Just recently I came back from a trip to Nepal. There is a special energy in this country. One source of this energy must be the presence and multitude of peacefully coexisting religions. It is therefore logical that this is also the country where you can find many thangka artists and art studios, and lots of information how thangkas are made. A tourist in Nepal can buy a thangka quite cheaply, especially considering the amount of work that goes into making this piece of art. However, initially, thangkas were far from being a commercial item.
Scenes from Life of Buddha. Traditional Art of Nepal
The literal translation of the Tibetan word thangka means “recorded message.” Thangkas communicate different messages, and are mainly used as a visual aid in meditation, and prayer. Historically, thangkas were also used as teaching tools to convey the lives of various masters. A teacher or lama would travel around giving buddhist teachings, carrying with him large thangka scrolls to illustrate his stories. They are also bringers of blessings.
In old Tibet, thangkas were produced together by a lama, a religious practitioner, and a thangka artist. The thangka artists were most often monks at the monastery. Before making a thangka, the practitioner first sought advice from a qualified Buddhist lama who would help him choose a deity most suitable for his spiritual pursuits.The practitioner would host the thangka artist throughout the course of making the thangka.There was no discussion of the price when the order for the thangka was placed, for this was much more than just a product in making – it was a living expression of enlightened energy. In old Tibet, the artist was paid however much the practitioner could afford or felt suitable. The artist did not judge the amount received, but rather felt grateful and happy regardless of the size of the payment.
On Norbulinka Institute website thangkas are described as a two-dimensional representation of a multi-dimensional spiritual reality:
“The deities shown in thangka paintings are usually depictions of visions that appeared to great spiritual masters at moments of realization, which were then recorded and incorporated into Buddhist scripture. The proportions are considered sacred as not only are they exact representations of Buddhist deities, but also the visual expression of spiritual realizations that occurred at the time of a vision. Practitioners use thangkas as a sort of road map to guide them to the original insight of the master. This map must be accurate and it is the responsibility of the artist to make sure it is so in order for a thangka to be considered genuine, or to be useful as a support for Buddhist practice, guiding one to the proper place. Because thangkas are not the product of an artist’s imagination, but are as carefully executed as a blueprint drawing, the role of the artist is somewhat different than the inventor we know him to be in the West. The role of the artist becomes one of a medium or channel, who rises above his own mundane consciousness to bring a higher truth into this world. In order to ensure that this truth remains intact, he must diligently adhere to all the correct guidelines.”
The sacred art of thangka painting dates back to the 7th century. Originating in Nepal, it evolved into several different schools of painting. In Tibetan Thangka Painting exist two major thangka painting schools - Karma Gadri and Menri Karma Gadri tradition. Menri school can be recognized by life-like colors and a focus on a central figure surrounded by significant events or people in his life. Thangka painting schools of Menri, Tsangri, Karma Gadri and new Karma Gadri are often used when discussing Eastern Tibetan art.
Some of the more widely known topics of thangkas are The Wheel of Life, Mahakala, Buddha Life History, Kalachakra Mantra, Amitaba Buddha, Manjushri, Green and White Tara, and others.
The steps of thangka making
First step is the canvas preparation, a complex process that takes anywhere from 14 to 20 days. The preparation process depends much on the local climate. In Nepal and Himalayan foothills, since it can be foggy, the canvasses for the coming year should be made in the dry months of March, April, October, and November. The success of a thangka painting depends very much on how well the canvas is prepared.
Canvasses are sewn and tightly stretched on frames. Both sides of the canvas are treated with mixture of glue, clay, and water. If possible, then blessed medicines or other sacred substances are added. This mixture is then drained of impurities, and applied evenly to the dry canvas. The coating is then left to dry. This process can be repeated several times, until the entire canvas is evenly covered. The dried canvas is polished with a conch shell.
Foundation line drawing
Before starting the foundation line drawing, the artist bathes, takes purification vows at dawn, meditates upon his protector deity, and performs rituals to clear away obstacles and harmful spirits. The artist recites the sacred syllables of the Buddha or deity in question and begins to draw. It would be ideal if the artist recites these syllables and visualizes the deity for the full duration of the creation of the thangka. If this is done sincerely, the thangka differs 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 ). Depending on the complexity, and size of the drawing of these foundational lines can take approximately 10 to 30 days.
Usually the painting materials include 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 their particular source in different areas of Tibet. After gathering, the material was cleaned, ground, powdered, crushed or cooked.
