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thangka, is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. Thangkas are traditionally kept unframed and rolled up when not on display, mounted on a textile backing somewhat in the style of Chinese scroll paintings, with a further silk cover on the front. 

Thangka depict the sku rten, the bodily forms of enlightened beings, or the diagrammatic mandala, the ‘scared circle’, symbolizing the spiritual embodiment of the Buddha and the stages of spiritual realization.

The origin of the Thangka is not easy to trace. It would require us to go back in time, back to the Neolithic age in the Tibetan Plateau. The Thangka could be traced back to the Mogao caves along the silk road. Inside these caves, the earliest surviving paintings of Tibetan origin were found. These Tibetan paintings were set on the walls of the caves, though some of them were set on cloth.

From these early forms of Tibetan paintings evolved the traditional scroll paintings, which was later perfected during the Tubo Dynasty. The Tubo Dynasty was a period of powerful rulers in Tibetan History. This Dynasty started when a great Tibetan ruler by the name of Songtsan Gambo united the 10 separate tribes of Tibet during China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Based on an old legend, however, Songtsan Gambo, a Tubo King, started the tradition of the Thangka. Prompted by divine guidance and using the crimson blood that was oozing down his nose, he began to paint Bailamu. Thus, the first Thangka was created. Legend also said that the Living Buddha hid the first Thangka within the abdomen of the statue of Bailamu.

Although they are installed in domestic spaces as a talisman against all evils, thangka are intended as navigational aids for the spirit, guiding the viewer in his quest for spiritual realization. It is in their capacity to render the invisible through iconographic representation that serve as installations in monasteries and prayer halls or during religious festivals.

Due to the potency that the paintings are believed to possess, the painter is required to undergo rigorous spiritual and artistic training and in many cases is a monastic initiate.

Another interesting fact about thangka, which makes them different from the rest is these are not signed by the artist but are given to a lama who blesses them with scared syllables. The finished painting is then taken to only the male tailors of the community who mount the work on a frame of heavy gyasser, silk brocade panels. They back the painting with plain cloth and secure the scroll at the top and the bottom to the wooden rods, with at each end.

Thangka are either painted or made of silk, either by appliqué or embroidery.

Since the Thangka depicts the physical manifestations and the distinctive qualities of Buddha, it readily becomes a meditational tool for those who would like to reflect on the life and existence of Buddha. It is also believed that believers who meditate on the scenes and depictions on the Thangka gain merits and further make progress in their spiritual quest.

A thangka of Green Tara.
A symbol of universal compassion, the Green Tara is worshipped for her ability to overcome difficult situations, giving protection against dangers and obstacles

The Process of Thangka Painting: Read here..

Last year, when I visited New York, I got the chance to visit the Rubin Museum of Art. It was mesmerizing to witness the art work and collection they have in store. Check out some of the thangka, I got to see there. You can also see their collection virtually on their website.

White Tara at The Rubin Museum of Art

There’s a lot more to read about thangka, and it wont be fair to compile that in one article. In fact, if any of you know of a book to read on thangka, kindly share below in the comment section.

Also, you can read a lot more on some of the given below links:

  1. Google Art & Culture
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Great Tibet Tour

Don’t forget to click on the pictures in this article. Some of them have the source to it with more information about the same.

Coming Up next is a very famous style of tribal art from Maharashtra.

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