Tibetan Thangka

A type of sacred Buddhist painting, Tibetan thangka are created to be used in devotional meditation in places of worship or in private homes. They are intended to help people to contemplate or think about things, often as instructed by a spiritual teacher. A thangka could also be used as a reference for details of posture, attitude. In this way, a thangka provides iconographical information in pictures, but there might also be a text of the same meditation provided in writing.

A thangka comprises more than the painting; because it was designed to be able to be repeatedly rolled up for transport or storage and unrolled for display, it also includes a textile mounting and may include a silk cover, leather corners, wooden dowel rods at the top and bottom and decorative knobs on the bottom dowel. These articles were important in the tent culture of nomadic monastic groups in medieval Tibet. It was common for groups of scholars, yogis and priests to travel by yak to distant areas, pitch their tents, unroll the thangkas and provide spiritual guidance to the local people before packing up and moving on.

During the year, according to religious holidays of the lunar cycle, specific thangkas are removed from storage, unrolled and hung up – sometimes in damp and smoky shrine halls – then taken back down, rolled up and put back into storage. Often the thangkas are stored in airtight tin boxes to protect them from mice and rats, but which does not allow the material to breathe and therefore promoted bacterial growth.

For these and other reasons, existing thangkas from earlier times have sustained damages and it is sometimes difficult to tell if the painting has been remounted or altered. When paint layers are lost or damaged, private collectors and dealers often ask a conservator to ‘inpaint’ all the damaged areas. Sometimes this is just a matter of standard conservation, but with thangkas the issue is complicated because religious and iconographic message must be respected.

The artists who paint thangkas, however, have always been aware that their works would be rolled up and unrolled, and would therefore need to be resistant. They followed specific rules to minimise potential damage when preparing the canvas and applying the paints.


Exactly when thangkas were first made is not known, but their history starts in Nepal in the 11th century when Buddhists and Hindus began to make illustration of the deities and natural scenes. It was through Nepal that Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the seventh century A.D. Afterwards, there was a great demand for religious icons and Buddhist manuscripts for newly built monasteries throughout Tibet.
Religious paintings worshipped as icons are known as Paubha in Newari and thangka in Tibetan. The origin of Paubha or thangka paintings may be attributed to the Nepalese artists responsible for creating a number of special metal works and wall- paintings as well as illuminated manuscripts in Tibet. At first monks and traders took metal sculptures and Buddhist manuscripts to the newer converts in Tibet, but due to increasing demand for religious icons, Nepalese artists initiated a new type of religious painting on cloth that could be easily rolled up and carried along with them. This type of painting became very popular both in Nepal and Tibet and so a new school of thangka painting evolved as early as the ninth or tenth century and has remained popular to this day.
Tibetan and Chinese influence in Nepalese paintings can be seen in Paubhas (The Nepalese name for thangkas). Paubhas are of two types, the Palas which are illustrative paintings of the deities and the Mandala, which is mystic diagrams paintings of complex test, prescribed patterns of circles and square each having specific significance.
One of the earliest specimens of Nepalese thangka painting dates from the 13th or 14th century and shows Amitabha surrounded by Bodhisattva. Another Nepalese thangka with three dates in the inscription (the last one corresponding to 1369 A.D.), is one of the earliest known thangka with inscriptions. The "Mandala of Vishnu " dated 1420 A.D., is another fine example of the painting of this period. Early Nepalese thangkas are simple in design and composition. The main deity, a large figure, occupies the central position while surrounded by smaller figures of lesser divinities.
From the 15th century onwards, brighter colours gradually began to appear in Nepalese thangka. Because of the growing importance of the Tantric cult, various aspects of Shiva and Shakti were painted in conventional poses. Mahakala, Manjushri, Lokeshwara and other deities were equally popular and often appear in thangka paintings of later dates. Because Tantrism embodies the ideas of esoteric power, magic and symbolism, strong emphasis is placed on the female element and sexuality in the paintings of that period.
Thangka paintings show Indian influence in their lining and measurement, costumes, implementations and ornaments while the drawing of figures reflects the Nepalese style and the backgrounds are more Chinese in style. Through time, these diverse influences came together to form a truly unique and distinctive form of art.
Thangkas have developed in the northern Himalayan regions among the Lamas. Besides Lamas, Gurung and Tamang communities are also producing Thangkas, which provides substantial employment for many people.

Creating Tibetan thangkas

In general, Tibetan thangkas may be divided into two main categories: bris-than, or painted thangkas, and gos-than, or embroidered or woven thangkas. The word thangka itself means flat (than) painting (ka). Most of the paintings are upright rectangles, although a few of the paintings or banners are horizontal oblongs (probably influenced by the shape of Chinese hand scrolls).

Painted thangkas may be subdivided into five categories: those with a background of different colours; those with a gold background; those with a red background; those on a black background and those whose outlines are printed on cotton supports and then touched up with colours.

Water soluble pigments, both mineral and organic, are tempered with an herb and glue (sometimes yak glue) solution and used to paint the thangkas on cotton canvas. The process of completing a thangka painting can be divided into six steps, but there were regional styles and various regional techniques (including how to apply the paint, in several thin layers or one thick one) so these steps serve more to give a basic idea of the process rather than define exactly how thangkas are painted by everyone in every region.

