Today, in our series we look at Thangka – a style of painting that is said to have originated in Nepal, but is practised in several parts of North East India, even today. The paintings were made as teaching tools for Buddhism – several stories from the life of Buddha are portrayed on the canvas and almost all subjects were based on Buddha’s enlightenment or preaching.
Let’s start with what is thangka painting:
If someone were to ask, what is a thangka, the simplest way to describe it would be a painting that is made on cotton or silk fabric, with pigments that could be obtained from ground up minerals. The word "thangka" actually means "the thing that one can unroll" in ancient Tibetan language.
The main idea behind the paintings was to help disciples meditate based on the tenets of Buddhism, however they were never exclusively Lord Buddha paintings. The paintings would generally show a Buddhist deity or a teacher, and they would be surrounded by lineage figures or other associated religious personas. They would depict events, stories or even myths and allow disciples to spend time concentrating on these figures, and meditating on the same.
The paintings would normally be woven cotton that would be cut in 40 to 58 centimetres width and anything wider than that would have multiple layers to provide the necessary support. The paint would generally be water soluble dyes, extracted from minerals and organic pigments. The compositions would be highly systematic and the selections of what needs to be painted would be from predesigned items.
For those who practise Buddhism, these paintings are more than just a piece of art – thangka painting is a part of their religion and belief. In the beginning, these paintings were made only by the Buddhist priests or Lamas, but over time, the art has been shared with others. Today, Sikkim is one of the homes to the artists of this form of art and there are several new students joining in to learn more.
Before we learn about the present, it is often wise to delve into the history:
It is believed that somewhere around the 7th century, the then princess of Nepal, Princess Bhrikuti, the daughter of King Lichchavi and the wife of Songtsan Gampo was the first to bring this art form to light. The Tibetan thangka painting actually originated in Nepal and travelled to Tibet and to several parts of India from there. The lamas used to paint them and they used to carry the paintings around with them to tell stories about Buddha and Buddhism to the normal people. Because these paintings had to be taken from one town to another, they were normally designed in scroll form – it was easy to roll it up and transport and whenever needed, it could be unfurled to be showcased. It was probably through them that the style of painting travelled to other parts of the world and in new location, some new elements were added to the art form. Even Chinese art forms seem to have left an imprint on the Thangka style, especially the Tibetan school.
In the years to come, the form of art continued to develop and spread – the style of painting was now being practised in more places than just Nepal and Tibet. Bhutanese thangka painting was created in Bhutan, but the influences were clearly from Central Tibet and some of the examples can still be seen in the monasteries of Bhutan. Over time, there were versions being created in all areas where Buddhism was practised, including Mongolia, Ladakh, northeast China and parts of Russia. In India, the art was practised in Sikkim, parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.
Moving onto how a thangka painting is made:
Although there are several different types of Thangka paintings and as mentioned before, not all of them were Gautam Buddha wall paintings. However, the starting point for most of them would be cloth or paper; if it was cloth, silk or cotton, it would be washed thoroughly to remove all traces of starch. Once dry, the cloth would be mounted onto the frame and a water-based chalk would be applied all over the surface. Once the chalk would dry, a type of talc would be used to polish the canvas and make it ready for painting. Later on, an embroidered thangka version was also created and this was a much richer version, because it was generally done on silk, with silk threads. The sturdier version was the tapestry types, which were thick and very closely woven, but still extremely beautiful, with detailing done with silk threads. There was yet another kind, wherein, designed coloured fabrics would be decorated using pearls and other precious stones and detailing with gold thread, leading to the creation to the most resplendent pieces. The steps in the creation of the art of thangka require immense geometrical symmetry and accuracy.
And then there are the several styles:
Even though there are a number of subsets in Thangka painting, there are mainly four types:
- Embroidered thangka
- Lacquered thangka
- Applique thangka
- Precious bead thangka
|Tshem-drub-ma – hand made using different types of silks||Tsho-thang – multi-coloured background|
|Lhan-dr-ub-ma – pieces are cut from silk and then connected together using threads||Gser-thang – yellow background|
|Lhan-thabs-ma – silk fabric pieces are cut and glued together||Mtshal-thang – vermillion background|
|Thag-drub-ma – woven by hand||Dpar-thang – black background|
|Dpar-ma – created on a moulding board||Dpar-thang – made with water printing method|
There are also some main themes and images that are followed, mainly 11:
|Tathagata Buddhas||Mandalas||Tutelary deities|
|Buddha-Mother and female Bodhisattvas||Tsokshing – the enlightenment tree||Dharma-protecting deities|
|Patriarchs||Avoliteshvara – the lord who looks down
|Other Bodhisattvas||Arhats – a saint of the highest ranking|
If the painting is being made with pigments, the colours would be extracted from naturally occurring minerals such as cinnabar, sulphur, lapis lazuli, azurite and malachite. Brighter colours would be extracted from pearl, gold, sapphire, coral and agate. Other colours would be obtained from plants, and organic material such as insect shells.
The artists who intend to learn the traditional Tibetan Buddhist painting need to invest a lot of time and effort – the mastery of sketching the outlines itself can take years to perfect. Each stage of the painting needs several hours’ worth of investment and practise. There are also several rules that need to be kept in mind regarding the religious rules and the entire learning period has to be under the aegis of a master.
Finally, moving onto some of the most frequently asked questions related to thangka art
Has this form of art received any recognition?
In 2009, this form of art was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Who are the most popular thangka artists?
Shawo Dukgyal and Shawo Thar are two prominent names in this domain.
Are there any schools that are still existent in relation to this form of art?
There are several different schools, but the most renowned include Karzhi School, The JeJuBi School, The ShiGamPa, The Deri School and the Karlri School.
What was the main aim behind creating these paintings?
These were not meant to be God paintings in the traditional sense – they were more like teaching tools that showcase the life that Buddha and his successors followed and how life should be lived.
What is the general size of thangkas?
Normally, thangkas are small – their size being 20 to 50 centimetres high; however, giant ones are created for festivals and special occasions.
What is the point of a mandala?
The mandala is meant to depict the 3-dimensional space that we live in, in a 2-dimensional form – it maps the path of meditation and connect them to the deity and the godly world.
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