Thangka: an Inseparable Part of the Tibetan Art Forms

Thangka, also referred to as tangka, thanka, or tanka is a Tibetan Buddhist style of painting often drawn on cotton and silk applique. It mostly depicts Lord Buddha or glimpses of his life, and in some cases, the Mandala art form. The word “thangka” in Classic Tibetan language means “thing that one unrolls.”

According to one of the tales associated with Thangka, Anathapindika, the chief patron of Buddha, after getting his blessing for the alliance, gave his daughter in marriage to the king of Sri Lanka. Following the wedding, the king came to know about Buddha from his wife. Instantly, he got interested in the enlightened master. Therefore, to strengthen the relationship with the state where Buddha resided, the king of Sri Lanka sent several precious gifts to the state of Padna, and its king.

After this event, the king of Padna asked for Buddha’s permission to make a representation of him so that he can gift it to Sri Lankan king along with other gifts as a token of appreciation for his friendly gesture. Buddha agreed to the king’s proposal. However, despite several attempts, none of the artists could draw a representation of Buddha accurately. After some days, Buddha went to a lake. At that time, one of the artists saw his reflection on the water and finally managed to draw his representation on a large piece of cloth, and this is how the art of Thangka came into existence as a visual art form.  

Later on, this painting of Buddha, along with several other precious things, were sent to the king of Sri Lanka. The king liked the picture so much that he ordered to hang it in such a place in his palace from where many people can see it.

Thangka is a peculiar visual art form in which various episodes of Buddha’s life are depicted with the help of different symbols. Out of these four symbols are the most significant. For instance, to describe Buddha’s birth, an artist paints the great Sal tree under which queen Maya (Buddha’s mother) stood during her labor, with seven lotuses arranged in the four directions. As per historical texts, after ten lunar months of pregnancy, queen Maya went to Lumbini grove outside the city of Kapilavastu, and while she held on to the branch of Sal tree, the child came forth from under her right arm. This incident is the reason that the artists depict Buddha’s birth in this manner in the Thangka paintings.

Additionally, to portray the enlightenment of Buddha, the artists draw Buddha on a throne under the Bodhi tree emanating lights of different colors. According to religious texts, when a person achieves complete enlightenment, his aura changes. Thus, to showcase this aura of an enlightened being, the lights of different colors are drawn.

Similarly, to depict “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta,” which was Buddha’s first sermon to his disciples,  an artist portrays the Lord as sitting on a lotus flower and behind him the “wheel of Dharma.” As per historical records, during his first sermon, Buddha had set the Wheel of Dharma into motion. This turning of the wheel symbolizes a revolutionary change brought into the world by an enlightened being.

Finally, to depict the passing of Buddha into Parinirvana, he is drawn lying down on a long throne, that looks more like a bed, between two Sal trees.

To paint Thangka, an artist first performs some purification rituals and prayers, following which he starts the painting by preparing the canvas and drawing the foundation of the artwork. After completing the foundation, the artist mixes different color paints and begins the real work. The complete artwork requires several stages for completion. It usually takes somewhere between three months to a year to complete each Thangka depending upon its size and complexity.

Thangkas fall into several categories based on the technique and material. Usually, there are two broad categories: the painted artworks and the embroidered or appliqued artworks on silk. There are also certain subcategories which are more specific, namely:

  1. Tson-tang is the most common form of Thangka. In this form, the canvas is hand-painted with colors.   
  2. Go-tang is a form in which applique work is done to portray a picture upon silk cloth.
  3. Nagtang or Thangka, with the black background, in which the entire painting consists of gold outlines on a black background.
  4. Blockprints Thangka, in which woodcut or woodblock acts as an instrument for printing the paper or cloth.
  5. Tsem-thang, in which artists use embroidery to make the painting over a silk cloth
  6. Thangka with Gold background is an exclusively painted artwork to depict fully enlightened Buddhas.
  7. Mar-tang or Thangka with red background consists of gold color outlines used to draw on a red color cloth.

Thangka paintings are not just significant for their beauty but are also renowned for their use in meditational practices. As per Buddhist people, these artworks help in developing a clear vision of the deity, thus helping in strengthening the concentration and forging a link between the believer and the lord. Besides, Thangkas also act as teaching tools. A Lama or teacher often carries a large Thangka scroll with him to illustrate different dimensions of Buddha’s life while traveling and delivering talks on ‘Dharma.’

Traditionally, Thangkas are rolled up and kept unframed in the form of the Chinese scroll painting, with a silk cover on top of them. This method of storage helps in maintaining the pictures in their original shape for a long time. The Thangka paintings can stay for several years without any damage if kept in dry places so that the moisture in the air does not affect the quality of the silk.

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