Thirubuvanam, Tamil Nadu, India...
The original function of the Thangkas was to cure and protect people who are absorbed in looking at them, regardless of the mood in the scenes depicted. They are used in the prayer halls of monasteries and houses. The large Thangkas are displayed only during festivals. During the rest of the year, they are rolled up and safely kept away.
-Many works of Tibetan Buddhist art are connected with Tantric rituals and are regarded as tools for mediation and worship. Some art objects can be touched, owned, held and moved. Others are used to meditate on. These incorporate a “Circle of Bliss,” a sharing of power between the observer and the work of art.
-Tibetan art is expected to be a tool for enlightenment rather an expression of the self. John Listopadm an expert on Tibetan art told the Los Angeles Times, “Tibetan art is psychological art and meditational. It is an art, which works on people and their personalities. It can calm you down and help you find peace and balance.”
In Tibetan art, the emphasis is placed on the “sacred process” and devotional aspects of the work rather than the aesthetic qualities and originality of the finished product, as is often the case with Western art. Most works are done anonymously. Personal expression and the selling of Tibetan art are frowned upon.
It is said that only highly skilled master artists can paint and render by just reading a description of the deity in the scriptures. An average artist requires referring to the set of rules, an old work or drawings.
Broadly, only silk and cotton are seen all around the religion. From costumes to masks to offerings to coverings- one can find a whole range of silk and cotton products. In silk, heavily ornamented brocades are only used, which nowadays are made in Benares and Delhi. Traditionally, only handloom jacquard brocades were used in Buddhism for adorning the idols and lamas of highest orders. For monasteries and other holy purposes, however, traditional textiles are still adhered to.
The mythology of Tibetan Buddhism has many tales of various spirits and demons. These representations of both good and evil qualities are depicted in the form of masks and their stories are enacted as masked dances during the annual festivals of various Gompas in Ladakh.
Much of Tibetan art is oriented towards Buddha, gods and merit. Many works have complex iconography and symbolism that requires extensive knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism to unravel. Buddhism in Tibet has believed in different iconographies for different purposes. The story begins with Mandalas and how they are used in various thangkas. –
-Thangka for Compassion, Green Tara– The Green Tara is often painted on Thangkas and her symbolism is deep yet simple. She can be considered as the Mother, ready to help and love all beings that pray to her. Considered as one of the most important deities in the Buddhist pantheon and widely revered in Tibet, her compassion is infinite. This article will try and shed some light on the symbolism of this Thangka.
-The Wheel of Life, Samsara – By Samsara (bhavachakra) we are talking of all existences that are conditioned by: ignorance, suffering and the unexplainable flow of time, often represented by Yama holding the wheel of life. Nirvana, on the other hand, represents the world unaffected by negative emotions, which by definition is the nature of happiness.
–Dhyana (Samahita) Mudra: These meditation mudras symbolize the female left hand of wisdom of emptiness over which lays the male right hand of skillful means.
–Samsara, The Wheel of Life Part 2– The Wheel of Life contains twelve unique images each linked to one another called ‘dvadasanga pratityasamutpada’ or the 12 Interdependent Factors. These can be found on the outer most circle, each image has its own symbolism to help us better understand Samsara.
Historians state that Dards made West Tibet their home in the 4th and 5th centuries. They say that these people migrated along the course of the Indus River and that they introduced irrigation and settled communities. Colonial historians placed almost all peoples and languages of the Upper Indus River into one pot and defined Tibetans as Baltis, later obscuring and simplifying distinct identities by introducing three other terms, “Dard, Dardistan, and Dardic,” which in truth do not occur in classical sources and were never mentioned before.
It is not clear when the first Buddhist communities were established in Ladakh. The site of His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, write, “Starting about the 3rd century, Buddhism began to grow and spread outside India, adjusting to local cultures and the varying conditions of different countries. Buddhism began to take root in different countries in Asia as they came in contact with Buddhism from the early 2nd century B.C.E. Buddhism became nearly extinct in India, the country of its origin.”
