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The origin and use of thangkas

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The origin and use of thangkas

We all have heard about Tibetan or Buddhist thangkas, but what do they mean, where to they come from and how are the used now in modern times? A thangka also spelled as thanka, thangkha, or tanka, is a Tibetan Buddhist or Newari painting on a silk and cotton canvas, carefully treated so it may last for centuries. Buddhist thangkas are commonly displayed at Buddhist monasteries, in meditation schools and in the homes of Buddhists practicing meditation. But originally used as a way to preserve teachings, and to share knowledge about Buddhism. A used thangka is usually rolled out and hanged on a wall, similar to a Chinese scroll. When not being used the thangka is rolled up and preserved in a dry place where no moisture can damage the painting. Usually but not limited to picturize a Buddha and his teachings, thangkas are also used to depict; reincarnations, lamas, myths, teachings, mandala, zambala, or mahakala.

Thangkas come in all sizes, but are mostly painted on half-portrait western sized canvases. The bigger thangkas can cover entire walls, but also cost a fortune due to it has to be hand treated and painted. Buddhist thangkas often display a central Buddha or deity surrounded by smaller elements, which all hold their own unique meaning in Buddhism. Unlike other cultures, Buddhist thangkas, with the exception of the famous Life of Buddha thangka, don’t display a narrative story, but more guidelines in how to reach states of enlightenment or displaying the ways of Buddhism and their fundamental beliefs of life and death. Serving as crucial learning and teaching tools, Buddhist thangkas illustrate the lives of various Buddha, deities, bodhisattvas and lamas. Thangkas are also not limited to Buddhism philosophy, but have been actually used since before the commonly known Tibetan thangkas, in Kathmandu Nepal as an art form created by the Newari people. Paubha or Nepali art, unlike Buddhism thangkas display the Hindu religion and deities. They are painted in a darker background, with accents of gold and silver. With so many thangkas, it was believed that they first came in sets, but as time passed grew apart in to their own category of thangka. 

From Buddhist thangkas to Newari Hindu Paubha thangkas, there is a lot to learn, and understand from the origins and uses of these thangka paintings. Mandala Handicrafts, offers only authentic Newari and Tibetan hand-painted thangkas in its wide selection. In order to provide meaning and understanding about these authentic thangkas, we prepared a short summary in to the history, types, how they are made, and the uses of thangkas.

A brief history into Buddhist thangkas:

A Buddhist thangka is a painting on cloth telling a deed of a Buddha, deity, lama, or illustrating a Buddhist philosophy. Thangka translated means “object that you can unroll”. In order to understand the history of Buddhist thangkas, we need to understand where these paintings or art form comes from. The earliest Buddhist paintings on walls and cloth date back from circa the 7th century. They are located in two caves, one in India called the Ajanta Caves and one in the Mogoa Caves on the famous historical Silk Road in China. These two caves hold the oldest Buddhist wall murals and paintings on cloth. Scientist as well as historians both agree that the thangka is an evolution from those wall paintings, which are founded in ancient old monasteries. 

It is believed that thangkas were made upon commission to individuals, in order to get merit. A monk skilled in the art of painting on cloth would illustrate the ancient wall mural on a roll-able piece of cloth and present to an individual for personal meditation. While the individual had to pay for the thangka according to Buddhist historians it was believed to give the payment as a gift and not as a form of commercial enterprise. Historical Buddhist thangkas have been founded with inscriptions on the back stating that the thangka belonged to a notable monk. While never signed by the artist, there have been thangka signed by monastic leaders to increase their spiritual ability. So what we learned is that Buddhist thangkas originated as personal meditation tools illustrated on roll-able cloth and taken from earlier wall murals. Now in modern times, thangkas are still been made according to old traditions, and have so many variations depending on region, influence and the artist. 

Even today Buddhist thangkas still have a mysterious history. Where they made as personal items, or just as an evolved form of wall painting, made easy to transport, or where they made in order to spread out the teachings and Buddhist philosophy? With still so many questions unanswered, one fact remains certain! As long as there are Buddhist followers and practitioners of meditation, the history of the Buddhist thangka will continue to evolve into more complex and knowledgeable designs. 

What are the different types of thangkas?

To identify the different types of thangkas, one needs to take a closer look to the material and techniques used to create them. Commonly, thangkas can be split into two groups, the more traditional version which is painted on cloth, and the more modern version which uses silk and embroidery. These different styles of thangka paintings have then also their own sub categories, using different techniques. 

Besides the more common known thangka, used for personal meditation and the size of about a normal poster, there are also huge thangkas. Used in monasteries and unrolled during spiritual occasions, these giant thangkas are made using a more modern technique of embroiling, or applique on silk. Another type are the Tibetan Tsakli cards. These fifteen centimeter high cards usually have one deity, or Buddha illustrated and used for training monks, offerings, or as initiation cards. Similar as the painted thangka, it is believed that these Tsakli cards originated as sets, for beginner monks. Not only limited to Buddhism, thangkas have been used in other religions as well. The most authentic form of thangka, originated in Nepal, Kathmandu. When the famous Himalayan capital was still fully populated by the traditional Newari people. These incredible artisans created a form of painting on cloth illustrating the Hindu religion and its deities. Known as Newari Paubha thangkas, this ancient form is still practiced today, and can only be acquired from Kathmandu, Nepal. 

