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Painting the philosophy of the Hindu Deities Through Twist and Turns Of Thangkas

The Thangka, which also goes by, ‘tangka’, ‘thanka’ or ‘tanka’ is a painting form that finds its origins in Tibet. The Thangka commonly depicts Buddhist deities, scenes and mandalas. These Tibetan Buddhist paintings were formed out of global traditions of ancient Buddhist paintings. The only existing remains of these paintings are found in the Ajanta Caves in India and the Mogao Caves on the Silk Road. These sites showcase large-scale wall paintings, which are now the oldest surviving Tibetan cloth paintings. 

Reminiscent of Chinese scroll paintings, the Thangka paintings on display were mounted on a textile backing with a silk cover on the front, however, when they weren’t on display, they were originally preserved without their frames and kept rolled up. While these Thangka paintings have longevity, they have to be stored in dry areas to ensure the quality of the silk cover is not affected. A good deal of these paintings are considerably small, but there are a few that span several meters in all dimensions, which were sketched to go on display in monasteries, particularly on special occasions such as religious festivals. The purpose of most of these paintings was for personal meditation or for the instruction of monastic students. Commonly these paintings showcase elaborate compositions with small figures. Another feature of these paintings is the appearance of a central deity that is enveloped by other identified figures in a symmetrical formation. While narrative scenes do appear in the Thangkas, it’s not a common occurrence. 

Types of Thangkas

Thangkas are segregated into different types based on the technique and materials used. Broadly, they comprise two categories - the ones that are painted on and the others that are made of silk, either by applique or through embroidery. 

However, there are more specific subcategories of Thangkas, which are: 

  • Tson-tang: those that are painted in colors 

  • Go-tang: in reference to the paintings that use applique

  • Nagtang: those that use gold and black as their colors

  • Block Prints: these use woodcut/woodblock printing on paper or cloth

  • Tsem-thang: the paintings that use embroidery

  • The paintings that make use of a gold background to signify the auspiciousness of the art, are commonly used in the depiction of peaceful deities that endure a long life and Buddhas who have achieved complete enlightenment 

  • Mar-tang: referring to the paintings that have gold lines on a vermillion backdrop

Making of the Thangkas

The fabrics commonly used in this art form are either silk or cotton. More common among the two is woven cotton. They also usually have seams to support the cloth. When it comes to the paint, mineral and organic pigments are immersed in a water-soluble medium of animal glue. In Western terms, the technique used is called distemper. The main tools used by Thangka artists are symbolism and allusion.

The Thangkas act as vital instruments in the teaching of Buddhist philosophies. The main themes tackled in this art form are representations of the life of Buddha, numerous prominent lamas, other deities and bodhisattvas. Some of the topics covered in these paintings are the Wheel of Life (Bhavachakra) and a visual depiction of Abhidharma teachings (Art of Enlightenment) 


Q1. What are the popular themes of Thangka paintings? 

Thangkas are scroll paintings that hold great spiritual significance, encapsulating unique features of the Buddhist tradition. The most common themes dealt with in Thangka paintings are history, policy, cultural life and societal traditions. 

Q2. When did the tradition of Thangka paintings enter India? 

The tradition of Thangka paintings was introduced in Eastern India in the 7th century. It was majorly influenced by Central Asia, Kashmiri, Nepali, and Chinese traditions. Today, it has grown into a unique style of its own with celestial motifs and vibrant colors.