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Thangka Painting: More Than Just Art



Thangka Painting: More Than Just Art

A closer look at the beautiful Buddhist art

If you’ve ever visited Tibet, Nepal or any part of North East India you might have noticed beautiful appliqué paintings of Buddha, Buddhist symbols or mandalas. This is Thangka art, also spelled as thanka or tanka. Let’s take a closer look and see what makes it so special.

More than just art

Dating back to the 7th century AD, Thangka art was born in Nepal. These paintings are quite detailed with a lot of bright colours used therein. Precision plays a vital role in creating them, as there is not a single inch of flaw in Thangka symbols or mandalas.

These paintings are not merely an artist’s imagination–a lot of thought goes into each canvas! Originally, Thangka was created to be used as blueprints of the teachings of a master. It is believed that the visions of the spiritual realm that the masters had at the time of realisation were recorded in the form of Thangka paintings so as to spread their knowledge. In early times, the masters used these paintings, scrolled them up, and carried them along to spread the message of Dharma through the illustrations on them. These paintings also depict the life stories of great masters. For meditation practitioners, this art form serves as a link between them and the deities enabling better concentration.

When Buddhism spread across Tibet, people devoted themselves towards the religion completely and the government comprised of religious masters. Monastic order prevailed and therefore, the importance of these paintings, for the belief of the people, grew to a great extent. Due to this, many people started mastering this art form. Today, a Thangka painting is not just a decorative object to display on your wall–it is believed to be a form of prayer written in beautiful symbols by an artist, who has probably spent his life perfecting the art. So if you get your hands on a Thangka painting, treat it with the care and respect it deserves.

The making of a Thangka painting

To make authentic Thangka, first of all, a piece of canvas is stitched onto a wooden frame. In order to get rid of the cloth texture interfering with the art, a mixture of chalk, gesso and base pigment is rubbed over it with glass. The outline of the deity or the mandala is created using a pencil. It is then outlined again with the help of black ink. No artificial colours are used to make these paintings. Instead, powdered minerals and vegetable dyes are mixed with water and adhesive to fill the canvas with colours. After this, a pure gold paint is added to the required areas of the painting. Finally, it is released from the wood frame and lined with a brocade border.

Going through these steps takes an artist around 1-2 months for an 18×12 inch canvas. Of course, the paintings are a little expensive given the hard work and effort that goes into making them.

(Also read our article on where to travel to learn different art forms).

Where to buy?

Today it is difficult to find authentic Thangka paintings. You can still look for them in the North-eastern parts of India. Since Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh is considered to be ‘little Lhasa’ it is not unusual to find Tibetan artists here, working on their paintings in small shops. This is your best bet to find original Thangka art in India.

Tsewang Lhama is a 67-year-old Thangka painter living with his daughter in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala. He has been into this profession since he was 15. A Tibetan refugee in India, this is what he had to say, “I cannot see properly anymore. I have to use these glasses to work now. This job has taken away my vision partially but I still work (on it) every day.” Dedicating his life to creating Thangka paintings, the earning for him is quite bleak, yet he continues to put in his best each day, without complaints, with a face gleaming of satisfaction.

(Also read our article on shopping for traditional masks in India).

Thangka art should certainly receive the kind of recognition it deserves. In an attempt to save the cultural heritage of India, Thangka truly makes for a good cause to spread awareness about. Now that you know more about this tradition, buy yourself a little piece of Buddha art and put it up for peace and tranquility.

Image Credit: Tsewang Lhama




A writer and explorer living her ultimate dream of travel and writing. Tishta is a seeker of spiritual legends and myths in the Himalayas. An avid reader, she can be found looking for constellations in the night sky with a telescope when not lost in the solitude of the mountains, seeking meaning to life and beyond.

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