Thangka Buddhist Art

Thangka or scroll paintings are sacred artifacts used as physical support in Tibetan Buddhist practices. In Tibetan the word 'than' means flat and the suffix 'ka' stands for painting. The Thangka is thus a kind of painting done on flat surface but which can be rolled up when not required for display. It is either painted or embroidered and is generally hung in monasteries or a family altar and carried by lamas in ceremonial processions.

The pictorial subjects of thangkas include portraits of Buddhas, stories from the lives of saints and great masters. Thangka paintings vary in size, ranging from a little over a few square centimeters to several square meters. A large thangka often takes a large team of artists months, even years, to make. Thangkas are usually rectangular in shape, and the square ones are reserved for mandalas.

To Tibetans, the art of thangka is apocalyptical. There is room for the individual painter's creativity only in case of the details of the landscape, the color and shape of the cloud, of rocks and flowers, etc. But what actually illuminates the artifact is its visionary quality. The mystical thangkas are supposed to be the records of visions in all its sensuous details. The Tibetan artist, being concerned primarily with life, death and the life to come, finds it his duty to embody the vision of the life yet to come and thus assist others in their journey towards Nirvana.

On the basis of the techniques involved and materials used, thangkas can be broadly divided into two categories: those which are painted (called bris-than in Tibetan) and those which are made of silk either by weaving or with embroidery called (gos-than). The painted thangkas are further divided into five categories:

  • Thangkas which have different colors in the background
  • Thangkas which have a gold background
  • Thangkas which have a red background
  • Thangkas painted on a black background
  • Thangkas whose outlines are printed on cotton support and then touched up with colors

The material most commonly used for thangkas is linen cloth or cotton fabric whereas silk cloth is reserved for important subjects. Before painting begins, the material is stitched along the edges with flax thread and stretched on a specially made wooden frame.

Then a paste made of animal glue mixed with talcum powder is spread over its surface to block up the holes in it. When the paste is scraped off and the cloth gets thoroughly dried, the material is ready for painting. To begin, the artist works out the sketches of the images with charcoal sticks. The drawing usually begins with the figure in the center and then goes to the surrounding deities or landscape.

The pigments used come from non-transparent minerals and plants such as malachite and cinnabar. They are mixed with animal glue and ox bile to make the luster stay. When the painting is done, it is mounted, generally on a brocaded silk border. Important thangkas are embroidered on transferred outlines; some of them use a great variety of stitch patterns such as flat and piled stitches to give them a three-dimensional effect.

The embroidered thangkas are a patchwork of fine silk satins and brocades. It is customary in Buddhist practice to make valuable offerings to enlightened beings in order to further one's progress along the spiritual path toward enlightenment. Offerings of gold, silver, butter, food, precious and semi-precious stones are common. Among the materials long valued by Tibetan Buddhists and Himalayan peoples is silk cloth, so naturally this became an appropriate offering material and was used to create religious images of great value, both materially and spiritually. The earliest known use of embroidery to create thangkas dates from the thirteenth century when images were woven and embroidered in China and given as gifts to Tibetan rulers. In the fifteenth century, the first fabric thangkas were made in Tibet itself. Utilizing indigenous appliqué techniques long employed in the making of nomad and festival tents, ritual dance costumes, and altar decorations, Tibetan artists created a new form of thangka. The popularity of these new pieced and embroidered thangkas increased through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and spread throughout the entire Tibetan Buddhist region, with examples being made in Mongolia, Bhutan, and Ladakh. Pieced silk thangkas are especially durable and supple. Another appliqué thangka tradition exists in Amdo (northeastern Tibet) in which pieces are glued rather than sewn together and details are painted on the silk.

The thangkas generally have a central figure and the other figures radiate from this central motif. They have a kind of stellar relationship with this central motif. The atmosphere of the thangka is charges with the energy of this central motif, and this is worked out as a form of aura. Precision, economy and love of details characterize the thangkas. Physical data is presented in a very sensuous manner. The human anatomy, as well as the forms of animals are portrayed with bone, hair, muscle and fat clearly delineated. The finer expressions of eyes and mouth are recorded with accuracy. Along with the sublime and mystical motifs there are the weird scenes and details that portray disintegrating bodies, disgorging blood, skeletons, dead creatures and mutilations of the body.

These gory images have the kind of exactness characteristic of European medieval art in some of its Romanesque forms. These images of the lower world are all set against a transcendental natural background. Fitted into this wonderful ambience are the images of the personages in the painting. They are sometimes ascendant, sometimes airborne, or they are portrayed in a mystic trance. They are seated with legs crossed or they are in the ecstasy of a dance of divine desire. Or they are locked in an embrace that signifies the opening of all doors of revelation. These gestures of Tantric meditation signify the disciplining of physical energies and moving towards a specific destination.

The physical construction of a thangka, as with the majority of Buddhist art, is highly geometric. Arms, legs, eyes, nostrils, ears, and various ritual implements are all laid out on a systematic grid of angles and intersecting lines. A skilled thangka artist generally selects from a variety of items to include in the composition, ranging from alms bowls and animals, to the shape, size, and angle of a figure's eyes, nose, and lips. The process requires a very deep understanding of the symbolism of the scene being depicted, in order to capture the essence or spirit of it as the thangkas are intended to serve as a record of, and guide for contemplative experience. The basic painting technique, however, differs with regional style, training of the artist, number of students and assistants employed and the funding available.

In Buddhism, there is no difference between nature and Nature. Above everything lies the phenomenon of a universal emanation or selflessness. The thangkas portray, in aesthetic terms, this principle. The joy that a thangka inspires in the beholder has something of the joy of beholding a vision. For, upon entering the mazes of the thangka, reason is suspended as one gives oneself up to the sheer joy of visual perception.

The thangkas are valued as religious aides or spiritual guides in the path of Enlightenment and along with fine artistry, require a profound faith and knowledge on the part of the artist. In the contemporary world, thangkas have come to be revered not only for their profundity, but also as celebrated objects of art. In their perfection of detailing and colors, imagery and symbols, they carry the imprint of creativity and eternal charm. Starting from the monasteries, they have made it to the eminent art galleries, museums and also to the walls of arty interiors. They are spiritual guides to the devout minds, and beautiful decorative to the aesthete.

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