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. The concept of Original Artistic Intent is difficult to apply to Tibetan thangkas. Thangkas are composite objects produced by painters and tailors with differing intents, skills and training. Iconographic specifications, regional and doctrinal differences in style, changes in form from harsh treatment and altered mountings all complicate the issue.


The literal translation of the Tibetan word 'THANG KA' means 'recorded message'. Thangkas communicate a message to the practitioner, serving as an aid to teaching and as an aid to meditation through the visualization of the deity. It is a medium through which the Buddhist philosophy can be explained. Originally lamas and monks used scroll paintings to instruct the Buddhist Dharma (teachings). It is a medium through which the Buddhist philosophy can be explained. Originally lamas and monks used scroll paintings to instruct the Buddhist Dharma (teachings). These paintings were easily transported and unrolled to suit the needs of the mainly nomadic population. The lama would go to a village, unroll a thangka and use it to illustrate their tales on Buddhist philosophy when narrating before an audience. 

Thangkas also have public ceremonial uses. Up until today some monasteries possess huge (usually appliqué) Thangkas that are unrolled on certain holidays for viewing and worship, as you see on the picture on the right. When a Thangka is created, it is not just a work of art. It is an object of devotion, an aid to spiritual practice and a source of blessings for those who create it as well as those who view and meditate upon it.  The iconography of a Thangka is rich in information about the spiritual practice of Buddhists

A Thangka can assist a meditator to learn and emulate the qualities of a particular deity or to visualize his or her path towards enlightenment. It can bring blessings on the household that possesses a Thangka and serves as a constant reminder of the Buddha's teachings of compassion, kindness and wisdom. Thangkas are intended to serve as a record of, and guide for contemplative experience. For example, you might be instructed by your teacher to imagine yourself as a specific figure in a specific setting. A thangka can be used as a reference for the details of posture, attitude, colour, and clothing. Etc., of a figure located in a field, or in a palace, possibly surrounded by many other figures of meditation teachers, your family, etc. In this way, Thangkas are intended to convey iconographic information in a pictorial manner.  



Thangkas come in a wide variety of styles and depict various subjects such as Buddha in his many forms and manifestations, bodhisattvas (enlightened beings), cosmological and astronomical images, and subjects from traditional medicine. A Thangka may also depict historical events from the lives of Lamas or a mandala (a circle which has spiritual and religious significance to Buddhists). 

Thangka painting is one of the major science out the five major and five minor fields of knowledge. It's origin can be traced all the way back to the time of Lord Buddha. The main themes of Thangka paintings are religious. During the reign of Dharma King Trisong, Duetsen the Tibetan masters refined there already well developed arts through research and studies of different country's tradition. Thangka painting's lining and measurement, costumes, implementations and ornaments are all based on Indian style. The drawings of figures are based on Nepalese style and the background sceneries are based on Chinese style. Thus, the Thangka paintings became a unique and distinctive art.


Myths & Legends

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.  


The history of Buddhism in Tibet begins with Bon. The Bon religion of Tibet was animistic and shamanistic, and elements of it live on today, to one degree or another, in Tibetan Buddhism. Although Buddhist scriptures may have made their way into Tibet centuries earlier, the history of Buddhism in Tibet effectively begins in 641 CE. In that year, King Songtsen Gampo (d. ca. 650) unified Tibet through military conquest and took two Buddhist wives, Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Princess Wen Cheng of China. The princesses are credited with introducing their husband to Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism, the teaching of the Buddha as practiced and taught in Tibet, is at last becoming known to the world. Because of Tibet's secluded location, the Buddhist tradition developed there for fourteen centuries in relative isolation, unknown or misunderstood by the outside world. The origins of Thangka painting lays not only in Indian Buddhist art, but Nepalese, Chinese, and Kashmiri styles have also influenced its development. The exact time of the origin or history of the thangka or thangka art a religious painting is not yet known. However, History of thangka or thangka art Paintings in Nepal began in 11th century A.D. when Buddhists and Hindus began to make illustration of the deities and natural scenes. Comparing with Tibetan painting, the history of Thangka can be traced back to as early as the Tubo period (or Songtsen Gampo period, about the 7th century), as a combination of Chinese scroll painting, Nepal painting and Kashmir painting. From the relics of Karuo in Qamdo, we can find the trace of Thangka. Until the 7th century, Songtsen Gampo united the whole Tibet and hence a new period in Tibetan history began. Later Songtsen Gampo married Nepal princess Chizun and Tang Dynasty princess called Wencheng, further strengthening the connection of politics, economy, and culture between Tibetan and the Han ethnic groups. The two princesses came to Tibet with a lot of Buddhist scriptures, architecture technology, soothsaying and lawmaking, medical scriptures and many skilled artisans, greatly stimulating the development of Tibetan society, especially the flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism culture. At that time fresco alone could not satisfy the need of those disciples. So another kind of art Thangka, easy to carry, hang and collect, appeared and popularized. 