Although a traditional Buddhist thangka is painted on cotton or silk canvas, there are other forms of thangka divided into different styles using different techniques;

Block print thangkas:

Known traditionally as a dpar ma in Tibet. Block print thangkas are printed thangkas using a wooden block, which holds the outlining of the thangka’s illustration. Using this process is a bit more modern than traditional hand-painting a thangka and helps to speed up the process of creating a thangka.

Embroidered thangkas:

This way of thangka is more commonly found in eastern parts of Tibet and China. As the name suggest pieces of colored silk are carefully hand embroidered upon a canvas. Creating the design and making sure that every detail is embroidered perfectly making the thangka whole, is considered a difficult technique. While the materials seem more luxurious than cotton, it is believed that this is a later form of thangka making, and still used today.

Applique thangkas:

More commonly found on huge thangkas covering walls of Buddhist monasteries, the technique to make applique thangkas is more of a mosaic of colors outlining and illustrating mandalas, zambalas, Buddha, and deities. Applique thangkas are made carefully by hand suing small pieces of cloth together and rested on a wooden frame to support the size and weight. While not traditional there have been applique thangkas where paint is also used to further detail the thangka.

Woven thangkas:

Woven thangkas are more considered as tapestry, as they are woven together in a similar fashion. Due to the occupation of Tibet, many woven thangkas have been lost, and although some families still hand wave them to preserve the technique, there seem to be less and less woven thangkas on the market or in use.

Wooden carved thangkas:

Wood carved thangkas are carefully carved, 3-dimensional figurines and details. Carved from a single block of wood, the wooden carved thangka is painted to highlight every detail and considered an extremely difficult technique.

Metal thangkas:

Made to last through time, metal thangkas where made from bronze. Due to the weight involved in these metal bronze thangkas, they are more used as decoration and spiritual guidance on giant monastery doors and walls. 

With so many different types of thangkas varying from artist, style, technique, meaning and use. An original cloth hand-painted thangka of portrait size can take from 8 months up to 3 years to complete! Understandably the value also increases and can depend upon the same factors of artist, size, and creation time. Mandala Handicrafts has a wide selection of hand-painted Buddhist thangkas and Newari Paubha thangkas. We can also commission an artist to hand-paint a custom thangka according to your preferences. Furthermore, if you want more details on the different types of thangkas, our Mandala Handicrafts customer support team is always ready to answer any of your queries.

How are thangkas made?  

Having learned about the history and different types of thangka, we’ll have a look at how thangkas are made. To create a thangka first there needs to be an artist, and not just any painter is qualified to paint a Buddhist thangka. One needs a deep understanding in Buddhism and follow a certain set of rules in order to accurately illustrate a Buddha, deity or lama. Now known thangka artists, have studied since early age the traditions and techniques of thangka painting, before even beginning to design and create their first thangka! 

A thangka is either painted on silk or cotton canvases. There can be differences between the canvas qualities, and most common thangkas are painted on loosely woven cotton canvases with a width of about 40 to 58 cm, or 16 to 23 inches. Having an artist and canvas is of course not enough to create a thangka. The most important part that makes a thangka so unique is the paint itself! Various minerals and organic items from clay to flower petals are solved in a water liquid and painted directly upon the thangka. There are no rooms for any mistakes as one miscalculation can ruin the thangka completely. With it goes then also a lot of man hours in work and preparation. Uniquely, there are Nepalese Newari Paubha thangkas where 24 carat gold has been used to paint gold accents and details! In older Buddhism thangkas inscriptions of mantras have been discovered engraved under the paint and on the back of the thangka. Although rare, names of first commissioners have been found on ancient Buddhist thangkas. This also indicates that older thangkas where in fact used as personal items of spirituality. In order to paint a new thangka the artist, needs a predesign, and uses other thangkas as a base to illustrate a deity, Buddha, lama or philosophy. Then the artist starts to create the center piece of the thangka using geometric lines to illustrate limbs, objects and shapes. Every minor detail needs to be put with understanding of the deity and its incarnations. A thangka is then also made using precise strokes and carefully designed lines, which make it incredibly difficult and time consuming. Even today there are monasteries, Buddhist artists and Newari families that make original hand-painted thangkas!

Mandala Handicrafts, works closely with these artists in order to spread the culture and tradition of Buddhist and Newari thangkas. Have a look at our Mandala Handicrafts thangka selection or commission us to create a custom thangka especially for you!

Uses of thangkas:

An authentic thangka has several uses. The most logical theory is that thangkas where originally created to be used by traveling monks from monastery to monastery or on pilgrimage. As these easy to roll thangkas where a handy way to show and teach about the live(s) of Buddha and the meaning behind Buddhist philosophy.

With the popularity of thangkas ever growing, Buddhist thangkas became also a common use for prayer, offering or as a medium. Later on, personalized thangkas where created to Buddhist devotees and became an important part in the teaching and practicing of meditation and even yoga. Now fully available to outsiders such as collectors, meditation practitioners, or even as gifts thangkas have spread from Central Asia to the entire world! The most common uses of thangkas vary between; teaching, display, group or personal meditation, or as gifts. It is believed that using and believing in the thangka during meditation can help you reach to a state of nirvana and positive karma. If you haven’t tried it, it’s never too late! Have a look around at our Mandala Handicrafts thangka selection and with our easy to order and fast delivery system you are sure to try out your own hand-painted thangka.

So, as the uses of thangkas vary between owners, its spiritual effects never diminish over time. Use an authentic hand-painted thangka for personal meditation or as a collection piece of Buddhist culture. Even today, there are still monks, Buddhist artists, and Newari families that make authentic thangkas, to further spread this amazing culture and help all reach the path to enlightenment!

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