A Thangka painting is an art form that originated from Tibet where Buddhist deity or mandala art is painted on canvas and mounted on cotton or silk fabric.
Thangkas are also called thangka or tanka or tangka depending upon where you go. Pauba (Nepal Bhasa) is a Nepalese art form inspired by Tibetan thangkas. It is a derivation from the Tibetan word “Thang Yig” meaning written word.
Thangka paintings are usually scrolled up and kept on textile clothing. Thangkas are incredibly delicate and thus handled with extreme caution. They are protected from moisture and kept in a dry place. The composition of a thangka painting is quite elaborate with tiny small figures. Typically, a Buddhist deity is at the center surrounded by other religious figures.
Elements in Thangka Painting
Thangka paintings offer the life of the Buddha in an artistic form. Thangkas represent learning from the historical life events of the Buddha, the Wheel of Life, Green Tara, Manjushri, Bhairab, Mandala, etc. Other Buddhist deities also feature prominently in Thangkas. The most prominent teaching depicted in Thangka paintings is the wheel of life (Bhavachakra), which represents the lessons from the art of enlightenment.
Thangka paintings also represent the myths and lures associated with Buddhist Lamas. Thangkas are not any ordinary art form. It is a spiritual practice. Thangkas are a unique art form in the sense that they are not framed up for display. They are instead kept rolled up in silk textile when not displayed.
Thangkas are a form of worship that brings one closer to religion. Vajrayana Buddhist practitioners use Thangkas in a way to visualize, internalize Buddha-like qualities onto themselves. Thangkas are a tool used for meditation in Buddhism. A Thangka painting hung in a room brings in positive energy and stables our thought process.
Earlier Thangkas were extensively used for a meditative and religious purpose. But in recent times, they have grown popularity as a souvenir or a decorative item.
Symbolism in Thangka Painting
The birth of Buddha and his immediate seven steps is an important theme in thangka paintings. The artist uses a Saal tree to represent the place where Mayadevi took rest. And the seven lotuses in four directions represent the immediate seven steps.
Buddha on a throne emitting rays of lights represents the gaining of enlightenment by Buddha. The wheel of dharma represents the teaching of Buddha. The Buddha lying on a thorn between two saal trees represent the passing of Buddha.
Here are few other symbolism present in Thangka paintings:
The lotus flower represents spiritual purity in Buddhism. The blooming lotus represents the cycle of life.
The reverberation of the conch shell represents the sound of dharma. The conch shell tells us that Buddha’s teaching has reached his disciples.
The victory banner represents Buddha’s victory over four impeding forces to the path of enlightenment. They are pride, desire, disturbing emotions, and fear of death.
The dharma chakra or the dharma wheel represents the eightfold path of Buddhist teachings. They are namely: view, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
The parasol represents the symbol of protection from destructive forces and to take refuge in the dharma.
The treasure vase represents Buddha’s teachings that grow when shared. It also represents good health, prosperity, and long life.
The lama in Vitarka mudra with his right hand up and his thumb touching his index finger represent a gesture of discussion or reasoning.
The Dhyana Mudra gesture represents meditation or enlightenment.
The Bhumisparsha Mudra hand gesture with all five fingers of the right hand touching the ground represents the Buddha summoning Sthavara. The Buddha is asking Sthavara to witness the defeat of Mara (forces) and attain enlightenment.
The Varada mudra represents the gesture of devoting oneself to human salvation.
Thangka Painting in Nepal
Thangka painting is an art form that evolved between the 7th and 12th century in Tibet. The earliest thangkas in Nepal date back to the 14th century. As the trade between Tibet and the Kathmandu valley increased, the art and culture exchange also became quite significant. As a result, Nepalese thangka art got hugely influenced by Tibetan art and vice versa.
Pauba is an art form inspired by Tibetan Thangkas, and in return, it influenced the modern Tibetan thangkas. The Paubas share some elements of Tibetan thangka painting methods and materials.
