Thanka Painting in Nepal

If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the rich and vibrant culture of Nepal, then exploring the tradition of (Thangka) Thanka Painting in Nepal is a must. This traditional form of Buddhist art involves intricate and colorful depictions of Buddhist deities, mandalas, and other religious symbols.

How Thanka (Thangka) are Made ? Thangka Making Thanka Art

Origins of Thanka (Thangka) Painting:

Thanka (Thangka) Painting has its origins in ancient India but it was in Nepal that the art form truly flourished. The vibrant colors and intricate details of Thanka (Thangka) Paintings in Nepal are unparalleled and have earned them a reputation as some of the finest Buddhist art in the world.

A large thangka hung on a special wall at Gyantse in Tibet in 1938
A large thangka hung on a special wall at Gyantse in Tibet in 1938

Tibetan Buddhist painting has its roots in early Buddhist paintings found in places like the Ajanta Caves in India and the Mogao Caves in China, which have extensive wall paintings and were the repository for what are now the earliest surviving Tibetan paintings on cloth. The thanka form, a type of portable painting, developed alongside the tradition of Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings. The form’s history is more easily traced through these murals, which survive in greater numbers than portable paintings. 

The earliest surviving Tibetan paintings on cloth are from the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang on the Silk Road in Gansu province, China. Surviving tangkas on the cloth from Tibet started in the 11th century, after the revival of Buddhism. Over the centuries, Tibetan painting, both on walls and thangka, continued to develop in its distinctive style, balancing between the two major influences of Indo-Nepalese and Han Chinese painting, despite Buddhism being on the general decline in these regions. Tibetan painting incorporated many elements from Han Chinese painting, especially from the 14th century onwards, reaching a peak in the 18th century.

Types of Thanka (Thangka) Painting in Nepal

Thangka painting is a form of Tibetan Buddhist art that originated in Nepal and spread to Tibet and other regions where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced. Thangkas are portable paintings of cloth or silk that are typically used for meditation and teaching purposes. They come in various sizes, from small hand-held ones to large wall hangings, and depict a wide range of subjects, including deities, mandalas, historical events, and the life of the Buddha.

thangka painting

Thangka paintings can be classified into different types based on their subject matter, style, and purpose. Some of the common types include deity thangkas, which depict Buddhist deities and their attributes; mandala thangkas, which represent the cosmos and the path to enlightenment; narrative thangkas, which tell stories from the life of the Buddha and other historical figures; and medical thangkas, which illustrate the human body and its energy channels for use in traditional Tibetan medicine. Other types of thangkas include protector deities, lineage thangkas, and ritual thangkas. Each type has its own conventions and iconography and is used for different purposes within Tibetan Buddhism.

Tangkas are further divided into these more specific categories:

  1. Painted in colors (Tib.) Tson-tang: the most common type
  2. Appliqué (Tib.) go-tang
  3. Black Background: meaning gold line on a black background (Tib.) Nagtang
  4. Block prints: paper or cloth outlined renderings, by woodcut/woodblock printing
  5. Embroidery (Tib.) tsem-thang
  6. Gold Background: an auspicious treatment, used judiciously for peaceful, long-life deities and fully enlightened Buddhas
  7. Red Background: literally gold line, but referring to the gold line on a vermillion (Tib.) mar-tang

Materials and Techniques:

One of the unique aspects of Thanka (Thangka) Painting is that it is created using a combination of natural materials and traditional techniques. The artists use hand-ground pigments made from minerals, plants, and other natural substances to create the vibrant colors used in the paintings. They also use traditional tools such as bamboo pens and fine brushes to create intricate details and patterns.

Thangka paintings are typically created using pigments mixed with a water-soluble medium of animal glue and are painted on cotton or silk. The cotton is typically loosely woven and produced in widths ranging from 40 to 58 cm. Thangkas wider than 45 cm often have seams in the support. Mineral and organic pigments are used, and in some cases, 24-carat gold is plated over parts of the painting. The composition of a thangka is highly geometric, with arms, legs, eyes, nostrils, ears, and various ritual implements all laid out on a systematic grid of angles and intersecting lines.

The artist must be properly trained and have sufficient religious understanding, knowledge, and background to create an accurate and appropriate thangka, as all symbols and allusions must be in accordance with strict guidelines laid out in Buddhist scripture. Inscriptions are often found on the back of thangkas, typically containing the mantra of the deity depicted or information about later owners.

Significance of Thanka (Thangka) Painting:

Thanka (Thangka) Painting is considered a sacred art form often used in meditation and religious ceremonies. It is highly respected by the Nepalese people and is an integral part of their spiritual and cultural heritage.

Symbolism in Thangka Painting

Thangka paintings often depict the significant theme of the birth of Buddha and his initial seven steps. In these artworks, the artist symbolically portrays Mayadevi’s resting place with a Saal tree, while the immediate seven steps are represented by seven lotuses positioned in the four cardinal directions.