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the central government adopted the system of approving Tibetan chieftain to strengthen the control over Tibet. These methods made contribution to the development of the Tibetan society. So the Ming and Qing dynasties saw a great progress in the development of Thangka. Of the existing Thangkas, most were made during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Historically, Tibetan and Chinese influence in Nepalese paintings is quite evident in Paubhas (Thangkas). Paubhas are of two types, the Palas, which are illustrative paintings of the deities and the Mandala, which is mystic diagrams paintings of complex test, prescribed patterns of circles and square each having specific significance. It attained its classical levels in the Tibetan tradition between the 7th & 12th centuries. It was through Nepal that Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into Tibet during reign of Angshuvarma in the seventh century A.D. There was therefore a great demand for religious icons and Buddhist manuscripts for newly built monasteries throughout Tibet. From the fifteenth century onwards, brighter colours gradually began to appear in Nepalese Thangka. 

Because of the growing importance of the Tantric cult, various aspects of Shiva and Shakti were painted in conventional poses. Mahakala, Manjushri, Lokeshwara and other deities were equally popular and so were also frequently represented in Thangka paintings of later dates. As Tantrism embodies the ideas of esoteric power, magic forces, and a great variety of symbols, strong emphasis is laid on the female element and sexuality in the paintings of that period.



Basic painting technique differs with regional style, training of the artist and the funding available to purchase gold, expensive pigments and so on. Also with the number of students or assistants the master painter employed. The Conservator would have to study thangka painting technique to understand. A good way to recognize these techniques is by learning to paint thangkas or by studying incomplete thangka paintings.   

APPLIQUE THANGKAS The creation of fabric Thangkas, mostly made of silk, some of them woven, some embroidered and others made using a technique similar to appliqué, goes back many centuries in Tibet. The appliqué artists do their finest work when they make silk Thangkas. Constructed of hundreds of hand-cut pieces of silk and brocade, these elaborate creations require many months of work. 

To start with, a full-size image is drawn on paper and the lines are perforated with a needle to prepare a stencil of the desired image. This stencil is placed over the cloth that will form the background and is dabbed with a cloth laden with powdered white chalk to render the drawing visible. The individual figures assembled from silk brocade are stitched onto this background and outlined with silk-wrapped strands of Mongolian horsetail. The completed image is mounted on plain white cotton backing before finally being framed in a brocade border. Apprentices training to make appliqué Thangkas follow the same 3-year curriculum of drawing as Thangka painting apprentices. They become thoroughly familiar with the forms and proportions of Tibetan iconography before learning to mark, cut and sew pieces of silk brocade to assemble brilliant sacred images from them.

Education, In the first three years of study, students learn to sketch Buddhist deities using the precise grids dictated by Buddhist scripture. This allows apprentices both to perfect their drawing technique and to master the vast array of figures, images and symbols belonging to the Tibetan iconographic tradition. 
The next two years are spent in learning the techniques of grinding and applying mineral colours and precious metals used in the paintings.  In the sixth year, students begin their study of religious texts and scriptures, traditionally used as the subject matter of the paintings. At least ten years of training is required under the constant supervision of a Master to become an accomplished Thangka painter. After the training process is completed, students require an additional five to ten years of experience to become experts in this field.

Thangka paintings require extreme concentration, attention to detail, and knowledge of Buddhism. Therefore, a peaceful environment conducive to meditation is required to create a masterpiece, is essential for a Thangka painter.In preparation for beginning to paint, they learn how to prepare a canvas, how to distinguish the natural vegetable and mineral sources of pigments and how to prepare them. Apprentices begin to paint and develop their skills with colour under the close supervision of the Master Thangka Painter and his assistants. Progressing from painting larger forms to subtle details such as the eyes of the meditational deities, training is complete when the artist is able to work with gold. 

