A Thangka is a painted or embroidered Buddhist banner which is hung in a monastery or a family altar and occasionally carried by monks in ceremonial processions. It first became popular among traveling monks because the scroll paintings were easily rolled and transported from monastery to monastery.
Thangka, when created properly, perform several different functions. 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. 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. Overall, and perhaps most importantly, religious art is used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path to enlightenment. The Buddhist Vajrayana practitioner uses the image as a guide, by visualizing “themselves as being that deity, thereby internalizing the Buddha qualities (Lipton, Ragnubs).”
Painted Thangkas are done on cotton canvas or silk with water soluble pigments, both mineral and organic, tempered with a herb and glue solution - in Western terminology, a distemper technique. The entire process demands great mastery over the drawing and perfect understanding of iconometric principles.
The Thangkas are explosions of color. The paint powder comes from grinding materials like coral, agate, sapphire, pearl and gold. - nytimes.com
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 scientific, but often requires a very deep understanding of the symbolism of the scene being depicted, in order to capture the essence or spirit of it.
Thangka are often overflowing 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 in order to create an accurate and appropriate Thangka. Lipton and Ragnubs clarify this in Treasures of Tibetan Art:
“[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.”
Types of Thangkas
Based on technique and material, Thangkas can be grouped by type. Generally, they are divided into two broad categories: those which are painted (Tib.) bris-tan and those which are made of silk, either by appliqué or with embroidery. A good resource on the different types of Thangkas can be found here.
Black Background: a painting type used for accentuating the fierceness of wrathful subjects.
Gold Background: a special treatment for peaceful deities, long-life deities and buddhas.
Red Background: paintings with a ground of vermillion, iron oxide.
Colored Background: the majority of Himalayan & Tibetan paintings belong to this classification of colored tangka.
The largest Thangka in the world was created in 1999 and is 675 yards long. Here are two giant Thangkas.
Text adapted from Wikipedia.
If you found this interesting you'll probably enjoy our post on The Colorful Art Of Sand Mandalas as well.