What is a Thangka, Tangka, Tanka or Thanka? Tang is a Tibetan word which means flat, so a thangka is a painting on a flat surface.
Easy to roll and light enough to carry, the monks in the past used these paintings as teaching tools, to show people the life and teachings of Buddha.
Thangka: A Different World View Through a Painting
Painted or embroidered, Buddhists hang these banners in monasteries or family altars or even carry them in ceremonial processions.
Thangkas are Buddhists' expression of how they look at the world. It is their window into that cosmic view and an intriguing peek into their cultures.
It's a great interactive souvenir of your visit to the mountain areas of Asia especially Tibet and Nepal.
If you buy a thangka, find out from the artist what he or she was intending. Get the story so you can help others learn!
Many old tangkas have been preserved. In the old days, tangka painting was limited to the Buddhist priests known as the Khaibas who passed the art from master to apprentice.
Now, with increasing interest from many parts of the world, taangka painting schools have sprouted, giving skills to thousands of practitioners.
In Kathmandu, these artists are mainly from the Tamang people who practice Buddhism and are therefore attracted to the art as a form of religious expression.
They paint images of Buddha, gods and goddesses and other images needed for festivals or religious celebrations. In some places in Nepal, you still can get hold of some old tangkas.
Uses of Thangkas
Some thangkas describe historical events involving important Lamas. Some re-tell myths associated with other deities, or act as devotional images during rituals. They are often used as media through which Buddhists make offerings or requests.
At present, tangkas are often used as meditation tools to help bring practitioners further down the path to enlightenment. Sounds complicated? Wait till you see a Tangka!
Categories of Tangkas
Tangka paintings are classified into two broad categories: those which are painted and those which are made with applique or embroidery.
They are sometimes classified as tson-tang (painted in colors), go tang (applique), nag tang (gold etching on black background), thsim tang (embroidery) and mar-tang (gold etching on red background).
Styles of Tangkas
Tangkas come in a variety of styles. Most serve as reminders of Buddha's teachings of compassion, kindness and wisdom.
Others, include other deities. Hanging a Thangka painting is considered by Buddhists auspicious. This brings blessings on the household so thangkas are priced possessions in Buddhist families.
Themes in Tangka Paintings
1. Life of the Buddha
The life of Buddha is a favourite to many tangka painters. They paint aspects of Buddha's life.
This painting tells of the story of Buddha's birth in Lumbini, (Nepal), his young life as a prince, his later dissatisfaction with his selfish life, which led him to seek enlightenment, find The Middle Way and, and after years of wandering and preaching, attain the Buddha state.
Below is a video of the next style, the Mandala.
2. The Mandala
This word comes from the Sanskrit mandala which means "essence" + "having" or "containing." It is also translated as "circle-circumference" or "completion", both derived from the Tibetan term dkyil khor. This is a Tantric device to aid in meditation.
There are all kinds of Mandalas depending on the nature of the central deity. In Vajrayana Buddhism, a dkyil khor consists of an outer circular mandala and an inner square (or sometimes circular) mandala with a mandala palace at its center.
A Buddhist mandala is usually envisaged as a sacred space, a Buddha realm. The mandala is supposed to be contemplated repeatedly to the point that the image becomes fully internalized in its minutest details so that it can be visualized anytime one recites the mantras that go with it.
3. The Wheel of life
This thangka details in a most lucid manner, the basic Buddhist belief of transmigratory existence, the process of rebirth. The painting shows the wheel held in the embrace of a ferocious god with fangs, Shenje, the ruler of the dead. Outside the wheel is the figure of the Lord Buddha who is free from the cycle of life and death.
The wheel's axle symbolizes the first noble truth in the Buddhist belief: the existence of suffering. Suffering, the Buddhists believe, is caused by the three evils symbolized by the pig (ignorance), the cock (lust) and the snake (hatred). Managing these is the path to enlightenment.
4. Green Tara
The Green Tara is the spiritual consort of Amogasiddhi, the Dhyani Buddha.
In the Lama tradition, she is incarnated in all good women and is believed to have a mortal base in the persons of the Nepali and Chinese princess who married the great king Srang-Tsan Gampo credited with the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet and China.
She is often portrayed like the White Tara except that in her left hand she holds a half closed lotus or blue water lily flower with long petals.
Watch how the Tangka artists paint Tara in the video that follows:
5. White Tara, Born from a Tear of the Boddhisatwa
White Tara is the female deity born from a tear of the Boddhisatwa of compassion.
In thangkas, the White Tara is usually portrayed seated in full vajra posture, dressed and crowned like Boddhisatwa and with extra eyes in her forehead, palm and feet.
Her right hand is in a boon conferring gesture while her left hand is in a teaching one at the same time holding a lotus. The colours can be extraordinary.
How to Make a Thangka
To make a Thangka requires skills and mastery, skills in painting meticulous details, mastery in sketching, mastery in techniques of embellishments with paints and gold, and mounting the finished work in brocade.
Some thangkas take years to finish. Many of the thangka painters do their paintings as meditation and you can see the difference between these thangkas and those that are just painted for the airport!
As with the majority of Buddhist art, tangka 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 deep understanding of the symbolism involved to capture the spirit of it.
Requirements of Tangka Painting: Dedication, Patience and Devotion
Thangkas are mostly painted on cotton, loosely woven produced in widths from 40 to 58 centimeters (16 - 23 inches). While some variations do exist, thangkas wider than 45 centimeters (17 or 18 inches) frequently have seams in the support. Both mineral and organic pigments are used, tempered with a herb and glue solution.
Thangka often overflow with symbolism and allusions which follow 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.
They must follow rules specified in the Buddhist scriptures regarding proportions, shape, color, stance, hand positions, and attributes as they personify the Buddha or Deities so these must be accurate. And remember, like most traditional Asian art, imitating the masters is often the objective. It is not art fraud!
If you are interested to learn how to paint a thangka, travel to Kathmandu. There in Boudanath or Changu Narayan, you can find many schools on how to paint a thangka. In Champak Thanka Painting School in Changu Narayan, Nepal (right across the temple) there is a three month course.