IconographiesThangkas are intended to serve as a record of, and guide for contemplative experience. For example, you might be instructed by your teacher to imagine yourself as a specific figure in a specific setting. You could use a thangka as a reference for the details of posture, attitude, colour, and clothing Etc., of a figure located in a field, or in a palace, possibly surrounded by many other figures of meditation teachers, your family, etc. In this way, thangkas are intended to convey iconographic information in a pictorial manner. A text of the same meditation would supply similar details in written descriptive form. Only rarely do thangkas express the personal vision or creativity of the painter, and for that reason thangka painters have generally remained anonymous, as have the tailors who made their mountings. This anonymity can be found in many other cultures. The Conservator is left with the responsibility of caring for religious objects that usually carry neither the names of the artists, nor information about their technique, date or provenance. But we do know that the intent of the artist was to convey iconographic information. There is a vast amount of iconographic information provided in thangkas, some of it literally spelled out for you. If you look closely, many thangkas spell identification of figures and scenes in formal and delicately rendered scripts. 'Since even indigenous Tibetan scholars trained in the iconographic details of Buddhist deities generally would not presume to know the iconography associated with every deity, it is unlikely that most Conservators could guess the identity and details of unfamiliar figures. In this case, speculation as to the artist's intent tends to be a particularly unrewarding strategy. For example, a particular shade of the colour green indicates effective activity, while a white often indicates peacefulness and unassailable compassion. It is significant therefore if the same form of a feminine figure is rendered in green or white. Sometimes water damage (yak-hide glue is susceptible to water damage) washes away several fine layers of pigment on final paint layers or shading layers. While the symbolic system often originated in the indigenous traditions of Hinduism and Bon, the actual symbolic images have evolved into a unique and intricate iconography. Tibetan Buddhism has assembled an amazing iconographic symbolism. 

- The main system is the organization of deities, which are primarily presented in thangka painting. Therefore, the focus in this text will be the typical symbols of the main deities viewed in the Tibetan refugee community of Dharamshala. Each figure has basic parallel characteristics to inspect for interpretation.

- The typical set-up of a thangka consists of a large central deity, set in a landscape and surrounded by smaller complimentary deities. Every aspect of the painting has symbolic meaning but there are certain ubiquitous features that are necessary to examine in order to understand the entire image. The central deity is obviously of primary importance.

- The physical traits of the primary deity should first be observed in order to identify it. One looks at the position, or asana (zug tang) of the figure, as well as the hand gesture called the mudra (chag gya). One will also notice the physical traits such as the skin color, the number of arms, the number of eyes, and the aura of the deity. A deity will commonly have subsidiary objects such as things held in the hands, a throne, clothing and ornaments. The other deities and the surrounding environment are also important aspects of thangka paintings. This is the typical structure of this form of religious art.

- Another popular subject of thangka paintings is the mandala. Mandalas, first created in ancient India, play an integral role in Tibetan tantra. The topic of the symbolism of Tibetan mandalas could fill a hundred thousand pages and it is not possible to cover it in this document. However, as with the other topics, I will be able to skim the surface of the complex symbolism of a specific mandala.

- The analysis of the symbols applied in thangka paintings leads one halfway to a comprehension of the symbolic system. The other half of this system is the manner in which this system is viewed and retained by the culture as an entirety. Not every Tibetan is able to list the thousands of deities and manifestations of Tibetan iconography. However, there are certain images that all Tibetans are able to relate to and use as reminders and tools in the spiritual process. Therefore, as a collective, Tibetans are a part of the symbolic system of Tibetan iconography, from the beggars on the street to the reputable scholars. The scholar, typically a monastic scholar, will have a more in depth understanding of the system. 

Tantra practitioners have the most contact with the symbols and are a necessary aspect of the continuation of the system.

- In tantra, the practitioner not only views and reveres the different images but also seeks to identify with and symbolically become the images. The objective is to connect the symbolic image with the mental and physical existence of the individual, to make a psychic leap into the symbol and dissolve the self into it. 

- In this way, the practitioners themselves can become symbols to the populace. Tibetans are aware of this practice and thereupon are encouraged to utilize the powerful images and carry on the symbolic system.

- In the case of Tantric practitioners, the images and symbols are tools utilized to reach a certain goal. After this goal has been reached, mundane conceptuality ends and the images lose their significance. Like all objects and conceptions of samsara, religious images and symbols lack a true and absolute existence. Therefore, the system of symbols is created and utilized for the ultimate purpose of its own termination. In general, most Tibetans have not reached a state where this realization is possible but know it to be an immutable fact. The religious art of Tibet has used the symbolic system in thangkas for hundreds of years and the basic symbols are common knowledge to the Tibetan populace. The iconography is understood on a fundamental level and is integrated into the religious perceptions of the cultural identity. This, in turn, shapes the collective identity throughout the generations, making the symbolic system an intrinsic part of each individual and the culture in entirety.



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.