What is thangka?

A tangkasnet, variously spelt as thangka, tangka, thanka, tangkasnet or tanka (Nepali pronunciation: [ˈथान्का]; Tibetan: ཐང་ཀ་; Nepal Bhasa: पौभा), is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk appliqué, or human skin usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. Tangkas are traditionally kept unframed and rolled up when not on display, mounted on a textile backing somewhat in the style of Chinese scroll paintings, with a further silk cover on the front. So treated, tangkas can last a long time, but because of their delicate nature, they have to be kept in dry places where moisture will not affect the quality of the silk. Most thankas are relatively small, comparable in size to a Western half-length portrait, but some are extremely large, several metres in each dimension; these were designed to be displayed, typically for very brief periods on a monastery wall, as part of religious festivals. Most thankas were intended for personal meditation or instruction of monastic students. They often have elaborate compositions including many very small figures. A central deity is often surrounded by other identified figures in a symmetrical composition. Narrative scenes are less common, but do appear.
Thangka serve as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, various influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas. One subject is The Wheel of Life (Bhavachakra), which is a visual representation of the Abhidharma teachings (Art of Enlightenment). The term may sometimes be used of works in other media than painting, including reliefs in metal and woodblock prints. Today printed reproductions at poster size of painted thangka are commonly used for devotional as well as decorative purposes. Many tangkas were produced in sets, though they have often subsequently become separated.
Thangka perform several different functions. Images of deities can be used as teaching tools when depicting the life (or lives) of the Buddha, describing historical events concerning important Lamas, or retelling myths associated with other deities. Devotional images act as the centerpiece during a ritual or ceremony and are often used as mediums through which one can offer prayers or make requests. Overall, and perhaps most importantly, religious art is used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path to enlightenment. The Buddhist Vajrayana practitioner uses a thanga image of their yidam, or meditation deity, as a guide, by visualizing “themselves as being that deity, thereby internalizing the Buddha qualities” tangkas hang on or beside altars, and may be hung in the bedrooms or offices of monks and other devotees.
Tibetan Buddhist painting developed from widespread traditions of early Buddhist paintings which now only survive in a few sites such as the Ajanta Caves in India and the Mogao Caves on the Silk Road, which has very extensive wall-paintings and was the repository for what are now the earliest surviving Tibetan paintings on cloth. The thanka form developed alongside the tradition of Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, which are or were mostly in monasteries.
The early history of the form is more easily traced through these murals, which survive in greater numbers than the portable paintings which certainly once existed. Most thanka were commissioned by individuals, who were believed to acquire merit by doing so. They might then be given to a monastery or another individual, or retained for use by the commissioner. Some thangka have inscriptions on their back recording that they were the personal meditation image (thugs dam) of a notable monk. Most artists were probably monks, although lay artists seem to have existed, as they did for metalwork sculpture. The commissioner would provide the materials, which were often valuable, and by tradition the compensation to the artist was regarded as a “gift” rather than a fee. The word “thangka” means “thing that one unrolls” in Classical Tibetan. Thangka are very rarely signed, but some artists are known, more because they were important monastic leaders than famous as artists. Painting was a valued accomplishment in a monk.
The earliest survivals of Tibetan paintings on cloth are in some pieces from the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China. The “Library Cave” there was a repository of old or worn out manuscripts, paintings, prints, textiles and other items which was sealed off in the 11th century, after several centuries of deposits. Many of the paintings have Tibetan inscriptions or are in a style that can be recognized as Tibetan, as opposed to the dominant Chinese style and some pieces reflecting Indian styles. Though they are hard to date, it is thought that these pieces mainly come from a period c. 781–848 when the area was ruled by Tibet.
Surviving tangkas on cloth certainly from Tibet itself start in the 11th century, after the revival of Buddhism; there are some 20 surviving from this and the 12th century. Such early examples typically have compositions that are already complex, but less so than in later examples. As later the typical compositions shows a central figure flanked by smaller other figures, often in framed compartments, or surrounded by flaming halos or seated on small clouds. Behind these figures a landscape background including much sky is often indicated, though little of it may be visible. The central figure may be a deity, and arhat, or an important monk, and the same groups make up the background figures. Several of the figures may be different “aspects” or reincarnations of each other according to Buddhist theology. In the example at left the flanking bodhisattvas are in a style, one of several found in such figures in this period, that appears derived from central Indian art.
Over the following centuries Tibetan painting, both on walls and thangka, continued to develop in its distinctive style, balancing between the two major influences of Indo-Nepalese and Chinese painting, despite Buddhism being in general decline in both those regions. Styles could vary considerably between the different regions of Tibet as well as the wider region where tangkas were painted. Within Tibet the regions nearer Nepal and China were often more influenced by those styles. Bhutanese tangkas were mainly influenced by Central Tibet. The different monastic orders also developed somewhat different stylistic characters.
Tibetan painting incorporated many elements from Chinese painting, especially from the 14th century onwards, reaching a peak in the 18th century. One aspect of this was allowing more space and emphasis to the landscape background. In general the style of figures in thangka remains derived from the Indo-Nepalese tradition. According to Giuseppe Tucci, by the time of the Qing Dynasty, “a new Tibetan art was then developed, which in a certain sense was a provincial echo of the Chinese 18th century’s smooth ornate preciosity.” Throughout the period the Chinese Imperial court retained diplomatic and other contacts with Tibet for political reasons, but when the Manchu Qing dynasty came to power court interest in Tibetan Buddhism increased, and many Chinese works in a very refined and elegant style, though eventually becoming rather stiff, were produced by Imperial artists and often sent to Tibet as gifts, influencing local styles. As well as the court style, there was influence from the regions of China near to Tibet.
Tangkas were painted in all the areas where Tibetan Buddhism flourished, which apart from those mentioned already included Mongolia, Ladakh, Sikkim, and parts of Himalayan India in Arunachal Pradesh, Dharamshala, and Lahaul and Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh. It is also practiced in parts of Russia (Kalmykia, Buryatia, and Tuva) and Northeast China.
Other traditions of Buddhist scroll paintings are not usually covered by the term thangka, although they may have many similarities, and descend from the same origins. An example is Japanese painting, where a number of very early examples survive from the Nara (710-794) and Heian periods (794 to 1185). Most of these are National Treasures of Japan. Raigō-zu developed as one popular genre, showing the Amida Buddha accompanied by bodhisattvas welcoming the souls of the faithful to his Western Paradise. These were, and still are, carried into the house of a person who was near death.

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