History books concede that after the eastward propagation of Buddhism in the 7th century. Those overran Ladakh and its neighbors, fleeing westwards from the early Tibetan Tubo Kings. The chiefs of the Tubo Empire in Yarlung (which is situated in Central Tibet) had established an aristocracy and displaced the native inhabitants who had an independent state with its own language, literature, and culture; these people continue living in remote areas of Zhang Zhung in West Tibet proper, Kashmir, Ladakh, Zanskar, and the Himalayan regions of Nepal.
Buddhism in Ladakh is ancient and widespread and a popular theme for cultural tours in Ladakh. The population of Ladakh is predominantly Buddhist and Ladakh has been deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, which follows the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools. In these forms of Buddhism, Buddha is worshipped a deity who has attained Nirvana (freedom from the cycle of birth and death). Various incarnations of Buddha, known as Bodhisattvas, are also worshipped in monasteries. Many tourists undertake trip to Ladakh to explore, understand and learn from the ancient Buddhism, which is practiced here. Some of the best frescoes are seen outside of Tibet in places like Mustang in Nepal and Ladakh in India. Many frescoes in Tibet were either lost or badly damaged in the Cultural Revolution.
Most Tibetan painting is in the form of murals and frescoes painted on monastery walls. They depict bodhisattvas, scenes from the life of Buddha, Tibetan gods, portraits of famous lamas, apsaras (angels) and demon-like dharmpalas stomping on human bodies.
The composition of paintings is often the same: a central image of Buddha, surrounded by smaller, lesser deities. Above the central figure is a supreme Buddha from which the central figure emanated.
Proportions are a very crucial part of Thangka paintings. These comparative measurements are standards for all deities. The basic unit of measurement is called the Sor. Every artist decides his own Sor according to the scale of the painting.
The sizes of the Thangkas vary. The dimensions are rectangular with a vertical format for the depictions. The painted Thangka is always mounted atop a frame of brocades to be made into a scroll.
Thangkas (also spelled tankas) generally fall into 11 categories:
2) Tsokshing (Assembly Trees)
3) Tathagata Buddhas
6) Buddha-Mother and female Bodhisattvas
7) Tutelary deities
8) Dharma-protecting deities
10) Wrathful deities
11) Other Bodhisattvas
The setting, the background, architectural elements, secondary figures are all executed with special aims and symbolic meaning. One thangka artist told the Japan Times, “There is no room for originality in thangka painting. The iconography, the colors, even the way you hold the brush—everything must be done just so.”
These are used in the Thangkas too have symbolism. The five colours are – red, green, yellow, blue and white. They are called primary or basic in Mahayana and are associated with the five primordial Buddha. They are also believed to represent the five elements of life- fire, water, air, earth and ether.
– White stands for peace and purity
– Yellow is a sign of prosperity and wealth
– Red denotes power, love and attachment
– Green stands for activities
– Blue denotes wrath.
Just like colours, the motifs also have a symbolism that is influenced by their religious, geographical and also political conditions. In Buddhist tradition, there are several symbols based on their landscapes, ceremonies, mythology, cosmology, and so on. Of these, eight symbols are of most importance, as they are also known as eight auspicious symbols of good fortune. They are believed to represent events in Buddha’s life. These symbols represent the offerings presented by the great Vedic Gods to Buddha upon his attainment of enlightenment. These are
– White parasol / Gdugs
Denotes royalty and protection
– A pair of golden fishes / Gser-nya
Symbolizing happiness and fertility
– A treasure vase / Gter-guibum-pa
Symbolizes wealth in abundance
– Lotus / Padma
Denoting purity and renunciation
– White conch shell / Dung-gyas-khyil
Referring to the supremacy of Buddha’s teachings
– Endless knot / Dpal be’u
Denoting Buddha’s endless wisdom and compassion
– Victorious banner/ Rgyal-mtshan)
Symbolizing Buddha’s victory over defilements
– Golden wheel/ Khor-lo
Refers to the wheel of dharma of Buddha’s teachings.