Paubas are further divided into Palas and Mandala. The Palas are generally paintings of religious deity whereas a Mandala is paintings of complex symmetrical diagrams and text considered to be the wheel of life.
One of the first Thangkas shows Amitabha Buddha surrounded by Bodhisattva dates back to the 13th century. Newar artists, sculptures and painters were quite famous during the early 12th century, and Chinese and Tibetan rulers invited them to present their work. Nepalese art grew because of the popularity of Arniko in China.
The advent of paper in the early eighteenth century made the use of color more apparent in thangkas. Many Hindu deities like Shiva and goddess Shakti became more prominent in Nepalese thangkas. Other gods like the Mahakala, Hari tara, Manjushri, and the Lokeshowara gained prominence.
Thangkas embodied the feminine components and openly explored the themes of sexuality. The Nepalese thangka paintings soon grew popular due to the distinct amalgamation of Nepalese figures with Tibetan Backdrop. The thangkas gained immense popularity among Buddhists in Nepal. The thangkas originated for meditative and spiritual Purpose, but the business aspects of it have grown ten folds in recent times.
Mandala as the central element in Thangka Paintings
Mandala is a symmetrical holy diagram widely used in Buddhism and Hinduism for meditation and worship. Mandalas are three dimensional and contain religious figures, deities, symbols, and other symmetrical objects. Mandalas are used profusely in religious ceremonies where the mandalas are painted on the floor using sand colors.
As the thangka art form grew popularity, mandala as the centerpiece in thangkas started appearing. Paubas, which are Nepalese thangka paintings, primarily focus on Mandala thangkas. Mandala thangkas are hugely popular as it brings asymmetric aesthetic attraction. The mandala thangkas are profusely used to meditate and believed to bring a positive vibe in the household.
Tantric Buddhism believes in the power of mandala to attain enlightenment. Mandala is also considered a representation of the circle of life. The healing powers of mandala art are widely known and used as a means to gain therapeutic healing. The famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung introduced mandala to the western audience and explains that mandala symbolizes wholeness and helps us to reflect on one’s life.
Symbolism in Mandala Thangka Painting
A mandala art generally consists of symmetrical geometrical figures like circles and squares. The outer circles represent the refuge from hindering forces and other evils. The inner circle of lotus petals represents purity and spirituality.
The square, on the other hand, represents the heavenly place where the heavenly Gods inhabit. There are four doors present on each side of the square representing the gateway to these holy place. The figures and symbols on the outside of the central mandala represent the mortal world where we exist.
Types of Thangka Paintings
There are various types of thangka paintings based on the technique and materials used. They are:
Painted in Colors
These are the most common and sought after thangkas in the world. The artwork done on canvas uses various combinations of bright colors.
Embroidered Thangka paintings are stitched over a piece of clothing as various religious figures are embroidered over it.
In applique thangka, different portions of the artwork painted separately are stuck together to accomplish a more significant thangka art.
Precious bead Thangka
These thangka paintings constitute of precious beads. Gold, silver, pearls, etc. are the valuable elements used in this type of Thangka.
How is a Thangka Painting made?
Earlier Thangka paintings used gemstones minerals and finished with gold. A Thangka artist takes months to complete a Thangka painting as it needs immaculate intricate detailing. The eyes are painted last as they are considered to be a way into the soul.
As soon as the central deity receives their eyes, the painting comes to life and not considered as an object anymore. They are thus treated with the utmost respect. A day-long ritual commences when the Thangka is completed to appease the gods.
Rules for making a Thangka Painting
The practices involving painting a Thangka quite elaborate. A Thangka artist is subject to many regulations starting from choosing the right canvas, mixing the right colors, painting the deity and the surrounding figures, etc. It requires meticulous detailing and marksmanship.
Earlier Thangka artists had to follow strict rules. For example, an artist should not consume meat until the Thangka finishes, keep abstinence from sex and alcohol, should not drink and smoke, etc. however as the advent of the time passed the rules have become flexible, and its practice solely depends upon the artist.
