For better or worse, whichever way I turn in my family, there’s artists. Writers, painters and, more recently, designers, pop up in all the quadrants of the family tree. So, I can probably say that art is quite “familiar” to me — and one of the things I enjoy exploring while travelling. In 2010, while visiting Nepal for the first time, I came across Thangka paintings, an ancient Buddhist art tradition.
From what I gather through the somewhat conflicting information available online, the origin of Thangka Art can be traced back to Tibet somewhere between the 9th and the 11th centuries. It coincides with the Era of Fragmentation, a period of history in which Tibet lived a disintegration of the central power of the earlier Tibetan Empire, and the influence of Buddhism was gaining strength. After reading about the history of Thangka Art and the history of Buddhism, I would venture that Thangka may have been instrumental in the establishment of Buddhism due to its portability and power of persuasion — somewhat like today’s infographics. It is better than infographics, however, as it will engage you from your deepest affective make up, something infographics do not usually do. I say this from personal experience, too. The first time I visited a Thangka art cooperative by the Bouddhanath stupa in Kathmandu, I was so attracted to the images and symbols of Thangka that I left with several scrolls under my arms.
Thangka Art is created with a functional purpose of either personal meditation or instruction on a very specific aspect of the Buddhist philosophy. By visualizing yourself as the depicted deity, you may internalize the Buddha qualities represented in the images, such as compassion or wisdom. Through a beautiful Wheel of Life, you may learn about the path to enlightenment. The combination of compelling beauty and the value of its spiritual teachings, turns a piece of skillful Thangka into a brief, yet intensely inspiring collection of impactful stories, myths and concepts. Traditionally, it is not signed by its creator, and it is kept unframed and rolled up, so you can take it with you wherever you want. That’s what I did.
While visiting Tushita Heaven for the second time in March 2015, I was again struck by the beautiful effect and inspiring images conveyed through this monastic art (Yes, I did leave with a couple more scrolls under my arm). This time, I also had the opportunity to better understand some of the techniques that help give Thangka its unique characteristics. In the following three brief videos, Lama Tsonamgel, one of the founders of the cooperative, gives you a taste of the materials used in Thangka, how the drawing is initiated in agreement with traditional proportions, and how the color should be applied. If you are interested in even more detailed information, I added a couple of links at the end that you may find useful.
Essential Materials in Thangka Art
Thangka Art: First Steps
Thangka Art: Applying the Color
For more in-depth information on Thangka Art:
Visit: Tushita Heaven Handicraft in person or online.
Explore: Thangka-Mandala blog.
Read: Decision From Indecision: Conservation of Thangka Significance, Perspectives and Approaches, by Boon Nee Loh, J (2002). Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies 8:1-5