Traditional thangka painting starts from top to bottom. First, the sky is painted, and then all other blue parts of the thangka are painted. Next is the dark green landscape and all the dark green areas followed by lighter greens, red orange, pink and other, and finally white. Any uneven places are scraped with razor blade, and dusted off with a cloth or feather.
Redrawing and shading
The foundational lines initally drawn by pencil are later traced over in black ink. Then the shading with fine paintbrush is done. Usually, a thangka has to be painted in three applicatinons. Flower often require more applications, and one flower can take 3-7 days before it is finished.
Value of Thangkas
Considering the motivation and purpose behind making thangkas, it has been generally difficult to assign a value to them. In Tibetan culture, the thangka “middle-men” did not have a very good reputation, for profiting from thangka selling was not thought much of. Thangkas are painted in strict adherence to guidelines, and the skills are passed down from teacher to student. Devoid of ego, many thangka artists will not sign their pieces, for they do not see the purpose for their ego being present on an image of a Buddha.
Though, some things considered to determine the value are the quality and type of materials, who is the thangka artist, how long it took to make a certain piece of art. For instance, making of a thangka can take 100 - 600 hours, depending on size, complexity, etc.
Luckily, there are many choices for someone considering to buy a thangka. It is possible to get one for as little as 30 euros in Thamel. But if you would like to spend a little more, then that is also possible. For instance, I found information on Traditional Art of Nepal that a Raktayamari Thankga was sold not long ago for 45 million dollars. From a distance it looks like a usual thangka painting. However, the medium is not paint, but millions of carefully placed stitches of floss silk in array of colours, completely covering the whole textile in size 335.3 x 213.4 cm.
Below detail of White Tara from Raktayamari Thangka. Traditional Art of Nepal.
Bijay Lama at his Bhirkuti Tibetan and Japanese Art Gallery studio by Kathi Swoyambhu Stupa, Shree Ga, near Thamel
Rincheling Thanka Gallery and Art School, Boudha-6, Kathmandu. www.thankahouse.com
July 1, 1980, Lhasa, Tibet. The sight that opened at their arrival in Lhasa was bewildering. Thousands of very emotional people, many crying tears of joy, were reaching out toward the delegation members. Some were trying to grab onto them, to get a piece of their clothing to keep as a relic. The leader of the third Fact Finding delegation was Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of the Dalai Lama. Incense welled up wherever she went, and people were asking for her blessing. Their delegation, representing their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama was a ray of hope and light the Tibetans so desperately needed...
Family and Childhood
Jetsun Pema was born on July 7 in 1940 in Takster village, Amdo in Tibet. Her name, Jetsun Pema means Virtuous Lotus in Tibetan, and it was given to her by her brother the Dalai Lama. Their parents Choekyong Tsering (Pala, father in Tibetan) and Dickyi Tsering (Amala, in Tibetan respectd mother) were farmers. Her mother Dickyi gave birth to 16 children of whom seven survived. Though initially just a simple farmers’ family, it was really an extraordinary family. This was because in addition to the Dalai Lama there were two more reincarnations recognized – their eldest brother Thubten Jigme Norbu (Takster Rinpoche), and their youngest brother Tenzin Choegyal (Ngari Rinpoche).
Tibetans believe in karma and reincarnation. In Central Asian Buddhist countries, it has been widely believed for the last millennium that Chenrezi, Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, has a special relationship with the people of Tibet and intervenes in their fate by incarnating as benevolent rulers and teachers such as the Dalai Lamas. The Institution of the Dalai Lamas begun with the First Dalai Lama Gendün Drub in 1391.
Shortly after the death of the XIII Dalai Lama in 1933 december, the search for a new reincarnation began. When Lhamo Thondup was just two years old, some officials who were looking for a house with turquoise tiles – just as the Regent had seen in his vision – arrived at their home in Takster. After some tests and questioning, the two year old Lhamo was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.
Pema´s older brother was formally recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama in 1939. In this year their family made a long and difficult journey (three months and thirteen days) to bring His Holiness to Lhasa. The journey lasted for three months and thirteen days. The official enthronement ceremony of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama was held in Lhasa on 22 February 1940.
In her book (Tibet:My Story) Pema says that their parents felt very proud as it is a great honour for the family to have a son who is the Dalai Lama. Also, now they had become a part of a significant historical event for Tibet. However, regardless of this big honour, their parents always remained humble. In her book Tibet: My Story, Pema describes her parents as very humble, kind and compassionate people.
