About Thangka Painting

  • Article tells about the origins of Thangka paintings, types of paintings, favourite Gods depicted in Thangka, painting process, guidelines for aspiring artists and spiritual connection of Thangka paintings.

The Origins of the Thangka


The Tibetan Thangka is an art form that originated in Nepal, and was brought to Tibet by Nepalese princess, Bhrikuti, who was the wife of Sonsgtsen Gampo, the founder of the Tibetan Empire. The paintings were developed over the centuries from the early wall murals that can be seen in a few remaining sites like the Ajanta Caves in India and the Mogao Caves in Gansu Province, Tibet.


The Mogao Caves have extensive wall paintings, and were previously a repository for many Tibetan paintings on cloth, which are some of the earliest surviving Thangka, as well as other manuscripts, paintings and prints. The earliest dated prints from the “Library Cave” were dated to be from around 780-848 AD, when the region was under Tibetan rule.


Traditionally, the Thangka are designed to tell the life of Buddha, as well as other influential lamas and deities. The Tibetan word THANG KA means “recorded message” in English.


The composition of the Thangka is very complex and elaborate, and often incorporates the central figure - normally a deity - surrounded by many smaller figures, in a symmetrical design.


Although they are less common, narrative scenes are also depicted on Thangkas. Thangka are also used as devotional pieces during religious rituals or ceremonies, and can be used as a medium for prayer.


Moreover, Thangkas can aid in the spiritual path to enlightenment as the religious art is used as a meditation tool. Devotees often have Thangka paintings hung in their homes, bedrooms and offices.


Types of paintings


In Tibet, religious paintings come in several forms, including wall paintings, thangkas (sacred pictures that can be rolled up), and miniatures for ritual purposes or for placement in household shrines.


Some thangka artists travelled all over Tibet, working for monasteries as well as for private patrons. Thangkas were commissioned for many purposes - as aids to meditation, as requests for long life, as tokens of thanksgiving for having recovered from illness, or in order to accumulate merit.


Those who commissioned thangkas also supplied the materials, so their financial status determined the quality of the pigments, the amount of gold used for embellishment, and the richness of the brocade on which the painting was mounted. 


Thangkas could be woven, embroidered, or appliquéd.


Special Thangkas


And at the Shoton Festival, one of the most popular of Tibet’s traditional festivals, the Thangka is unveiled at the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.


As the sound of the horn echoes through the valley, a host of lamas carry the huge portrait of Qamba Buddha from the Coqen Hall and towards the western end of the monastery to a specially erected platform. As smoke rises from all sides and monks chant scriptures, the lamas slowly unroll the Thangka to cheers from the crowds, who rush to the painting to offer their white hada, or prayer silks. This Thangka is only open for around two hours, before the monks move it carefully back inside for another year.


Favourite gods


Peaceful deities, wrathful deities, and mandalas are among the subjects depicted in thangkas. Each Tibetan Buddhist sect has its favorite gods; therefore, identifying a particular god depicted on a thangka helps determine the sect with which the painting is associated. For example, a blue image of the Buddha Samantabhadra situated at the top center of a thangka associates that painting with the Nyingma order, and paintings made for the Gelug order usually include a figure of TsongKhapa.


Thangkas are fragile objects; they fade when exposed to light. The Asian Art Museum’s policy is to preserve these objects by displaying them in low light and by rotating the collection; happily, this will allow visitors to see a new group of thangkas about every six months.


Painting Process


Traditionally, thangka paintings are not only valued for their aesthetic beauty, but primarily for their use as aids in meditational practices. Practitioners use thangkas to develop a clear visualization of a particular deity, strengthening their concentration, and forging a link between themselves and the deity. 


Historically, thangkas were also used as teaching tools to convey the lives of various masters. A teacher or lama would travel around giving talks on dharma, carrying with him large thangka scrolls to illustrate his stories. 


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.


Thangka painting is thus a two-dimensional medium illustrating a multi-dimensional spiritual reality. Practitioners use thangkas as a sort of road map to guide them to the original insight of the master. This map must be accurate. Hence, it is the sole responsibility of the artist to make sure that the Thangka Painting is considered genuine and guides one and all to the proper and peaceful 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.   


Guidelines for Aspiring Artists


Aspiring thangka artists must spend years studying the iconongraphic grids and proportions of different deities and then master the technique of mixing and applying mineral pigments.


Norbulingka Institute in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh offers a three-year training program for Tibetan students. After completing their three year course, most artists then join their workshops, where they must complete an additional three years as apprentices before they are considered fully qualified artists.


To make a thangka, first a piece of canvas is stitched onto a wooden frame. It is prepared with a mixture of chalk, gesso, and base pigment, and rubbed smooth with a glass until the texture of the cloth is no longer apparent. 


The outline of the deity is sketched in pencil onto the canvas using iconograpic grids, and then outlined in black ink. Powders composed of crushed mineral and vegetable pigments are mixed with water and adhesive to create paint. Some of the elements used are quite precious, such as lapis lazuli for dark blue. Landscape elements are blocked in and shading is applied using both wet and dry brush techniques. Finally, a pure gold paint is added, and the thangka is framed in a precious brocade boarder. 


A standard thangka painting in Norbulingka, which is about 18 x 12 inches, takes an artist about six weeks to complete.

These days, it is becoming more and more rare to find genuine thangkas because of the length of time it takes to learn the skill and create a painting properly. However, Norbulingka is committed to preserving the skill of thangka painting in the traditional form.


Some more institutes in India which offer courses are -

1. Thangde Gatsal Art Studio and School, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh.

2. Institute of Tibetan Thangka Art Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh.

3. Living Buddhist Art & Thangka Painting Center Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh.

4. Buddha Thangka Art Gallery, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand.


Spiritual Connection


Aside from being an aid to spiritual practice, commissioning a thangka is considered a means of generating spiritual merit, and many times, if an individual is facing some kind of hardship, a lama is consulted and recommends the creation of a thangka of a specific deity as a remedy. The artist then designs a thangka by referring to the measurements of deities detailed in the scriptures, following the prescription of the lama.


Creating these one-of-a-kind thangkas requires extensive research, especially as the descriptions explaining the proportions of each deity are not compiled in one text, but are located in different volumes throughout the hundreds of volumes of Buddhist scripture. Furthermore, some texts cannot even be touched unless one has received the proper initiation for that specific deity.


Because the art is explicitly traditional, all symbols and allusions must be in accordance with strict guidelines laid out in the Buddhist scripture. The artist must be properly trained and have sufficient religious understanding, knowledge, and background to create an accurate painting.



The conservation treatment of a thangka is a complex process that reflects the complexity of the original composite object. All of the issues raised above must be evaluated in deciding on the appropriate treatment for a specific thangka.

For example, a Conservator must look carefully for any exposed colour notations and not confuse them with iconographic lettering on the final paint layers. A Conservator must evaluate what regional and stylistic techniques were used in producing the painting and mounting and also look for damage from past handling. And finally, the Conservator must examine the current mounting to determine its relation to the painting and document whether it covers significant sections of the painting.  




Thangkas are complicated composite objects which are designed to communicate iconographic ideas in a beautiful and practical form. A thangka in laboratory or collection may be the production of many painters and tailors with differing intents, and differing skills and training. The textile mounting may have a completely different style, date and region of origin from those of the painting.


Pure, single artistic intent is lost through a combination of iconographic specifications, regional and doctrinal differences in style, changes in form subsequent to the original creation and many years of harsh treatment. 


Author is a Mumbai based artist.

 The purpose of this compilation is to document and promote. We have given credits and reference links in this compilation. In case some are missed, it is not with malafide intent. 

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