Here you have a guide about Thangka painting, one of the most beautiful artistic legacies that Tibetan Buddhism gives us and that fortunately today is more accessible to the Westerner. We explain what they mean, how they are made, what themes they deal with and more curiosities of this fascinating art.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
WHAT IS THE TIBETAN THANGKA?
Thangka or Tibetan tanka is a type of painting made on cloth with natural pigments, representing Buddhist scenes and entities or Mandalas, and traditionally framed with brocade.
They can be seen on display in temples, monasteries and Buddhist centers, as well as in homes whose owners hang them for meditative, religious or simply decorative purposes. The shape is usually rectangular. The subject matter of these Tibetan paintings mainly comprises motifs and representations of Buddhist entities and archetypes.
MEANING OF TANGKA
This word is composed of “THAN”, which means surface or plane and “KHA”, which means painting of gods. It also has the meaning of that which can be rolled up.
How to write:
It is also written Tangka, Thanka or Tanka, in Nepali the term Paubha is used (these paintings have been made in Nepal since at least the 11th century).
The word written in Latin characters “thangkha” would be according to the Tibetan pronunciation, while without the second “h”, i.e. “thangka” would be according to the Chinese pronunciation.
How to pronounce it:
The pronunciation is tanca, the h and g are not pronounced, and the k and c are pronounced the same. Keep in mind that we do not have the same phonemes as Tibetan.
This is the beautiful spelling of this word in Tibetan:
ORIGIN OF THANGKA PAINTING
Some date the origins of this type of art to the time of the Buddha himself when he was asked permission to lend himself as a model for a portrait commissioned by the king of Padna. We are talking about the 6th-5th century BC. In this case the first Buddhist painting would be a portrait of the Buddha himself.
There are stories that its origin is from the time of the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, who was the first monarch who brought Buddhism to Tibet, specifically is credited with introducing this type of art to his princess Bhrikuti Devi, which, in the Buddhist tradition of Tibet, was considered the emanation of a female archetype called Tara symbolizing compassion.
It is also believed that this art was inspired by ancient Hindu tapestries, it should be noted that Buddhism was introduced to Tibet from India.
A key element in understanding the limited data on the origin of tanka painting is the lack of historical documentation, since writing was not introduced in Tibet until at the earliest in the 4th century (the earliest period for which the Tunhong written documents are dated), if not later, as early as the 7th century.
In any case, the oldest surviving Thangkas are actually mural paintings that have survived in places such as the walls of caves in Ajanta, India and elsewhere along the Silk Road. There has been an important effort to recover these works and give them visibility through initiatives such as that of the Taschen publishing house and its collection “Murals of Tibet”, a limited edition signed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The oldest fabric pieces that have survived to the present day may well date from between the 8th and 9th centuries AD.
The spread of this art in India, Nepal and Tibet is inseparable from the spread of Buddhism itself, so it is sometimes directly called Buddhist Thangka, and today it has an important tradition and, although it is often referred to as Tibetan thangkas, they are performed in India, Nepal and other Asian countries, as well as in other continents, with very good Western artists who have learned from masters of those countries.
These paintings are mainly made on silk or cotton fabrics. This gives them the possibility to be rolled up and thus to be easily transported.
This is an advantage not only for its transportation but also for its concealment if necessary, remembering that Buddhism has suffered repression in different places and moments in history.
As for the paint itself, different pigments diluted in aqueous media of different densities are used. These pigments are of natural origin, either mineral or organic. It is common to use gold in some pieces through a process of application and subsequent polishing to give it a spectacular shine.
TREATMENT AND CONSERVATION OF PAINTINGS
The pieces are usually framed with brocades made of silk or other materials, which are used to enhance their beauty. That is, they are assembled in fabric.
Its conservation is achieved by treating it with different techniques and avoiding humid and cold environments because silk can be damaged. Many works are stored and are only taken out to be exhibited occasionally, the transport is done in a simple way by rolling the work. The format of this type of painting is different from the concept we have in the West of canvas on wood and in turn framed in rigid materials.
You can see in this explanatory video how they are hung and how they are rolled up for storage and transport (English with the possibility of translated subtitles).
Structure of the works
HOW TO OBSERVE A TIBETAN TANKA
As we have mentioned, the most usual representations are entities belonging to Tibetan Buddhism.
The main entity or deity is placed in the center of the work (here the term “deity” has more to do with the idea of archetype than with the connotation of western God), around it are usually represented variations of him (as choleric versions or other types of emanations of the same character concept), some scenes about his history and different symbols, as well as vegetable or purely geometric motifs.
There are two particular themes in this type of art, such as the Tibetan mandala painting or the description of the Wheel of Life or Wheel of Samsara.
The symbolism is very rich in these paintings, full of icons and references to countless concepts of Buddhist philosophy.