It can be said, however, than the artist is not given very much creative freedom when painting thangkas, but must follow prescribed rules concerning the content, colour and proportion and composition of the work. That’s one of the reasons why thangkas are rarely signed. Another reason is that pious Buddhists strive to rid themselves of ego, and signing one’s artwork is seen as an egotistical act. There are exceptions, however. Sometimes eminent teachers like meditation masters will create a thangka that expresses their own insight and experience and might sign the work. Master painters too, sometimes hide their signatures somewhere in the composition.

The first step is to prepare the painting surface, which is extremely important since the work is to be rolled and unrolled and any mistake in the preparation would cause the paint to peel or crack. A piece of open-weave cotton cloth is stretched over a larger wooden frame or stretcher, using strong thread to bind the cloth to the frame with criss-cross laces. A thin layer of gesso made up of glue and zinc oxide is then applied to both the front and the back of the cloth. Finally, a stone or conch shell is rubbed on both sides of the canvas to give it a smooth and lustrous finish.

Next the artist draws the eight major lines of orientation on the blank canvas; a central perpendicular line, two diagonals, a horizontal and four outer borders. Using charcoal or graphite, the artist then sketches the deity in accordance with canonical proportions. The principal personage always occupies centre stage, with acolytes and attendants depicted much smaller in order to stress the majesty of the central figure.

Now the artist is ready to lay down the first layer of colour. There are five basic colours used in Sacred Buddhist Painting, each of which has symbolic meaning: black symbolises killing and anger; white represents rest and repose; yellow stands for restraint and nourishment; red is meant to represent subjugation and green is the colour of exorcising practices. The palette used by thangka painters is said to contain seven ‘father’ colours and one ‘mother’ colour. The father colours are dark blue, green vermillion, orange, maroon, yellow and indigo, and the mother colour , which interacts perfectly with all of these colours, is white. Lighter shades produces by mixing the father and mother colours are called ‘sons’, 14 of which were identified in written evidence form the 18th century.

The strong symbolism attached to the colours can make it difficult for anyone attempting to conserve or restore a thangka. Water damage washes away several layers of pigment or shading layers and yak-hide glue which was often used is especially susceptible to water damage. This peeling away of colours exposes flat colours of under-drawings the artist did not intend to be seen. The original colours were often damaged by greasy butter lamp soot and smoky incense grit as well; comparing the colour at the edges where the canvas was protected by the mounting sometimes provides evidence of this.

For any large project, the artist must visualise the final colour scheme before beginning to paint. The colours he envisions are noted in abbreviation on the sketch, and when he begins to work, he always works in the same direction, starting with the areas farthest away from him and continuing until he concludes with those nearest him. When restoration attempts are made, conservators must be careful not to mistake the artists notes for colours with iconographical lettering. (Often lettering was done at the final stages to identify figures and scenes in formal and delicately rendered scripts.)

After laying down the first coats of flat colour, the artist applies thin coats of dyes diluted in water. In Tibetan thangkas, shading is always down to add effects of volume and dimension to the figures and elements pictured. Cast shadows and highlights and not used and are unknown in the pictorial history of thangkas. Often the empty green field in the foreground gradually fades into the horizon, and effect which is often obtained through‘wet shading’ or gradually blending two adjoining areas of wet paint.

Next, the artist uses outlining to set off objects from the background or to demarcate subdivisions of a certain form, or to emphasise flames and other elements in the painting.

The final stage is adding the finishing details. Facial features are completed and the eyes of the deities are painted. For this ‘eye opening’ part of the process there is an elaborate ritual that is scheduled on an auspicious full moon day. After the vivification ritual the artist paints the eyes in quick, sure strokes. The whites of the eyes are softened with orange and red at the corner ends, eyelid edges are darkened and the iris is added. The two most common types of eyes are ‘bow’ eyes and ‘grain’ eyes, although there are other types including fierce-looking eyes on wrathful deities.

Areas which are meant to be shiny gold are burnished gently with an onyx-tipped tool after first supporting the back of the canvas with a piece of wood. Next, the lace bindings are cut with a knife and the painting is removed from the frame or stretcher. It is then mounted on Chinese silks, and often is given a cover of transparent gossamer silk that can be gathered at the top like a curtain. Narrow sticks are attached to the top and bottom of the thangka so that it can be easily rolled.

This summary provides just an overview of how thangkas were and continue to be produced, but as stated before, there are many regional variations. Thangkas found today are rarely in their original state. The painting might have been created in one part of Tibet and framed in another part of Tibet or even in China or Northern India. The mounting could be in one style and the painting in another. The silk brocade could be the original or the third or fourth replacement. thangkas are in fact complex works of art which pose some difficulties for restorers and historians, and raise questions made more difficult by the anonymity of the artists, tailors and framers who contributed to the pieces. The breath and variety of the iconography of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism adds to the difficulty of defining the artists’ intention and supplying any missing information.

For the collector, however, Tibetan thangkas remain beautiful objects of exquisite artistry full of the mystery of pious medieval monks and nomadic tents perched on the ‘roof of the world’ and the spirituality and peacefulness of Buddhism itself.

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