As the family arrived in Lhasa, the capital, the Tibetan government gave them everything they could possibly need and even dream of. They were built a special house with 60 rooms in vicinity of Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama. They also were assigned servants. Jetsun Pema spent a carefree childhood playing with children of her family, occasionally visiting the Dalai Lama in Potala or Norbulingka (the summer residence ot the Dalai Lama) with Amala. Their life became more challenging after their father passed away. Pema was then 7 years old. After that Amala became responsible for all aspects of their family affairs. Up until the age of 9 she, her nephew and niece and few local children were taught by a monk, their private tutor.
The first encounter with the Western world took place in 1947 when their family became friends with an Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer. The young Austrian and his friend had escaped from an Indian prison and taken refuge in Tibet. His Holiness was 11 at the time he met Harrer who became one of his tutors and taught him about the outside world. The two remained friends until Harrer’s death in 2006. Many years later when Harrer had returned to Europe, he wrote a memoir of his time in Tibet “Seven years in Tibet.” This book was also screened as a very popular Hollywood movie, and Jetsun Pema played in the movie her mother Amala.
In 1949 the older sister of Jetsun Pema became ill, and Amala decided to send them together with Pema to India, so that her sister can get proper medical care. In India, Pema was enrolled at St Joseph's Convent in Kalimpong and later at Loreto Convent in Darjeeling. Both of these boarding schools were run by catholic nuns. In these boarding schools she learned to speak English and appreciate classical music.
The students were all from different religions – Buddhists, Hindus, Protestants, and Catholics. Jetsun Pema tells that relating to girls from other religions was easy to her as all religions stem from same values – goodness, compassion, desire for justice and truth. However, what was a bit difficult was that Catholicism is simply matter of faith. In Tibetan Buddhism, the student finds their way by questioning – finding a respected teacher, and having dialogue with them questions get answered. Her inter-faith experiences at Catholic schools became useful for a future that involved working with sponsors, teachers and aid works from around the world.
Because of the crisis in Tibet, and the worry for her family living there, the last years of studies in Loreto (1960-61) were emotionally very difficult for Jetsun Pema. However, the political situation also became a motivator to get a great education and use it to help the Tibetan cause after graduating.
In 1961, after completing her senior exams, she went to Switzerland and then to England to do further studies. She returned to India in April 1964 where her help was very much needed.
Building the Tibet in Exile
As a response to the People's Republic of China's invasion of Tibet in 1949-50, The Dalai Lama assumed full political duties on 17 November 1950, at the age of 15. Tensions between the communists and Tibetans kept growing culminating with National Uprising in 1959. On March 17 of 1959 the Dalai Lama together with their family succeeded to flee to India.
Upon their arrival in India, the Dalai Lama, and the exiled Tibetan government received a lot of help from Indian government, and they were directed to settle in Dharamsala. Together they had to build up the whole infrastructure in a way that would allow them to preserve Tibetan culture and nation. About 80 000 Tibetans followed through the Himalayas their much loved spiritual leader to find freedom in India during 1959-1960. Together with the government in exile, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, and his family had become the breathing apparatus of their nation.
Under the direction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Nursery was established in 1960 to take care of the 51 ill and malnourished Tibetan refugee children in India. Pema´s older sister Tsering Dolma had been in charge of the children in exile up until her death in 1964. She had created from scratch the system for refugee children that enabled them to survive, receive medical care, and later schooling within the environment of love and caring. After Tsering Dolma´s death His Holiness asked Jetsun Pema, 24 at the time, to take care of the nursery.
The children kept flowing in, and the village had to be reorganized to cope now with 800 children. Gradually, with more help from Indian government and through cooperation with / and aid from international organizations, sponsorships of children, and with lots of hard work the conditions of the village improved. Pema asked Heinrich Harrer to ask Dr Hermann Gmeiner, the president of SOS Kinderdorf, to help the Tibetan refugees. With their help children’s home was built, and SOS Kinderdorf also agreed to sponsor children. As of 1972, the TCV is officially affiliated to SOS Kinderdorf International, Vienna, Austria.
Under her 42-year leadership Nursery evolved into Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) and has expanded and grown into one of the most successful flourishing educational institutions in exile. More than 40000 students have passed through Tibetan Children village. Jetsun Pema, has travelled widely to speak about the Tibetans and her work at the Tibetan Children’s Villages.
Next to her very busy professional life of building up and running the TCV, Pema also was married twice and raised three children of her own.
