Tibetan Thangkas: More Than Just Decoration

Posted by Edna Zhou & Siting Ke on June 01, 2014

As treasure of Tibetan art, thangkas were unknown in western art circles for centuries. Fortunately, the last two decades have seen a flood of artwork coming out of Tibet into the world market, changing our understanding of Tibetan Buddhist art.

Origin of Thangkas

“Thangka” originally means “pine trees” in Tibetan, but it is also said to have derived from the Tibetan “thang yig”, referring to “chronicle” or “written record.”

Religious artifacts in the form of a painted or embroidered banner are hung in monasteries or family altars, and depict a Buddhist deity or mandala carrying the teachings of Buddha.

A thangka is not simply a decoration but a mark of Tibetan dedication to Buddhism, and often serves as an aid and object for meditation and devotional practices. It is said to bring health, prosperity and long life.

Thangkas are also commissioned and hung to increase good fortune and ward off negative energies.

Thangkas originated in Nepal from the early Buddhist monastics and were exported to Tibet around the 7th century. At this time Buddhism flourished in Tibet, and simple stationary frescos could hardly meet the need; thus, thangkas became the hybrid of Chinese, Nepalese and Kashmir painting and increased in popularity.

How Thangkas Are Made

Thangkas are usually made on a cotton canvas or linen cloth support, mounted in colorful textile borders (silk with cotton lining) with wooden dowels on top and bottom, decorative metal on the bottom dowel, and sometimes protective leather on the top edges.

The finished product is treated more like a piece of cloth than a painted surface. If they are backed, it is with a fabric covering for ritual purposes, not only structural and decorative considerations.

Thangkas can be up to several square meters, but there are two common sizes: “scroll style” (approximately 75cm x 50cm) and “banner style” (approximately 1m x 3.5m).

Types of Thangkas

The gos-thang is made of silk and the bris-thang by pigment. By production methods, the main kinds of thangkas are painted thangka, appliquéd and embroidered thangka and kesi thangka.

Painted thangkas use heavy colors and bright brushwork. Pigments are organic, extracted from non-transparent minerals and plants like coral, agate, pearl and gold, blended with animal glue and ox bile to make the luster stay.

Appliquéd and embroidered thangkas came about in the 15th century. Some use a great variety of stitching skills such as flat and piled stitches to create a three-dimensional effect. With high quality materials it is a more complex process, but thought to be superior to the painted kind and able to last several centuries.

An appliqué silk thangka is completed and framed in silk damask. This whole process requires master hands and eyes, patience, concentration, commitment, and above all, a strong belief in the Buddhist faith.

Kesi thangkas use an old weaving technique to transplant paintings onto silk. Kesi originated from Suzhou and refers to silk tapestry with cut designs, similar to carved artwork.

Kesi uses raw silk string as a warp yarn, and boiled-off silk string as a weft yarn. It then weaves in blocks using a leaf-shaped shuttle and a wooden comb-shaped plectrum.

Thangka Themes

Buddhism is always the theme of thangkas, but during and after the Ming and Qing dynasties, the royal court in Beijing strengthened their control over Tibet by conferring the titles of nobility on Tibetan leaders. Thus Tibetan society absorbed more secular civilization from the Chinese mainland and appeared less religious.

As a result, thangkas saw a wider horizon: Tibetan landscapes and social customs, historical incidents, mythology and folklore all came onto the cloth stage.

Thangkas are honored as a visual encyclopedia. On the back, passages from scriptures were often written, though not the name of authors or their ages.

Thangkas are made entirely by hand, and a large thangka could take a month or more to finish. It demands a great deal of precision: for example, the height of the Buddha must be equal to 125 times of the width of his fingers, and his face should be the same length as the width of 12.5 fingers.

It is not just a scroll; being a thangka artist means choosing a lifestyle hard to imagine. A master needs training lasting up to several decades, and is supposed to think of Buddha during every step – no wonder early thangka makers were all monks.

Thangkas Today

In 2009, thangkas were listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. There are artisans making thangkas today; contemporary works combine modern painting styles and approaches with the traditional technique. No school provides training as all skills are passed down from masters to apprentices.

Although thangkas may be preserved for a long time, they face a big problem in conservation. Thangkas are a complex handicraft work and each material reacts differently to touch, aging, temperature, humidity and so on.

The most vulnerable part is the border, often made of silk brocade. Silk is susceptible to the damp wall of the monastery and the weight of the whole piece, so original borders are rarely seen nowadays.

Repeatedly rolling and unrolling thangkas also causes serious damage. Therefore, it is difficult to find a thangka produced before the Ming Dynasty, and many antiques are not in good condition. Most ancient thangkas are from the Qing Dynasty, during or after the 17th century.

In 2002, a 15th century thangka sold for a record 3.6 million dollars. After that, thangkas became very hot in the art market. Some factories began to create thangkas on a production line, some fake thangkas appeared; worse still, painters’ attitudes and purpose changed. The precious pigment from organic natural materials was replaced with cheap synthetic ones which decreased the quality. This situation has caused anxiety for many thangka handicraftsmen and fans.

LEFT: This thangka is made of pure gold, showing a Tara on a lotus accompanied by two dragons. In Buddhism, there are 21 Taras who protect people against poverty.

RIGHT: This is one of the most valuable works from Tibet’s oldest Jonang School.

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