When visiting Tibet you can’t fail to notice the beautiful Thangka paintings that hang from monasteries and home altars across the region. These paintings are full of information about Buddhism and the Tibetan worldview and they buy thangka unite the opposing passions of religion and analysis in their geometric and rule-governed depictions. In them, icons and characters out of Buddhist lore float against brilliantly coloured backgrounds filled with complex Buddhist symbols, swirling landscapes and geometric patterns. In some you can see the teenage bodhisattva Manjushri swinging a flaming sword, symbolically slicing away the artificial dualities of thought. Others depict the Tibetan Wheel of Life, (Bhavacakra) a representation of the endless process of birth, suffering, death and rebirth that unenlightened beings endure – a cycle known as Samsara.
Thankgas comes from the Tibetan
The name Thankgas comes from the Tibetan word ‘thang’ meaning flat and implies how the paintings were created on a flat surface. They come in two forms: goku (cloth images), which are water colours painted on canvas, and the gochen thangka (precious-cloth scroll images), which are woven in silk, embroidered or sewn together.
The painting first emerged around the times of the death of the Buddha Sakyamuni (563-483 BC), who is thought to have founded Zen-Buddhism. When the religion spread throughout the Himalayan region in the seventh century it fragmented into different orders and allowed Nepalese, Chinese and Kashmiri styles to influence the paintings development. The earliest known use of stitchery to create Thangkas dates from the thirteenth century when images were woven and embroidered in China and given as gifts to Tibetan rulers or ommissioned by them. These pieces combined Tibetan artistic style with Chinese textile techniques. By the fifteenth century, the first fabric Thangkas were made in Tibet itself using local “appliqué” techniques usually used to make nomad and festival tents, ritual dance costumes, and altar decorations.
Thangkas then had three different functions; firstly wandering monks carried them to help instil religion and historical teachings in rural populations. They would depict high ranking Buddhist figures and scenes from their lives, the wheel of life, or the Buddha himself. Thangkas were also used for consecration and as gifts to monasteries. They would portray the deities to whom a plea for something would be made. But the largest group of Thangkas were used for meditation and date back to the yoga-tantric practices.
The popularity of embroidered Thangkas grew throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and spread throughout the entire Tibetan Buddhist region, with examples being made in Mongolia, Bhutan, and Ladakh, as well. The Thangkas then broke away from their original functions and were used in temples, home altars and processions. Most monasteries had their own sewing workshops where special pieces were created to display at festivals. Thangkas made from pieced silk were used in very large pieces, as they could be rolled out on hillsides or down the sides of palaces and monasteries.
Great skill and care is needed at every stage in the creation of a Thangka painting and it takes around ten years to become accomplished in the craft. Students will spend their first three years of training learning to sketch the deities. Two more years are then devoted to the techniques of grinding and applying mineral colours and pure gold and in the sixth year, they study the religious texts and scriptures used for their work. Even then they still need another five to ten years to become experts in the field.
The youngest apprentices will begin the making of a Thangka by applying a special treatment to the cotton canvas base. After drying the canvas, the outline drawing is applied. Here an intricate knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and mathematical proportions is needed. Thangka painting is not considered a creative art, so you won’t find any with signatures of the painter on. They are iconographic works, so all the images are based on repeating patterns and the artistic freedom of the painter is limited to colour combinations. The templates either come from copies from the past, from books or were drawn by the master based on old iconographic patterns.
Next backgrounds like the sky or the earth are applied. Here, students learn how to grind local stones into lively reds, deep blues, and electric orange paints. Then shimmering gold patterns are applied using gold leaf which is pressed into powder. Finally the faces of the deities are added by the master. Only when this is done does the Thangka receive its ‘life’.
When Thangkas were still used for religious purposes, they were mostly painted in cloisters. But as visitors started coming to the Himalayas by around the 1960s, painting schools and studios were set up to produces works that tourists buy thangka and art collectors could buy. Some of these schools are managed and sponsored by non-profit organizations that assure the training and employment of young Tibetans. In this way the centuries old tradition still lives on and if you get the chance to visit Tibet, the kaleidoscopic colours and mind bending patterns of the Thangka are a sight not to miss.