Contemplating a tanka painting becomes a fascinating journey in which one stops at each symbol and moves through each different element following a path that is advised to be from outside to inside as a spiral or winding through each detail to be caught in the magnificence of the main figure which in turn being generally anthropomorphic will have different ornaments and hold different objects in his sometimes multiple arms each with its meaning.
HOW THEY ARE MADE
You can watch a fascinating video on how a thangka is constructed; from the preparation of the fabric, through the initial geometric design of the work, to the complete painting.
Its content performs both devotional and didactic functions, representing in its scenes, motifs and iconography of the Buddhist teachings. Images of Buddha are represented, as well as other entities or archetypes, such as Avalokiteshvara, who represents compassion, Tara, whom we have mentioned before, or Manjusri, representing wisdom, among many other entities.
These entities maintain peaceful forms or sometimes have their choleric alter egos, as they are protective beings. This “anger” should not be confused with hatred, but is symbolic of the compassionate and defensive energy they produce, like that of a mother fiercely protecting her child.
Painting by Guru Dragpur, a wrathful version of Guru Rinpoche. Art Institute of Chicago
Thangka representing Tara (female emanation of the Buddha of compassion), Tibet 18th century. Rubin Museum of Art, Wellcome Collection
It is frequent that these works perform a more descriptive function and must be visualized or read, as we were talking about, in a certain order, going through different scenes that narrate concepts within Buddhist philosophy.
This is the case of the well-known Wheel of Samsara, whose representation narrates the stages through which our “mental continuum” passes through different reincarnations.
This art is considered an inspirational medium, not only because of its meaning, but also because its mere vision (even if the content is not intellectually understood) operates in the “psyche” inducing serenity and stillness.
In this sense, within the tanka art we find the famous Mandalas, geometric figures of great beauty whose combination of shapes and colors can be in itself an object of meditation.
These Mandalas are not only made on cloth, but it is also traditional to create them with colored sands on the ground, which takes an incredible amount of painstaking work. These works, once finished, are destroyed in a ritual way, scattering and gathering the different colored sands. This can be very shocking and incomprehensible for those who do not know it, but within the Buddhist philosophy it is part of their practice, being this fact of destroying the Mandala a symbol of the impermanence of the material world.
You can watch a fascinating video of this process:
You can see some entities frequently represented in Buddhist Tankas.
These beautiful paintings, as well as the cover image at the top of this page, have been created by artist Kunga Dorje.
OPTIONS FOR BUYING A TANKA
A traditionally made original thangka painting can take weeks or months for an artist to complete, with a daily work of about 6-7 hours. The prices being paid for an original painting depend on many factors, in reality they are subject to some extent to the criteria of the art market. Taking into account the work that it takes someone with the necessary training and talent to create this type of religious paintings, there are works that can reach thousands of dollars.
On the other hand, there are artists who offer the printed version on canvas or other materials for those who cannot afford the price of an original hand-painted work.
There are also hand-painted works that can cost around one hundred euros and can be completed in a few days with a very decent result.
Here are some options from different artists and stores.
Many practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, who meditate on the deities depicted in the tankas, opt for a printed version of these works of art, others prefer to pay for a painted original.
It is said that in this way you will have not only a beautiful painting, but also a piece “charged” with the intention and will of the artist, let us not forget that for the author the realization of these works is also a meditative exercise.
Buy Tibetan Thangka in Madrid:
If you are in Spain and you go to Madrid, in c/ Canillas 22, you have the Tibetan Buddhist community Thubten Dhargye Ling, there you can find besides paintings, many more elements of this tradition in their store. If you buy there you will collaborate with the center to continue to maintain the practice.
Here are some frequently asked questions as a summary:
How to interpret a Thangka?
These paintings are composed of a very varied symbology, full of icons and references to concepts and archetypes of Buddhist philosophy. It is said that, even if we do not know their meaning, they can somehow positively influence our mind.
How to observe a Thangka?
Leaving aside the worries of that moment, walking our gaze towards the center of the work. Without forcing our attention, but letting ourselves be carried away by the painting and its scenes. Let it be the one that guides us, the one that absorbs us.
What is Thangka painting?
It is a Tibetan painting that, by means of natural pigments on fabrics, represents Buddhist scenes and symbolism. They are usually framed in brocades. They have a religious and meditative value, as well as aesthetic.
What are these Tibetan paintings about?
They may show different representations of Buddha and other entities, which, although some of them may have an “angry” aspect, symbolize positive qualities. Sometimes they form geometric lattices called mandalas. Another very common theme is the “Wheel of Samsara”, which narrates the cycle of existences.
Consult whatever you feel like.
If you are interested in learning more about these works, or commissioning one, we can put you in touch with an artist who can advise you.
We look forward to reading you.
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