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Treasure of Tibetan Thangkas

The painted scroll or thangka as it is known in Tibetan, is said to have derived its name from the Hindustani ‘tangne-ka’ or ‘for hanging up’. Apart from its function as an educational tool, a thangka is first and foremost a sacred object of meditation, of worship and of purification of the soul.

Ancient Buddhist monks were excellent educators. As they wandered from palce to place, spreading the message of beneficence of their religion, they carried with them their own educational aids to illustrate their sermons.

The most important amongst these were mysterious scrolls would be unrolled and hung up on the walls beforehand. As the sermon and stories proceeded, at an appropriate moment a veil would be removed dramatically to reveal fascinating figures of deities in different postures as well as human and animal characters in strange surroundings.

The story of thangkas in Tibet goes back to the 7th century when King Stron-btsan-sgam-po married a Japanese and a Chinese princess, both of whom brought Buddhist books, sculptures and thangkas in their dowries. Stron-btsan-sgam-po adopted Buddhism, installed it as the state religion and patronized the art of making thangkas.

Under him the trade and cultural links with Magadha (Bihar) an important centre for Buddhist learning in that period, were strengthened. One story goes that Indian scroll painters voluntarily retreated to the safer regions of Nepal and Tibet along with their portable artifacts and expertise when faced by the onslaught of Islamic invasions.

According to other accounts, Indian masters, known for their high level of expertise, were invited to Tibet to train local priests and artists. Seven ancient Indian treatises prescribing the exact proportions of the human form were used as a basis for reference (the practice continues till today).

At the same time Tibetan artists also assimilated landscape effects from Chinese art, motifs from Kashmiri art and over-all composition ideas from Nepali art.

In the 15th century Menla Dendup, an accomplished artist and seer developed his own style based on above influences to make thangkas. He also wrote several books on the subject, strictly maintaining the parameters prescribed in ancient texts.

Menla Dendup is the progenitor of the famous Menri style found in thangkas the world over. Later, from the 16th century onwards, some thangkas with a stronger influence of Chinese art are said to belong to the Karma Gadri style.

The technique of making thangka paintings closely resembles the art of pata chitra known in India as early as the 1st century BC. The ancient practices are maintained even today.

A washed and dried rectangular piece of canvas of fixed proportions, ranging in size from 2’x2.5’ to 15’x 40’ is dipped in a lukewarm solution of animal glue (prepared by boiling parts of yak skin) and slaked lime.

Slaked lime imparts a smooth ground surface, according to C.B.Gupta, Senior Technical Restorer at the National Museum, New Delhi. Also, the alkaline nature of lime helps neutralize atmospheric pollutants as well as the acidic and therefore destructive nature of some of the pigments used in paintings thangkas.

The cloth is stretched on a bamboo strut which in turn is tied to a wooden frame. The surface is dampened, sprinkled with lime water and rubbed several times with a conch shell until the requisite sheen and smoothness are obtained.

The main guidelines of the thangka are then drawn in charcoal: borders, a central perpendicular (known as the Brahma line), two diagonals and other lines according to the figures to be sketched.

According to O.P. Tandon, former Head, Bharat Kala Bhawan, Benaras Hindu Universite, the themes of thangka paintings fall into five categories: Enlightened begins like gurus and saints termed Buddhas, Boddhisattavas and Maha-siddhas. Ishta Devatas or meditating deities – both benign and wrathful. Arhats (listeners) and Dharampals (protectors). Mandalas – Symbolic representations of the cosmos. Dharma, portraying the totality of Buddhist teaching.

Thangkas representing tantric themes are not displayed before the uninitiated.

The characters depicted on thangkas (mostly derived from the Hindu pantheon) follow a definite pattern according to the order of their spiritual merit. As explained by Ngawang Khenrab Shastri, a pupil at the Central Institue of Higher Tibetan studies, Sarnath, Varanasi, the highest position is occupied by the Guru or Buddhas, followed by meditative deities, Mahasiddhas, Doddhisattavas, Dhaka and Dhakinis, Arhats and finally Dharampals.

Canonical rules for making thangkas paintings must be obeyed strictly. The day and time of commencement of the painting and the drawing of the eyes are fixed according to Tibetan astrological predictions (based on an amalgamation of Indian and Chinese calculations).

The making of a thangka itself is supposed to lead to desirable qualities like peace, patience, perseverance, concentration, self-development and spiritual enlightenment.

The pigments used in making thangkas are usually plant or mineral in content and mixed with lime and glue. The predominant colours are lime white, indigo (from plant), blue) from lapis lazuli stone (imported from Persia or India), arsenic yellow, vitriol green, vermillion red (imported from India) and gold powder (from Nepal).

The colours have different connotations. White for instance denotes rest and destruction, red – subjugation, blue – hatred, yellow – wisdom, pride and prosperity, green – pacification; and gold – purity and rare attainment. These connotations may, however, vary according to the context of the painting.

Once completed, a thangka is mounted on to brocaded silk with borders sewn all round. Two wooden rods are attached to the top and bottom ends, the lower one being slightly heavier to hold the thangka firmly in palce. Finally a veil and ribbons to wrap up the thangka when required are added.

Although no qualification is necessary to make a thangka people often commission these to artists. It has no religious value unless the fixed rules are followed to the dot and it is consecrated by a lama or a priest.

A thangka achieves the prana pratishthan or installation of the soul of the deity with the performance of certain rituals on a pre-set date and time. Tibetan lettering corresponding to the Sanskrit relating to the body, speech and mind of the deity are marked at the back of the thangka. Silver foil, coloured rice and sometimes certain manuscripts, are placed within the lining. Once the rituals are complete, the thangka is henceforth considered a portable icon.

Being a sacred ritual offering, thangkas are considered above the artist and never signed. Nor are they dated. Hence their antiquity becomes difficult to establish. The oldest thangkas existing today are believed to belong to the 10th century.

The ultimate homage to thangkas is to be found in the discerning words of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama: “Art expresses the perception of a people. Sacred art reveals their deepest insights and their highest aspirations. So to encounter our works of sacred art is to experience for yourself some of our most profound visions.

Some of these visions come from our greatest masters, who looked deep into the human soul, confronted the stark realities of human passions and discovered the human capabilities of wisdom and love.

We have treasured them for centuries in Tibet….”