The paintings usually have one deity as the central figure. Various other elements are positioned around the central figure, their compositions holding various layers of meanings and connotations. A few prominent figures in the paintings are as follows
Tara is the consort of Avalaoketeswara. She is believed to be the reincarnation of Buddha’s mother who came to bring Buddhism back to Tibet, 1000 years after the death of Buddha. She appears in many forms in the paintings, the main colours used being green and white.
He is the thousand-armed god of fertility. The arms are symbolic of his compassion for living beings and his wisdom. Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism considers compassion as masculine and wisdom as feminine. Therefore this deity also embodies both sexes.
This is a wrathful manifestation of Shiva, one of the most important gods of Hindu and Shamanistic worlds. In Buddhism, he is believed to be the guardian of Buddha’s teachings.
A mandala is a form of Buddhist prayer and art that is usually associated with a particular Buddha and his ascension to enlightenment. Regarded as a powerful center of psychic energy, it symbolizes the macrocosm of the universe, the miniature universe of the practitioner and the platform on which the Buddha addresses his followers.
A typical mandala measures five feet across and contains a pictorial diagram of Buddhist deities in circular concentric geometric shapes. Many are shaped like a lotus flower with a round center and eight pedals, with a central deity surrounded by four to eight other deities who are manifestations of the central figure. Consorts often accompany the deities. In large mandalas there may several dozen circles of deities, with hundreds of deities.
Mandalas can be painted, constructed of stone, embroidered, sculptured or even serve as the layout plan for entire monasteries. It is believed that the tradition of making mandalas was derived from ancient folk religions and Hinduism.
Most mandalas are destroyed after a few hours or days. The destruction of mandalas after a short time ties in with the Buddhist idea that nothing is permanent and things are always in a flux and one should not become too attached to things because they will disappear and bring unhappiness.
Motifs in the brocades
Commonly used motifs in brocades are:
Duk – dragon
Palpi – swastika
Pema Chandan – large yellow lotus
Tanka – circular motifs
Khati – red geometrical design
Dukkhabral – two dragons face to face
Yungdu Lokyu – interlocked swastika
Singe – snow lion
Makala – black face
Chadukh – a combination of peacock and dragon
Rosonatta – elaborate floral pattern
Damage was particularly likely, given the tendency of Tibetans to travel long distances in harsh conditions. Thangkas were important articles of the tent culture of nomadic monastic groups in medieval Tibet. This was good for the people but intense for the thangkas! Rolling and unrolling was, and still is, unavoidably damaging for thangkas. Rough handling and damp walls damaged both the paintings and their mountings, in medieval Tibet and today as well.
These incredible works of art always were, and currently are integral to the Himalayan culture and way of life. However, the current reality is that due to a variety of reasons, including political turmoil and economic conditions, there are far fewer trained practitioners of this art. The art of Thangka painting is gradually becoming extinct. Given the rigors of training required to become an accomplished painter, and the fact that there are far fewer commissions, students and practitioners of this art, today are unable to rely solely on Thangka painting as a way of life. This tradition is in serious danger of being lost with time, unless more individuals choose to support the art by the commissioning of Thangkas or by other means.
A thangka is a complicated, composite three-dimensional object consisting of: a picture panel which is painted or embroidered, a textile mounting; and one or more of the following: a silk cover, leather corners, wooden dowels at the top and bottom and metal or wooden decorative knobs on the bottom dowel.
Canvas: Cloth is sewn onto four lengths of bamboo, which are strung to a large wooden frame.
Paints: Five primary colours are used. Traditionally, the materials included a variety of mineral and vegetable substances: minerals, precious stones, bark, leaves, flowers (especially the rock rose), gold, silver, copper, etc. Each had to be collected from its source in different areas of Tibet, cleaned, ground, powered, crushed or cooked. Nowadays, artists in exile tend to opt for chemical based pigments, easily available for purchase. In an attempt to preserve the genuine tradition of Tibet, I use natural materials as far as possible in my work.
