Thangka Paintings – Mesmerising Tibetan Buddhist Art


About Thangka Paintings
Image – Wikimedia

Thangka Paintings are the finest example of surviving ancient Tibetan Buddhist Art. The appealing artwork is not only alluring to the eyes but also the soul. The direct connection of Thangka art with the spiritual mind is phenomenal. In India, the art form lives in the state of Sikkim. Sikkim is one of the states where Buddhism is present in the majority. It is one of the places in the world where you can witness traditional style thangka paintings.  

Origin of Thangka Paintings 

Image – cea + / Flickr

Going back to the Neolithic Age, the Thangka paintings go back in time to the Mogao Caves along the silk road. The cave is a buffet of old traditional Tibetan paintings. Historians speculate that Tibetan art saw life from here. The art form got reverence later in the Tubo dynasty. An ancient legend asserts that the Tubo king, Songtsan Gambo, is the father of the tradition of Thangka. The first techniques of thangka paintings  

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The art form saw spring in 7th century Nepal, where it began as a teaching aid. In historical times, the teacher (known as lama) taught their disciples along the journey about the life and principles of Buddha. The prime tool of this kind of teaching, where the teacher would travel to distant lands to spread the teachings of Buddha, was the Thangka paintings. These pictorial scrolls were dominantly used to convey spiritually significant events, aspects of various deities, and core Buddhist concepts. Many scholars refer to thangka scrolls as the visual representations of a spiritual reality based on Buddhist scriptures. 

In the earlier times, Thangka paintings were dominant and in fame in regions where Tibetan Buddhism was prevalent. These included areas like Mongolia, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, and parts of Himalayan India.  

Religious significance of Thangka Paintings

Religious significance of Thangka Paintings 
Image – Wikimedia

People treat thangkas as pictorial religious scrolls as that is from where they trace their origin. Thangkas hold immense religious significance among the traditional Tibetan Buddhist tribes, and many theists even worship the Thangka paintings during religious festivals. A considerable number of people of the community believe that commissioning Thangka would generate spiritual merit. 

Types of Thangka Paintings

Types of Thangka Paintings 
Image – Flickr- Wonderlane + Cesar Ojeda + cea

There are primarily two base factors for categorizing thangkas. These are, first, the technique, and second, the material used to make a thangka painting. Further, based on these two categories, we can classify thangkas as painted or embroidered. Other than the use of technique, the material of the canvas also plays a role. Some thangkas use silk applique; others painted in color, others with background color, say black, red, or golden. Artists also group thangkas according to their size and content.  

Process of Thangka Painting

Artists of Thangka Paintings
Image – Wikimedia

The process of painting a thangka is very elaborate and meticulous. In the first stage, the artist prepares the canvas with foundation line drawings. As the scrolls are of religious significance, the purification step is given supreme importance. In this step, the artist performs certain rituals and prayers. In the preceding step, the artist prepares the final hue by mixing natural mineral paints. Finally, the process of painting begins taking up more than three months to a year to complete.

Artists of Thangka Paintings

Image – shankar s. / Flickr

A skilled thangka artist goes through rigorous training under the guidance of a lama or a Buddhist teacher. The first step involves stretching and smoothening the canvas, which works as the main stage for the painting. This step requires a high level of concentration and expertise as it is the first step in making a Thangka painting. The artist strung the canvas on a bamboo frame and then stretched this frame onto a wooden frame. The artist gets a uniform tension on the canvas, making it easier to draw and paint on it. Traditionally, the artists coat the canvas surface with chalk or gesso, performing the base pigment. However, many modern artists in the contemporary time prefer the use of a distemper-glue mixture as it is easier and provides a smooth surface. 

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The artists use ordinary pencils for drawing the foundation lines and then fixate the lines using a fine brush. This process requires a lot of precision and observation skills. The artist pays utmost attention to the deity’s gesture, mood, and color. The drawing should be in exact accordance with the iconographic grids. The drawings on a thangka painting usually include the main deity and the object of personification and symbolism. 

Though the traditional thangka paintings use mineral colors, contemporary artists now use acrylic colors instead of natural ones. The first step towards coloring and painting involves outlining the figure with a fine brush. Colors hold significance too. In the Tibetan Buddhist culture, different hues depict or identify various deities and their attributes. 


Significance of Thangka Paintings
Image – Wikimedia

Thangka paintings serve as an essential tool in visually depicting the life of Buddha. Thangka depictions connote not only to Buddha but also to other deities and bodhisattvas. They hold considerable mythological significance. Other than that, they also act as an essential source for describing historical events. In the present times, many people use thangka paintings as an object of decoration, while others use them as the centerpiece during ritual ceremonies or prayers.  

This unique form of art depicts the history, culture, politics, society, and other aspects of the Tibetan and Buddhist people. Thangkas use symbolism to represent these aspects. The guidelines set by Buddhist sacred scriptures are the core base for the symbols in the Thangka art.  

Buddhism is a religion of the meditational spirit. Meditation holds importance in the culture of Buddhism. Thangka is a traditional art form of the same, and is also well-versed with meditation-thangka art works as a mediational tool. Believers meditate on the scenes and depictions of the art. People relate this meditation trait with spiritual quests and merits.  


The primary purpose of painting thangkas is to find an interlude between iconographic ideas and the community’s lifestyle. Thangka is present in many regions today, although most are concentrated in the Himalayan region. The eccentric, lively vibe oozing out of these paintings and the aura of calmness surrounding them is their pride.  

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