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
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 2x2.5 to 15x 40 is dipped in a lukewarm
solution of animal glue (prepared by boiling parts of yak skin) and
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.
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
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
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