Gold or paint: Globules of gold are bought and put in a mortar with water and grain sized pieces of marble or glass.
Brocade: To mount the painting on.
There is no wastage in the making of Thangka paintings. The leftover paints in the shells can be kept aside and wet and used again for the next painting. The paintbrushes and frame also get used again, once a single painting is done with.
Paint brushes: For painting on rough surfaces, brushes were made out of Nama grass, a tough grass growing along riverbanks. For medium soft brushes, the hair of horses’ tails was uses. For soft brushes of any size, the tufts of hair growing above goats’ hooves, the fine hair inside cows’ ears, the fur of otters, the very soft feathers of mountain songbirds, and the fur of brown and black cats (especially in India where the other hair and fur is not available) are perfect for painting.
Canvas Frame: The canvas frame is made from hardwood and has holes drilled on all four sides for the rope holding the canvas in place to pass through so as to get tied on the corners.
Stone and/or Glass piece: This is required to rub the cloth to prepare it for the painting, so as to make it work like a canvas.
Before the painting begins, the artist cleans his place and takes a bath. Then the canvas, paints and brushes are brought to the place. To bring out the best from his work, the artist makes an offering of water to his deity. This is followed by meditation to get purified.
Thangka painting is a honed skill and one cannot be a Thangka painter without necessary training. The person, who intends to be a professional painter, needs to undergo training of many years under a guide or in a school before he is eligible to paint them. It is also only for people with their faith in Buddhism. Sometimes, monks engage themselves in training at a very young age. An artist who paints Thangka adheres to a strict moral code. He should be borne with modesty and a high devotion towards religion. Sound senses and cleanliness of body and mind are required to paint a Thangka. Some subjects even require abstinence from meat, alcohol, onion and garlic.
The final step of Thangka making is what distinguishes Tibetan Buddhist practice from ordinary “idol worship.” The practitioner takes his or her newly completed thangka to a highly realized Buddhist master and makes offerings to request the master’s blessings.
The master, endowed with the clear mind of enlightenment, is able to “bring alive” the image on the thangka by infusing it with energy and beseeching the deity to open its eyes and look upon all sentient beings. The thangka, having now been properly consecrated, is a receptacle of wisdom. It is ready to be hung and venerated as a genuine living embodiment of enlightened mind. It is important to note that this final step is only necessary if the thangka artist himself is not acknowledged as a realized being. Over the centuries, many important Buddhist masters have intentionally taken rebirth as thangka painters, and if such an artist creates a thangka, the very mind of the artist naturally consecrates the image being painted. In such cases, there is no need to seek the services of a lama for an additional consecration. These are the steps provides a guide in achieving the desired visual effects required for the creation of quality thangka. However, one must remain aware that it is essential to combine these processes with the correct motivation, philosophy and creative ability to obtain a Thangka of excellence.
A thangka is a complicated, composite three-dimensional object consisting of: a picture panel which is painted or embroidered, a textile mounting; and one or more of the following: a silk cover, leather corners, wooden dowels at the top and bottom and metal or wooden decorative knobs on the bottom dowel. Tibetan painting has been influenced by art from China, Central Asia and Nepal but is regarded as closest to the original Buddhist art that evolved in India but is now all but lost.
A locally available Lattha is used for the Thangka. It is then stretched on a frame. Saresh, a local gum and whilet clay is mixed and painted with a rag. This canvas is then rubbed with a stone; water is poured continuously to smoothen the surface for painting.
The canvas is stretched over a wooden frame using a cord that allows tension to be adjusted after the cloth has been sealed with a moist mixture of chalk and gesso. The surface is polished with a smooth stone or glass, until the underlying texture of the canvas is no longer apparent. The design for the painting is then drawn directly onto the taut surface using charcoal or pencil. Once the initial sketch is complete, the lines are redrawn in ink and the details are refined. Colours are applied, beginning with the distant planes of the painting and completed with GOLD embellishments. When the painting is finally complete, it is mounted in silk brocade.
