Thangka: The Traditional Tibetan Paintings

Thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist paintings made on cotton and silk applique which usually depicts a Buddhist deity, mandala, and scene. It is a complicated, composite three-dimensional object consisting of a picture panel painted or embroidered, a textile mounting and one or more of; a silk cover, leather corners, wooden dowels at the top and bottom and metal or wooden decorative knobs on the bottom dowel.

Thangka Mandala

What is Thangka?

Thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist scroll painting meaning “recorded message” in Tibetan language generally made with mandalas and Buddhas. Thangka is spelled in various ways; thangka, tanka, thanka or tangka. It is a tradition to keep thangka 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 front.

Thangka can last for a very long period, but as they are very delicate, they must be kept in a dry place where moisture will not affect the quality of silk. Most of the thangkas are small comparing to a size of half-length western portrait. However, some are extremely large and several meters in each dimension which is designed for display purpose for a very brief period on a monastery wall as a part of religious festivals.

The painting of thangka often has an elaborated composition including many small figures. It has a central deity surrounded by other identified figures in a symmetrical composition. A narrative scene in thangkas are common, but they do appear in some.

Thangkas are not just paintings; they also communicate a message to anyone looking at them. It serves as an aid to teaching, as each detail on it has a deep meaning and refers to parts of Buddhist philosophy. Thangka is a valuable teaching tool which depicts the life of Buddha, various influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas.

Thangkas are made on different subjects; one is the wheel of life (bhavachakra), a visual representation of Abhidharma teaching (Art of Enlightenment). Nowadays, a poster size thangkas are used for devotional as well as decorative purpose.

Thangka serves several different functions through its painting. The images of deities in paintings can be used as a teaching tool depicting the life of Buddha, describing historical events concerning important lamas or retelling myths related to other deities. While the devotional image acts as the centerpiece during a ritual or ceremony and often used as mediums through which one can offer prayers or make request. As most of the religious art is used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path to enlightenment, thangkas serve the purpose best.

Thangka in Tibet

Thangka has great religious importance in Tibet. It is used as a highly developed means of expression through which entire Buddhist philosophy could be explained. Thangkas are used in temples and monasteries and hung above alters to support Buddhist meditation and practice.

Tibet was invaded by China in 1950s which led to the destruction of a lot of old Tibetan tradition and monasteries; this very reason makes it even more important to keep this beautiful tradition alive and pure.

Thangka is used by Vajrayana Buddhist practitioner as yidam (deity) or meditation deity as a guide by visualizing “themselves as being that deity, thereby internalizing the Buddha qualities.

What is the meaning of Thangkas?

Well, thangkas are a beautiful piece of art with religious and spiritual essence. But, you might think what purpose thangka serves? Or what use was it originally intended for?

As the meaning of its name suggests, Thangkas are intended to serve as a record of and guide for contemplative experience. It will be more easy to understand if we lay down an example; if you are instructed by your teacher to imagine yourself as a specific figure, you can use thangka as a reference for details of posture, attitude, clothing, color etc., of a figure located in a field, or in palace, possibly surrounded by other figures of meditation, your family and so on. So, in this way thangkas are intended to convey iconographic information in a pictorial manner. The text of same meditation would supply similar details in written descriptive form.

Now regarding the question of does the concept of artistic intent applies in thangkas? Thangkas express the personal vision and creativity of a painter only in rare cases, and for that reason, painters of thangkas have generally remained anonymous as have the tailors who made their mountings.

But, you can find some exceptions in this anonymity. In some rare cases, eminent teachers create a thangka to express their experience and insight; this kind of thangka comes from a traditionally trained meditation master and artist who creates a new arrangement to convey his insight to benefit his students. Some other exceptions are when master painters have signed their work somewhere in the composition.

Majority of the anonymously created thangkas have taken shape as a scientific arrangement of content, color, and proportion, all of which follows a prescribed set of rules. But the rules still aren’t same; they differ by denomination, geographical region, and style — it lefts conservator with the responsibility of caring for religious objects that generally carries neither the name of artists nor any information about their technique, or any date or provenance. But still, we know that the artist intended to convey iconographic information.

There is much iconographic information which is provided in thangkas, some of it clearly spelled out for you. If you pay close attention to details, many thangkas spell identification of figures and scene in formal and delicately rendered scripts. The damaged sections of thangkas where paint layers are missing, letters which indicated the master painter’s choice of color is sometimes visible. However, these letters were not intended to be a part of the final composition and should not be confused with the former. But the variety of iconography of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, it is virtually impossible to extrapolate the information that would be required to fill in figures that are missing or completing the scared objects that the figures hold in their hands. Wherein paintings are needed, the definition and clarification of artistic intent is a complex issue.

As even indigenous Tibetan scholars trained in iconographic details of Buddhist deities generally wouldn’t presume to know the iconography related with every deity of painting, it is unlikely that most conservators could guess the identity and details of unfamiliar figures. So, in cases like this, speculation as to artist’s intent tends to be a particularly rewarding strategy.

Let us take some examples; a particular shade of green indicated effective activity, while white usually indicates peacefulness and unassailable compassion. So, even the slightest change in color alters the message of the icon.

This leaves us with a question of “Is the color we see before us, the color artist intended for us to see?” Sometimes water damages the painting by washing away several fine layers of pigment on final paint layers or shading layers; it exposes either underdrawings or flat colors which artist never wanted us to see.

Although some details might be present, unless artist has also left a notation as to a specific color (sometimes revealed by paint loss), an error would be made if the conservator were to reconstruct the painting in an inappropriate color. And sometimes, a combination of damages like water-damage, greasy butter lamp soot, and smoky incense grit alter the original color permanently.

How to buy a perfect Thangka in Nepal?

Set a budget

First of all be sure of how much amount you are willing to spend on this beautiful art. It will be more easy to buy a thangka once you know your exact budget. Quality of painting/skill of painter, size of thangka and your ability to negotiate the price can affect the budget.

Choose a size

Do you want a massive painting to hang on the hall or a small/medium one to keep in your bedroom? Once you decide on size finding a perfect one won’t be so hard. Also, most of the tangka painting aren’t embroidered with silk frame. Once you have chosen a thanka, you can customize the width of frame.

Decide a subject

You must decide on what subject of thangka you want before moving to the shops. There are many shops with thangkas in Kathmandu and Pokhara. It will be easier to compare quality between shops once you have narrow down the subject.

Take time

Don’t be emotional while buying a thangka. Take a stroll of all the shops and know about the price difference and quality. You can determine the quality of thangka by looking closely at the lines. The finer and clear the lines are, the greater is the skill and the price. And, a student painted thangkas are of lowest quality and so are their price. If you want to master the differences, take a look at a dozen more thangkas of the same subject.


Once you have found a thangka you want, make a price bargain. And don’t hesitate to bargain as Nepalese are very used to it.

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