Thangka Paintings and other Tibetan Art Forms

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Thangka Paintings
  • A Thangka, also known as tangka, thanka or tanka is a painting on cotton, or silk, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala (Mandala i.e. a circle is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism representing the Universe.
  • The basic form of most mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point. Each gate is in the general shape of a T. Mandalas often exhibit radial balance.).
  • The thankga is not a flat creation like an oil painting or acrylic painting but consists of a picture panel which is painted or embroidered over which a textile is mounted and then over which is laid a cover, usually silk.
  • Generally, thangkas last a very long time and retain much of their lustre, but because of their delicate nature, they have to be kept in dry places where moisture won't affect the quality of the silk. It is sometimes called a scroll-painting.
  • These thangka served as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, various influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas. One subject is The Wheel of Life, which is a visual representation of the Abhidharma teachings (Art of Enlightenment).
  • Thangka, when created properly, perform several different functions.
Functions of Thangka Paintaing
1. Images of deities can be used as teaching tools when depicting the life (or lives) of the Buddha, describing historical events concerning important Lamas, or retelling myths associated with other deities.
2. Devotional images act as the centerpiece during a ritual or ceremony and are often used as mediums through which one can offer prayers or make requests.
3. religious art is used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path to enlightenment.
Process of creation of Thangka:
1. The most common is a loosely woven cotton produced in widths from 40 to 58 centimeters (16 - 23 inches).
2. The paint consists of pigments in a water soluble medium. Both mineral and organic pigments are used, tempered with a herb and glue solution. In Western terminology, this is a distemper (Distemper is a term with a variety of meanings for paints used in decorating and as a historical medium for painting pictures. The binding element may be some form of glue or oil; these are known in decorating respectively as soft distemper and oil bound distemper) technique.
3. The composition 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 will generally select from a variety of predesigned 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 seems very methodical, but often requires deep understanding of the symbolism involved to capture the spirit of it.
4. Thangka often overflow with symbolism and allusion. Because the art is explicitly religious, all symbols and allusions must be in accordance with strict guidelines laid out in Buddhist scripture. The artist must be properly trained and have sufficient religious understanding, knowledge, and background to create an accurate and appropriate thangka.
5. Tibetan art exemplifies the nirmanakaya, the physical body of Buddha, and also the qualities of the Buddha, perhaps in the form of a deity. Art objects, therefore, must follow rules specified in the Buddhist scriptures regarding proportions, shape, color, stance, hand positions, and attributes in order to personify correctly the Buddha or Deities
Various influences on Tibetan Art
1. Mahayana Buddhist influence : As Mahayana Buddhism emerged as a separate school in the 4th century BC it emphasized the role of bodhisattvas, compassionate beings who forgo their personal escape to Nirvana in order to assist others.
2. Tantric influence : A surprising aspect of Tantric Buddhism is the common representation of wrathful deities, often depicted with angry faces, circles of flame, or with the skulls of the dead. These images represent the Protectors and their fearsome bearing belies their true compassionate nature. Actually their wrath represents their dedication to the protection of the dharma teaching as well as to the protection of the specific tantric practices to prevent corruption or disruption of the practice.
3. Bon Influence : The indigenous shamanistic religion of the Himalayas is known as Bon. Bon contributes a pantheon of local tutelary deities to Tibetan art. In Tibetan temples (known as lhakhang), statues of the Buddha or Padmasambhava are often paired with statues of the tutelary deity of the district who often appears angry or dark. These gods once inflicted harm and sickness on the local citizens but after the arrival of Padmasambhava these negative forces have been subdued and now must serve Buddha.

Other Paintings & their importance
1. Rock Paintings : 
  • Rock painting art is the oldest art form of Tibetan Paintings which was prevalent from prehistoric times to Tubo period. The colorful Tibetan rock drawings include moving of tribes, herding, hunting, war, religious subjects and events, natural worshipping, animals, etc., depicting all aspects of Tibetan lives and the natural environment. Among all, herding, hunting and religious themes are the most frequent motifs.
  • Depicted either on rock surfaces or on huge stone surface, the existing rock paintings of Tibet can be divided into 2 kinds: petroglyphs (scratched and engraved pictures) and pictographs (painted and chalked pictures).
2. Fresco Paintings :
  • Fresco painting, widely seen on the walls of all major temples, monasteries and palaces, is a main art form of Tibetan paintings. Originated from early rock paintings, Tibetan fresco art was somewhat influenced by Tibet's indigenous religion Bon and absorbed the exotic style of Buddhist painting art from Chinese hinterland, India, as well as Nepal, and gradually formed their own style.
  • Tibet frescos cover a wide range of subjects, such as images of Buddha, founders of various Buddhist sects, historical events, wars, legends, myths, social life of Tibetan people and so on. Therefore, the fresco painting is the pictorial encyclopedia of Tibetan religion, history and cultures.
3. Engraving Paintings :
  • Engraving painting, also called woodcut art, occurred later than the art forms above.
  • It was the result of the introduction of the block printing technique into Tibet in the early 13th century.
  • The processes of making engraving painting include drawing, plate making, plate cutting and printing.
  • Most of the engraving paintings in Tibet are depictions of sutras and piture volumes of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
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