What is a Thangka?

For over a thousand years the tradition of the Tibetan Buddhist Thangka has flourished in the shrines and monasteries across the great Himalayan range, at the roof of the world. To this day, from the present home of the Dalai Lama in Northern India, through the mountain kingdom of Nepal, to Tibet, “The land of snows”, there are Artisans still reproducing these magnificent works in the time honoured way.
Thangka's are religious paintings made on cotton canvas or silk. It is believed that the art spread from Nepal to Tibet along with Buddhism after Bhrikuti, a Nepali princess, was married off to Tsrong Tsang Gyampo, the King of Tibet.


The word ‘Thangka’, means ‘that which can be rolled up’, as it was a scroll in form, which could be easily carried by itinerant monks and used as a teaching tool or to give a sense of protection to the traveller. To this day Buddhist Lamas use these scroll artworks in their ceremonies. They are to be found in shrine rooms and temples as a focus for devotional practice of meditation or in people’s home to ward off misfortune.
For Buddhists, Thangka's have religious value, while for art lovers they have aesthetic importance.
Traditionally, Thangka's are painted by using powdered natural pigment made from ground stones and resins from boiled leaves. This is then mixed with water and Yak skin gum to give the paint a permanent finish. The medium is then applied with a fine brush (sometimes with as little as 3 hairs) to a canvas that has been carefully stretched. The stretching is done by attaching the four sides of the canvas by twine to four strips of wood, which in turn are tied to a frame. The front and back of the canvas are then treated in various ways to create a smooth effect, using a glue which is applied first, followed by the application of a mixture of rice flour and plaster. The surface is then smoothed off to make it ready for the initial sketching. After a few days the surface is capable of taking the finest detail.


These Thangka’s still made with natural base colours and the traditional methods are more expensive, especially those on which the final touches are done in 24ct gold. The artist must paint according to Tibetan scriptures, following basic rules such as the number of hands, the colour of the deity’s face, the posture of the deity, the holding of the symbols and the expression of the face. The rest is up to the artist. The process of painting a Thangka can be a long one, and take several months to finish.
The painting of Thangka is a living and thriving tradition, practiced by both the monastic community and lay people. Thangka’s are famous the world over for their spiritual and aesthetic significance. Traditional belief has it that hanging such a painting in one’s prayer room brings good luck.


More recently the tradition of the Tibetan Buddhist Thangka painter has been slowly eroding due to reasons such as, decreased visitors to Nepal (nearly all paintings are now done in Nepal, with the exception of a number of painters in North India), September 11th, the shooting of all the Royal family, the SARS virus, the present Maoist insurgency have all taken their toll, with the effects that the traditional Thangka painters are moving to the middle east to take menial jobs to feed their families.

We at Pink Lotus are doing all we can to help keep the tradition alive and flourishing as best we can, under such testing circumstances.

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