Where does peace begin?
In the end of 1970 China changed its strategy and relaxed its grip on Tibet, and was open for a dialogue with Tibetan leaders. As a result the Dalai Lama sent between 1979-1980 three fact finding delegations to Tibet with the aim of finding out the situation of Tibet now.
Dalai Lama appointed his younger sister to be the leader of the third fact finding delegation with an aim to investigate the state of education in their homeland. The delegation arrived in Lhasa July 1, 1980. Defying military orders and government directives, and putting their lives in danger, thousands of people surrounded the delegation to greet them with outpouring emotions. Twenty years of communist doctrine had not broken their faith and devotion towards the Dalai Lama. The delegation became painfully aware how much their fellow Tibetans had suffered, and how much they yearned for cultural and spiritual freedom. They returned to Dharamsala with 7000 letters, mainly to the Dalai Lama, that painted a sad picture of Tibet after the communist cultural revolution.
The destruction of Tibet’s culture and oppression of its people was brutal during the twenty years following the uprising. 1.2 million Tibetans died as a result of China’s policies, many people were put in prisons and labour camps, and more than 6000 monasteries, temples and other cultural and historic buildings were destroyed and their contents pillaged.
The relations with China continue to be challenging. Though, Pema has always been a big supporter of his older brother´s no-violent approach. She thinks that it is the best solution for all people, no matter which country. In her book she says:
"It is first of all necessary to understand that peace is not a geographical or physical concept: it must first of all exist in people´s hearts and minds. It must therefore be taught to children so that they may learn to live in peace. I am convinced that education is the means by which we can attain this objective. I try to put this into practice in the TCV. ”
More than a political and historical account of one country, the Tibetan story is an inspiring story of power of love and compassion – one family´s love for their nation and country, and this nation´s unbreakable faith and love for their spiritual leader. It is awe-inspiring that under these extremely difficult circumstances, continued cruelty and atrocities, the Tibetan leaders have always stood firm by their Buddhist values of love, peace, and compassion, never losing faith in justice and goodness of human nature.
Jetsun Pema has won many international awards for her efforts in promoting peace, education, and women´s rights, but most of all for her dedication and service for the education and welfare of the Tibetan refugee children in India. Among other awards she received the "Mother of Tibet" Award in 1995, Medal of UNESCO in 1999, "Women of Courage" Award - Italy in 2002, "Mother’s of Earth" Award - Italy in 2006, and the "Human Rights Hero Award" - Italy in 2010.
Jetsun Pema “Tibet: My Story”. Element Books Limited 1997
GEO Das neue Bild der Erde. Nr 12/December 1981
Different Internet resources.
Losar marks the Tibetan New Year and it is the most important festival of the Tibetan Buddhists. In Tibetan the word losar means New Year (lo = year and sar=new). The Tibetan calendar is lunar, which means it follows the cycles of the moon, so the New Year begins on a new moon. This festival is celebrated by Buddhists in Tibet as well as in many other countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and India. During the festival different rituals are performed in order to turn away negativity and evil spirits, and attract happiness and prosperity in the New Year. Losar-related rituals are divided into two distinct parts. First the negative aspects of the old year are purified and closed. Only after this the welcoming of Losar begins by inviting into life all that is good and auspicious.
The celebration of Losar predates Buddhism in Tibet and can be traced back to the pre-Buddhist Bön period. During the early Bön tradition, every winter a spiritual ceremony was held where people offered large quantities of incense to appease the local spirits and deities. The precursor of the Losar festival may have been initially the traditional farmers' festival. Later when new findings in astrology, based on the five elements, were introduced in Tibet, this farmer's festival became what we now call the Losar or New Year's festival. Initially, Losar was celebrated during the winter solstice, and was only moved to coincide with the Chinese and Mongolian New Year by a leader of the Gelug school of Buddhism. The Losar activities and rituals may differ depending on the specific location or monastery.
Below: Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Losar Prayer Ceremony. Photo: Bruno Baumann
Losar Traditions of Laymen
The celebration starts the day before New year’s Eve and lasts 3 to 15 days. This year, according to western calendar the Tibetan New Year´s Day falls on 27 January. This is the first day of the 1st month of Tibetan Calendar. However, the preparation for Losar begins already about a month ahead of the actual festival. People clean and decorate their houses, and make offerings to Lama Losar. The walls are decorated with drawings of eight auspicious symbols representing the offerings made by deities to the Buddha after his enlightenment. The older prayer flags are burned, and new ones are added.
