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
ABOUT THIS BLOG
Welcome! :) My name is Monika. I am interested in crystals, different cultures, and good stories. As a linguist I have always been fascinated with semiotics and symbols, and how people of different cultures interpret them.