ladakh, in the Indian Himalaya, where about half of the inhabitants are Tibetan Buddhists. The thangka coded ABA51 is a rare museum quality piece from the 19th century.

Images from Ladakh, India, where the thangkas offered in our gallery were created.
Images from Ladakh, India, where the thangkas offered in our gallery were created.