Another important symbol found in thangka paintings is Buddha seated on a radiant throne, signifying his attainment of enlightenment. The wheel of dharma, a common motif, represents the teachings of Buddha. Additionally, the depiction of Buddha lying on a thorn amidst two Saal trees signifies his eventual passing.

Symbolism in Thangka Painting
Image Copyright © Handicrafts in Nepal

Here are a few other symbolism present in Thangka paintings:

  • Lotus Flower:
    In Buddhism, the lotus flower is a symbol of spiritual purity, representing the journey towards enlightenment. Its blossoming petals symbolize the continuous cycle of life.
  • Conch Shell:
    The resounding sound of the conch shell represents the proclamation of the dharma, signifying that Buddha’s teachings have reached his disciples.
  • Victory Banner:
    The victory banner signifies Buddha’s triumph over the four hindrances on the path to enlightenment: pride, desire, disturbing emotions, and fear of death.
  • Dharma Chakra:
    The dharma chakra, or wheel of dharma, represents the eightfold path, which encompasses the teachings of Buddhism. These paths include right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
  • Parasol:
    The parasol symbolizes protection from negative influences and serves as a refuge in the dharma, providing shelter from destructive forces.
  • Treasure Vase:
    The treasure vase represents the abundant growth of Buddha’s teachings when they are shared with others. It also symbolizes good health, prosperity, and longevity.
  • Vitarka Mudra:
    The Vitarka mudra is depicted by a lama with their right hand raised and the thumb touching the index finger. This gesture represents discussion, reasoning, and the transmission of knowledge.
  • Dhyana Mudra:
    The Dhyana mudra signifies meditation and enlightenment. It is often depicted with the hands resting in the lap, palms facing upwards, symbolizing inner peace and tranquility.
  • Bhumisparsha Mudra:
    The Bhumisparsha mudra is depicted by the Buddha with his right hand touching the ground, with all five fingers extended. This gesture represents the Buddha summoning the Earth as a witness to his victory over the forces of Mara and his attainment of enlightenment.
  • Varada Mudra:
    The Varada mudra represents the gesture of dedicating oneself to the salvation and well-being of all beings, emphasizing compassion and selflessness.

Mandala: As the central element in Thangka Paintings

Mandalas are symmetrical holy diagrams used in Buddhism and Hinduism for meditation and worship. They are three-dimensional and feature religious figures, deities, symbols, and other symmetric objects. In religious ceremonies, mandalas are often painted on the floor using colored sand.

Mandala Thangka Painting
Mandala Thangka Painting. source: © Handicrafts in Nepal

Mandala thangkas, which are central to the thangka art form, gained popularity. Nepalese thangka paintings called Paubas specifically focus on mandala thangkas, which are appreciated for their asymmetric aesthetic appeal. These thangkas are widely used for meditation and are believed to bring positive energy to households.

In Tantric Buddhism, mandalas are viewed as a powerful tool for attaining enlightenment. They also symbolize the circle of life. Mandalas are recognized for their healing properties and are used for therapeutic purposes. Carl Jung, a renowned Swiss psychologist, introduced mandalas to the Western audience, explaining that they symbolize wholeness and aid in self-reflection.

Places to See Thanka (Thangka) Paintings in Nepal:

If you’re interested in learning more about Thanka Painting in Nepal, there are several places you can visit. The Patan Museum in Kathmandu is home to an impressive collection of Thanka (Thangka) Paintings, including some that date back to the 13th century. The Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world, is also a great place to see Thanka (Thangka) Paintings in their natural setting.

Who paints thangka in Nepal?

The Chitrakar caste in Nepal, a subgroup of the Newar caste primarily located in the Kathmandu Valley, first created Thangka around the 15th century. Their caste was responsible for creating paintings and masks, and the profession was passed down from father to son. “Chitrakar” translates to “image maker“. Nowadays, anyone can learn the sacred art of Thangka, regardless of their background, by attending schools that teach the craft. Kichaa, who grew up surrounded by Thangka, learned to paint at a young age by observing his father. He picked up the same style and can now create intricate and beautiful pieces of fine art.

Cost of a Thangka

The price of an authentic Thangka painting can range from $1000 to $15000, varying based on its size and level of intricate detail. It typically takes an artist up to 8 hours a day for over five months to complete an average Thangka painting.

On the other hand, counterfeit Thangkas can be easily found on the streets of Thamel, priced anywhere between $30 to $200. It takes an expert in Thangkas to distinguish between an original and a knock-off. These replicated Thangkas are mass-produced and primarily sold as souvenirs.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, exploring the tradition of Thanka Painting in Nepal is a fascinating and rewarding experience. By immersing yourself in this sacred art form, you can gain a deeper understanding of Nepal’s rich culture and spiritual heritage. So why not take the time to appreciate the beauty and intricacy of Nepalese Thanka (Thangka) Paintings and discover for yourself what makes them so special?

Sailendra Bhatta

An adventurer, writer, and Founder of Nepal Travel Vibes.

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