1) The cloth to be painted undergoes a complex process of preparation that takes between 14 to 20 days depending on local climatic conditions. In India’s foggy Himalayan foothills, canvasses for the whole year must be made in the dry months of March, April, October and November. If a canvas is improperly prepared, the entire thangka will be a failure. First, the cloth is carefully sewn onto four lengths of bamboo, which are tightly strung to a large wooden frame. The artist then spreads a cost of glue over the whole canvas and leaves it to dry. He stirs up a mixture of white clay, water and glue in a clean pot to the consistency of thick cream. Blessed medicines or other sacred substances are added if available. The mixture is then strained through fine gauze to remove any impurities and applied evenly to the dry canvas.
2) When this second coat has dried, the canvas is held up to the light and the areas that have not been evenly coated are patched up with more of the clay mixture and again left to dry. This process is repeated 8-10 times until the entire canvas is evenly coated. The canvas is then laid upon a smooth wooden board and a small area is moistened with water using a soft white cloth. Section by section, the artist vigorously rubs the canvas smooth with a piece of white marble, moistening it with water as he works. This takes about an hour. The entire canvas is then slowly are carefully stretched by tightening the strings tied to the frame and left to dry in indirect sun.
3) Once dry, the entire procedure is repeated for the other side of the canvas, stretching it after each moistening and leaving it to dry. When it has been thoroughly treated and dried, the canvas should be so tightly stretched that it makes a nice drum sound when tapped. This is the sign it is ready to be painted. The front of the canvas is then polished with a conch shell. .
4) At this stage the artist bathes, takes purification vows at dawn, meditates upon his tutelary deity, and performs rituals to clear away obstacles and harmful spirits. Having studied the description of the image to be painted in a religious text and consulted a lama about any confusing details, the artist recites the sacred syllables of the Buddha or deity in question and begins to draw.
5) Ideally, the artist recites these syllables and visualizes the deity for the full duration of the creation of the thangka. If this is done in a genuine way, the thangka is very different from an ordinary work of modern art and is inherently highly sacred. The foundational lines are done in pencil (followed by black ink in old Tibet) and take between 10 to 30 days to complete, depending on the size and complexity of the thangka.
6) The outlines are drawn and then the colours are filled. White, red, yellow, blue and green are used. These are mixed to get at least 40 different shades. There is a sequence for filling in the colours – blue for the sky is always done first, then green for the earth, followed by the background of the deity and so on. The colour is not filled in flat, but three to four shades of the same colour are used. They are filled in a concentric manner, from dark blue to white. This is an important feature in Buddhist art.
7) The artist decides on the Sor of the painting. Then the outline is made as per proportions. For example, a 12:4 proportion of the face and the neck. He refers to books and the sets of rules for the iconographic depiction.
8) After filling colours, the Thangka is cut from the frame and taken to the local tailors for framing it with cloth. It is framed with a set of brocade panels. The dimensions of the borders may vary but usually correspond to fixed units. Borders of the sides and above are 4 units, and the ones below are 8 units.
9) Red and yellow brocade is fixed between the image and the main brocade frame, which is called the Thangkas rainbow. A contrasting panel of brocade is often sewn into the main broader border below called the Door of the Thangka. A yellow silk printed with green and red floral pattern is sewn to the upper rod and is used to cover the painting. This covers the image if the deity represented is not meant to be seen by a casual viewer. Sometimes tassels are attached to the paintings.
10) The Thangka is finally backed with much plain cloth. It is then secured to wooden rods with brass or silver knobs at each end. The brocades have various Tibetan motifs and symbols.
11) Once finished, the Thangkas are not signed by the artists but are given to a Lama for blessings. The lama endows blessings by writing core-syllabled abbreviation of ‘Om mani padme hum’ on the back.
List of craftsmen.