What is a Thangka?

asian art thangka tibet

Thangka is a Tibetan word used to define scroll painting works designed to be portable and, when not in use, rolled up. The word "thangka" means "thing that one unrolls".

The drawing, made with minerals and pigments, is generally applied to the surface of prepared cotton cloth or, more rarely, on silk. The subject of the thangkas could be religious or secular and it is generally divided in three categories: figurative, narrative and diagrammatic. Figurative subjects can be both non-iconic and iconic. Non iconic figures are mainly subjects of the Foundational and Mahayana Buddhism narrative and they can be represented with artistic freedom to a certain extent. The iconic figures are related to the Vajrayana and Tantric Buddhism and are Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Deities that need to have a fixed physical appearance due to their role as a support of meditative practice. Narrative thangkas describe events of the life of a particular subject, mainly that of Shakyamuni Buddha. Diagrammatical works are mainly mandalas, astrological or medical subjects.

The early story of Tibetan Buddhist painting is traced on old murals from which the art of painting on cloth was developed. Most of the early artists were probably monks, although lay artists seem to have existed, and thangkas were made primarily to be displayed in monasteries.

Most thangka were commissioned by individuals, who were believed to acquire merit by doing so. They might then be given to a monastery or another individual, or be retained for use by the commissioner. Some thangka have inscriptions on the back recording that they were the personal meditation image of a lama or a monk.  Thangka are very rarely signed, but some artists are known, mainly because they were important monastic leaders rather than being famous artists.

Tibetan Thangkas Styles

Styles could vary considerably between the different regions of Tibet as well as the wider region where tangkas were painted. The different monastic orders also developed somewhat different stylistic characteristics.

The art of Tibetan thangkas began around 1000 years ago (11th century), with the first styles showing a strong influence from outside Tibet such as Kashmir, North India and Nepal. It was only from the 15th century onwards that real Tibetan painting styles developed with the Khienry and Menri styles. Other important Tibetan styles/traditions are the Gyantse (16th century), Karma Gardri, Lhatog (17th century), and the New Menri (17th-19th century).

The main background colours of Tibetan thangkas are black, gold, red and multicoloured; each colour is characteristic of a specific subject. Therefore, black is usually used for paintings depicting wrathful and fearsome subjects; gold is commonly used for images of the Buddha and red is used for all the tantra power deities. Thangkas with backgrounds of other colours, such us silver, green and blue, have been developed only quite recently.

How to read a thangka

There are four steps to correctly do it:

  1. Big to small
  2. Top to bottom
  3. Left to right
  4. Inside to outside

Usually, thangkas have a main bigger central figure, and sometimes you have just this with a landscape on the background. Sometimes they have other smaller figures on the top and/or on the bottom of the main central figure so that the biggest central figure is always the point where you start to correctly read a thangka and is always the most important (big to small).

Then you go on to the figures on top and the most important one of them is the top central one. The less important figures are that ones on the bottom of the painting (top to bottom).

The third most important figure depicted in a thangka is that ones on the top left (left to right) and finally there are figures that are painted on the sides of the main central figure (inside to outside). 

Why Buy a Thangka

Thangkas are beautiful pieces of art, with symbolic and esoteric meaning, but they are also, for Buddhist practitioners, an instrument of devotion and a support for meditation practice. Therefore, thangkas are much more than simple paintings and they will add a touch of spirituality and blessing to your personal and professional environment. Moreover, buying quality and antique thangkas is a good way to invest your money.