On the New Year´s Eve, the traditional special noodle soup called guthuk is prepared. The soup includes dumplings that contain nine different fortune symbols - chili pepper, cotton ball, wood, charcoal, sugar cube, wool string, paper, pebble and raw bean. Each symbol obtained by the person represents his fortune in the coming year. For example, a person who finds chili pepper in his dumpling is said to be talkative, wool refers to good-heartedness and charcoal that the one who finds it has a “black heart”. Best would be to find a white item such as sugar or cotton, for these are very good signs. At the dawn of the first day, the members of the family rise early and put on their best new clothes. Housewives cook a pot of barley wine and wait for the sunrise. At sunrise, the leading woman of the house carries a bucket to the nearby river to fetch the year´s first bucket of water. The family members greet one another and drink the barley wine. On the second day, people move out to visit friends and relatives. This day is known as king´s Losar (gyal-po lo-sar). Friends and loved ones are greeted by saying Tashi Delek that means good luck and happiness. In the evening, the Tibetans carry torches across their homes yelling to drive away evil spirits from their abodes. The third day is reserved for visiting monasteries, shrines and stupas and making offerings to the monks and nuns in the form of clothes and food. Apart from Tibet, Losar festival is celebrated by the Buddhist population in states like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh in Kashmir.
Below: Nomad family visiting kloster during Losar. Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Photos: Bruno Baumann
Losar Traditions of Buddhist Monasteries
Losar is an important time for Buddhist monks. Starting weeks before Losar day, monasteries begin their purification rituals aimed at cleaning the world of the negativities and blockages of the old year, so that the new year has a clean slate. This involves many special practices for the guardians and protectors of the lineages. Some of the most interesting of these are the Cham dances, in which monks wear masks and special silk brocade robes, and dance as the guardians of the lineage. Each step and ritual element used in these dances is symbolic and related to Buddhist history and deities, often including symbolic re-enactments of good forces overcoming evil. These dances are very popular among Tibetans, and a great way for regular people to understand the ideas and history of Buddhism.
Below: Cham Mask Dancers, Losar. Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Photos: Bruno Baumann
The tradition of Displaying the Tangka is an important event for a Tibetan Buddhists. This tangka can be of size 30 meters tall and 20 meters wide. A central Buddha figure is displayed on this special tangka and relate it to the local protector deities that normally feature on the periphery of this large painting. It is also special tradition as people can admire the tangka in daylight, since most of the time the tangkas are inside the dark prayer halls often not accessible to all people. It is often shown on a slope specially constructed and designed for this purpose, but it can also be hung from the roof of a major structure into the courtyard of the monastery itself.
Below: Transporting and displaying the Tangka, Losar festival. Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Photos: Bruno Baumann
The Butter Lamp Festival is held at a small number of monasteries, usually the larger ones, towards the end of the Losar festival period. However, central to this festival are butter sculptures, and not butter lamps. Originated in 1409 during Ming Dynasty, Tibetan Butter Lamp Festival was created by Tsongkhapa in honor of Sakyamuni’s victory over other religions during the debate. Occurring on the 15th day of the first Tibetan month, this festival includes activities such as Buddha Dance, puppet show and butter sculpture exhibitions staged by various monasteries, big or small. During daytime, people will steam into monasteries to pray.
As part of Tibetan New Year celebrations the Maitreya the Future Buddha statue is paraded around the exterior wall or perimeter of the monastery. Maitreya the Future Buddha is thought to arrive on earth when Gautama the Present Buddha has been forgotten and the Dharma has been ignored. This will be a low-point for Buddhism and the Maitreya will appear and turn things around. The meaning of parading the statue of Maitreya around the periphery of the monastery is to remind the faithful to ‘keep the faith’ and ensure that Maitreya returns only in statue form once a year to stress the importance of the Buddhist teachings.
During Losar naming of the New Year is also done. The Tibetan New Year is identified by an animal (Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Ape, Bird, Dog, Pig, Mouse, Bull, Tiger), an Element (Fire, Earth, Iron, Water, Wood), and gender that alternates every other year. The year 2017 is a Female Fire Bird year.
Happy Losar and Happy and Colorful Fire Bird Year 2017!
ABOUT THIS BLOG
Welcome! :) My name is Monika. I am interested in beauty, art, different cultures, and good stories. I have always been fascinated with semiotics and symbols, and how people of different cultures interpret them.