Thangka, Legacy of the Silk Road

Peter Zhang
TIBETAN thangka, a kind of Buddhist scroll painting, is created mainly for religious andritual purposes. But it is also a unique painting art in Tibetan culture.
Peter Zhang

Chen Jie / SHINE

A local artist applies color to a thangka scroll painting in Tongren County in Qinghai Province. Essentially a religious painting, thangka depicts images and lives of Buddha and other deities. 

TIBETAN thangka, a kind of Buddhist scroll painting, is created mainly for religious and ritual purposes. But it is also a unique painting art in Tibetan culture.

The earliest thangkas still in existence today were found in the Mogao Grottoes in northwest China’s Gansu Province on the ancient Silk Road, which for centuries connected the East and the West for trade and cultural exchanges.

Researchers believe these paintings could date back to the eighth and ninth centuries. Some scholars, such as Giuseppe Tucci (1894-1984), an Italian researcher specializing in Tibet and history of Buddhism, believed that Tibetan thangka evolved from ancient Indian religious painting after Buddhism was introduced in Tibet.

Others, and particularly some Chinese scholars, claim that Tibetan thangka was derived from the Chinese Han people’s scroll painting and originated in areas such as Dunhuang, where the Mogao Grottoes are located and where the Han and Tibetan people had close contacts in ancient times.

Despite the debate over its origin, all seem to agree that thangka is a unique Tibetan art form with distinctive ethnic and religious characteristics.

As religious paintings, thangka depicts mainly images and lives of Buddha and other deities; mandala, or a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the universe; Wheel of Life, or Bhava-chakra in Sanskrit; and Sukhavati, or the western pure land.

Most such thangkas are of course themed on Buddha, which invariably occupies the center stage and is surrounded clockwise by smaller-sized acolytes and attendants as well as venues of activities and scenes of religious stories.

Chen Jie / SHINE

Thangka painting process demands a deep understanding of Buddhist doctrines.

Though chiefly religious paintings, there are also thangkas that are themed on non-religious images and activities, such as biographies, folk stories, calendars, astronomy, Tibetan medicine and everyday life. Because of scarce written records, such non-religious thangkas are often deemed as a pictorial encyclopedia of Tibetan history, economy, culture and customs in ancient times.

Most thangkas are small in size for the convenience of being carried around by itinerant monks to spread Buddhist ideas and philosophy, and for hanging in monasteries and believers’ homes. But there are also some extremely large versions, which are, for a short period of time, displayed outside monasteries or on hill slopes on special occasions for Buddhist followers to pray and worship.

The largest thangka in the world was created in 2013 by 10 Tibetan artists, who spent nine years working on it. With 19 painted Buddha images, this applique thangka is 120 meters high and 85 meters wide, covering an area of 10,200 square meters, larger than a standard soccer pitch.

In terms of techniques and materials involved, thangkas can be divided into a dozen or so categories, but generally, they fall into two broad groups, namely, the painted thangka, called bris-than in Tibetan, and the silk thangka, called gos-than, which are made of applique or embroidery.

The former is painted directly on cloth or paper and the latter is often embellished with pearls, corals, gold, agate and other precious objects. The painted tangkas can be further divided into five categories according to the color of their background, such as multiple colors, gold, silver, red and black.

The painted thangkas use water-soluble pigments made of both mineral and organic materials with a glue solution. The whole painting process calls for great mastery over drawing and painting, skills that can only be acquired through long apprenticeship. Also, it demands a deep understanding of Buddhist doctrines.

Chen Jie / SHINE

The painted thangkas use water-soluble pigments made of both mineral and organic materials with a glue solution.

Generally, there are seven steps in creating a thangka painting:

Preparation of the canvas: Choose a piece of light-color fabric, cotton or occasionally silk; stitch it to a narrow wooden frame and then tightly stretch it over a larger wooden frame; treat the fabric with a thin layer of chalk mixed with gum Arabic; burnish both sides of the fabric with a stone or conch shell until the surface becomes smooth and shiny.

Drawing: Create a grid on the canvas, including a central perpendicular, two diagonals, a horizontal and four outer borders; use charcoal or graphite to delineate all figures and objects.

Application of color: A master will first go over the sketch and mark the various areas according to the colors that are usually to be put in by apprentices.

Outlining: This is a crucial step in essentially linear pictorial rendition like thangka; here gold dust mixed with glue solution is often used to bring key figures and objects out of the background.

Finishing details: The last but most important step is to paint the facial features of Buddha and other deities; the eyes are usually painted at the very last stage since in both Tibetan and Chinese Han culture, eyes are deemed as the most important part of a figure painting.

Mounting: Finished thangka painting is cut off from the wooden frames and mounted on cloth or silk; then it is covered with a red or yellow silk veil, called thang-vdzar in Tibetan, on the front for protection.

Consecration: This is considered of utmost importance as it gives the painting the spiritual power and liturgical value, and turns it from a material rendition of images into a true thangka.

Because of its unique artistic style and rich cultural and religious features, thangka has long been listed by the central government as a national intangible cultural heritage. Booming tourism in Tibet has also significantly promoted this art form. On November 26, 2014, Liu Yiqian, a Chinese collector, splashed about US$45 million on a thangka at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong, further fueling the booming thangka market in the world.



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