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Thangka Paintings

“Thangka” in Tibetan means a ‘recorded message’ and the paintings have served a similar purpose through the ages. Thangka paintings are Tibetan Buddhist Scroll paintings that depict scenes, Buddhist deities, and Bodhisattvas. These paintings are often used to spread the teachings of the Buddha as given in the ‘Abhidhamma Pitaka’ (a Buddhist text) through visual representation of incidents in the life of Buddha or the Bodhisattvas. They also often illustrate mandalas and other Buddhist deities.

Origin

Remnants of Buddhist Wall paintings found in the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra, India, and Buddhist cloth paintings found in Mogao caves, Dunhuang, China (on the famous Silk Road) have been argued to be the origins of Thangka paintings. These paintings are said to have been heavily influenced by the Indo-Nepalese culture and the dominant Hans Chinese culture of China.

Types of Thangka Paintings

Thangka paintings can be extremely difficult to create and have multiple layers to them. They can be broadly divided into paintings of mandalas and paintings of scenes from Buddhist texts. Mandalas are a configuration of geometric symbols that can represent multiple things such as the universe, different aspects of enlightenment, etc. These paintings are often used for spiritual purposes to help meditate. Scenes from Buddhist texts too have often been painted to spread Gautam Buddha’s teachings across from Nepal to Tibet.

Techniques and Materials

Thangkas can be classified into two groups based on technique and material used. The groups are: Embroidered and Painted Thangkas. They can then be further grouped based on specification of technique and colour used such as block prints, silk appliqué (ornamental needlework), black background, painted in colours, gold background, red background, and embroidered ones.

Making a Thangka painting is a long process that may stretch over a couple of months to several years. The materials used are often found locally in Tibet such as Saffron, gold, silver and ochre. Thangka paintings are usually done on cotton and then ornamented with Silk appliqué and then mounted on textiles. These are much like scrolls and are not usually framed.

Uses

Thangka paintings have historically been commissioned or bought as ‘good deeds’ and then passed on to friends or monks if not used by the commissioner themselves. They are often today used by Buddhist monks and serve the purpose of a meditation image that helps one concentrate and meditate. They are hung from walls and if not used for religious purposes, often add just the right amount of aesthetic to the décor.

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