About Thangka Painting

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“All the elements of a Tibetan religious painting have a symbolic value. These symbols serve as aids to developing inner qualities on the spiritual path. The deities themselves are regarded as representing particular characteristics of enlightenment. For example, Manjushri embodies wisdom and Avalokiteshvara embodies compassion. Paying respect to such deities therefore has the effect of paying respect to wisdom and compassion, which in turn functions as an inspiration to acquire those qualities within ourselves.”

                                     ~   H.H. Dalai Lama, from the foreword of ‘The Mystical Arts of Tibet’

The Tibetan word THANG KA can be explained as ‘recorded message.’  Thangkas communicate a message to the practitioner, serving as an aid to teaching and meditation through the visualization of the deity. It is a medium through which the Buddhist philosophy can be explained.

Originally lamas and monks used these Tibetan scroll paintings to instruct the Buddhist Dharma (teachings) as these paintings were easily transported and unrolled to suit the needs of the – mainly nomadic – population. The lama would travel to a village, unroll the thangka on the main square and use it to illustrate their tales on the Buddhist philosophy before the audience.

On a deeper level, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas depicted on thangkas are the visual expression of the fully awakened state of enlightenment, this being the ultimate goal of the Buddhist spiritual path.

To sketch the figures in a thangka the painter needs an exact knowledge of the measurements and proportions of each deity as established by Buddhist iconography and artistic practice. A grid containing these proportions is essential to establish the continuity and correct transmission of the figures.

The Process:

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As thangkas are painted with the finest brushes and a lot of concentration, it takes a long time to create such a special painting: from at least a month full time to many years, depending on the size and amount of deities on the thangka.

First the thangka painter creates a drawing according to the right measurements, next the traditional frame and canvas are prepared, then the drawing is transferred onto the canvas after which the long painting process can start.

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The shading techniques especially take up most of the time and require a lot of patience. The amount and quality of the shading distinguishes an ‘original thangka’ from a ‘tourist thangka’.

Traditionally the thangka painter will perform the meditations and recite the mantras connected to the deity he or she is painting, and performs a specific end ritual and blessing as well. As they are holy objects, traditionally thangkas used to only be made on commission; a ‘closed market’.

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These days unfortunately most thangkas that you will find in Asia are painted solely for tourists and to make money. I’ve seen thangkas where important details where left out; symbols that are important for the Buddhist practitioner. They are often copied and painted by people who just do it for the money, do not practice themselves, and do not know about the symbolism behind it. Or multiple persons working at one thangka  (where one person only paints the sky, another the scarfs etc. etc.). You can imagine that these thangkas do not have much ‘soul and energy’ in them as they would have when they were painted by one person with devotion (i.e. doing the meditations and reciting mantras of the deity, blessing the brushes, paints and canvas etc.) and knowledge of the tradition and symbolism.

I think it’s very important to keep this beautiful Tibetan Buddhist tradition alive and pure, and in my lineage we hope to make a small contribution to pass it on in the right and pure way.

~ Carmen Mensink