Some other conventions include not touching the Thangka Painting with the feet, hanging thangkas in different directions based on the deity etc.the Mahakala deity is usually hung in the workplace as Mahakala is the god of work.
Process of making a Thangka Painting
Thangka painting is not only an art; it’s also a science. A thangka artist has to be right in measurements as the main deity has to be the main center of the canvas.
Selection of the Canvas
A pure white cotton cloth is the best choice for a canvas for a thangka painting. The artists use glue as their base color.
The artist constructs the initial lining of the Thangka based on the deity and its surroundings. They draw different vertical and diagonal lines to mark the positioning of the deity and the surroundings.
The sketch and Color
An artist sketches the deity or the Buddha by charcoal, called “white Painting.” Then the artist uses ink to draw known as” black painting.” The appropriate colors come into the frame as soon as the sketch is ready. The colors are subtle and based on the theme and background of the Thangka.
Outlining or gold plating
Gold plating starts as soon as the coloring of the thanka is finished.
Drawing the face
The face is drawn at last. The artist draws the lips, nose hands nails at the final stage of the drawing process. A special ceremony commences drawing the eyes of the deity. As soon as the central deity receives their eyes, the painting comes to life and not considered as an object anymore. Thus, the Thangka is treated with the utmost respect.
Cost of a Thangka Painting
An original Thangka Painting would cost anywhere from $1000 to $15000. The cost of a Thangka depends upon its size and the intricate detailing. An artist works up to 8 hrs a day for more than five months to complete an average Thangka painting.
However, Thangka rip-offs are readily available in the streets of Thamel for anywhere between $30 to $200. Only a Thangka expert will be able to differentiate an original from a knock off. These duplicate Thangkas are mass produced for selling as souvenirs.
Best place to buy Thangka in Kathmandu
A buyer needs to check a thangka with extreme scrutiny before buying. In the past, Thangka paintings were hard to find. But nowadays you can easily find a good Tibetan Thangka painting for sale online.
You can contact us for quality thangkas and other handicrafts like a shawl, pashmina, wood crafts, etc. There are a lot of thangka schools around Boudhanath where you will find thangkas by master artists.
Guide for buying a Thangka Painting
Decide on a budget
Your budget is the most crucial factor while purchasing a thangka painting. If you want to gift a thangka as a souvenir, then you would want to buy cheap local mass produced thangkas. Or if you are entirely conscious of your art collection, then you might want an original one.
Decide on a subject
Thangka paintings have Buddhist deities, Hari tara, mandala as their subject. Decide on what type of Thangka you would like to buy and then proceed.
Decide on the size
Thangkas are available from small to several meters in size. If you want a painting that you need to hang in your room or house, then a small to medium Thangka would be best for you. If you want something for your office or religious institution like a monastery, then you might go for something huge.
Browse your options
There are hundreds of thangka shops around the Kathmandu valley and especially around Thamel and Boudhanath. Explore your possibilities adequately before you select on a good thangka painting.
Determine the quality or ask an expert
A thangka expert can easily differentiate between a Thangka Painting made by a student from a thangka made by a master. The more the lines are crisper and fine, the more the thangka is valuable. A thangka painting made by a master will be more expensive than the ones made by a student learner.
Negotiate and buy
A good round of negotiation and bargain can get you a good value of money.
Thangka Painting School in Kathmandu
There are hundreds of thangka painting schools and monasteries in Kathmandu. These schools are mainly present at the premises of religious landmarks like the Boudhanath Stupa, Swayambhunath stupa, etc. Rincheling Thangka Gallery, Old Tibetan Thangka Painting Academy are some of the best Thangka Painting schools in Kathmandu.
Besides these, there are many thangka schools around Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur as well. These schools offer their courses to Nepali and foreigners. You need extreme dedication and passion to complete these varied courses on thangka painting.
Feel free to contact us if you need any help regarding purchasing Thangkas online. Our customer support representative will assist you immediately.