Thangkas are religious painted scrolls depicting Buddhist deities, traditionally done on cloth. Over the years, techniques like embroidery and applique have been added. They are believed to be pictures of the spiritual worlds. Thangka is a traditional form of Buddhist art with Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, and Nepalese influences. Hence there are different schools and styles. Various factors determine this - geography, availability of raw materials, socio-cultural influences and the schools of Buddhism they follow.


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.

Myths & Legends

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: 

1) Mandalas
2) Tsokshing (Assembly Trees)
3) Tathagata Buddhas
4) Patriarchs
5) Avoliteshvara
6) Buddha-Mother and female Bodhisattvas
7) Tutelary deities
8) Dharma-protecting deities
9) Arhats
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
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.

- Avalaoketeshwara
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.

- Mahakala
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.