Thangka, A Unique Tibetan Culture
Thangka, seen in every monastery and family shrine in
Tibet, is actually a kind of Tibetan scroll-banner painting and is a unique art
form that belongs to the Tibetan culture.
What is Thangka
Thangka has been in vogue in Tibet for centuries. In Tibetan, "Thang" means
"unfolding" or "displaying", and Thangka means "silk, satin or cloth painting
scroll". It is most often painted on scrolls or embroidered on wall hangings of
silk or other cloth. Common at monasteries, lamas' residences, family halls for
worshipping Buddha and homes of Tibetan Buddhists, Thangka is a mark of devotion
to Buddhism and often serves as an object of worship.
Nobody knows where and when Thangka originated, but comparing with Tibetan
painting, the history of Thangka can be traced back to as early as the Tubo
period (or Songtsen Gampo period, about the 7th century), as a combination of
Chinese scroll painting, Nepal painting and Kashmir painting. From the relics of
Karuo in Qamdo, we can find the trace of Thangka.
Until the 7th century, Songtsen Gampo united the whole Tibet and hence a new
period in Tibetan history began. Later Songtsen Gampo married Nepal princess
Chizun and Tang Dynasty princess called Wencheng, further strengthening the
connection of politics, economy, and culture between Tibetan and the Han ethnic
groups. The two princesses came to Tibet with a lot of Buddhist scriptures,
architecture technology, soothsaying and lawmaking, medical scriptures and many
skilled artisans, greatly stimulating the development of Tibetan society,
especially the flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism culture. At
that time fresco alone could not satisfy the need of those disciples. So another
kind of art Thangka, easy to carry, hang and collect, appeared and popularized.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the central government
adopted the system of approving Tibetan chieftain to strengthen the control over
Tibet. These methods made contribution to the development of the Tibetan
society. So the Ming and Qing dynasties saw a great progress in the development
of Thangka. Thangka of this period had three characteristics:
1. Thangka in larger number;
2. Different schools developed;
Appearance of many painting organizations.
Of the existing Thangkas, most were made during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The content of Thangka has various subjects such as
historical events, personage biographies, religious doctrines, Tibetan natural
conditions and social customs, folklores, mythical stories, images of great deities and
Buddhas, and Jataka stories of the Buddha, etc., involving politics, economy,
history, religion, literature and art, social life, Tibetan astrology,
pharmacology, theology and many other respects. The structure of Tibet Thangka
is precise, balanced, plumpy and changeful. The painting methods are mainly
bright color and line drawing.
Thangka always has a theme of Buddhism, and the artists must follow the
sacred laws for portraying gods and Buddhas. Passages from scriptures are
written in vermilion on the back, and Thangka is always unsigned, so it is next
to impossible to know the painter and the age of ancient Thangkas.
Thangkas are usually placed upright in a rectangular shape while there are a
few that deal with subjects of Mandala that are square. Cotton canvas and linen
cloth are the common fabrics on which pictures are painted with mineral and
organic pigments (important Thangkas use ground gold and gemstones as pigments).
A typical Thangka has a printed or embroidered picture mounted on a piece of
colorful silk. A wooden stick is attached on the side from the bottom to the top
to make it easier to hang and roll up.
Painting a Thangka usually starts by stretching a piece of cotton cloth on a
wooden frame along its sides. Then, a certain type of gesso is spread over both
the front and back of the canvas to block the holes and then scraped off to
produce smooth surfaces. Afterwards, some orienting lines are drawn to guide the
sketching. By following a fixed proportion, images are then roughly drawn. The
featured deity or saint occupies the center while other attendant deities or
monks surround the central figure and along the border, and is comparatively
smaller in size. Next is coloring. Painters apply pigments on the sketch. Black,
green, red, yellow and white are the basic colors used in coloring. All the
colors are mixed with animal glue and ox bile to keep them bright. Shading is
then done to produce better pictorial effects. At the final stage, facial
features and eyes are finished, which is sacredly done only after a ritual held
on a fixed day. After detail finishes, the canvas is removed from the frame and
mounted on a piece of brocaded silk. The wooden sticks are attached to the top
and bottom of the silk. After a dust cover of gossamer silk is attached it is
ready to be hung up.
Thangka can be made in a wide variety of techniques:
silk tapestry with cut designs, color printing, embroidery, brocade, applique,
and pearl inlay. The content ranges from Buddhas to the history and folk customs
of Tibet. Hence the various types.
The common appearance of Thangka, with a scroll at the bottom, is usually 75
centimeters long and 50 centimeters wide. Besides, there is the banner style,
and this kind of Thangka is 1.1 meters long and about 3.5 meters wide.
According to the material, Thangka can be divided into two types: one is made
of silk and this kind is called gos-thang; the other, called bris-thang, is made
of pigment. The gos-thang is printed on the canvas while the bris-thang is
painted on the canvas.
According to the different kinds of silk, gos-thang can be
divided into five classes:
(1) tshem-drub-ma is made of different kinds of silk woven by hand.
lhan-dr-ub-ma or dras-drub-ma: To make this kind of Thangka, different kinds of
silk are first cut into different shapes and then connected with needles.
lhan-thabs-ma: This kind is a little similar to the second , but to make this
kind of Thangka, different shapes of silk are agglutinated by the glue
(4) thag-drub-ma: This is a Thangka woven by hand.
(5) dpar-ma: To
make this kind of Thangka, moulding board is necessary to print the pictures
into the silk.
The largest Thangka of gos-thang kind is called gos-sku which is too big to
be put on. In fact, it is only used at some special religious rituals. In the
Potala Palace, there is a gos-sku with a length of 55.8 meters and a width of
about 46.81 meters, made during the 5th Dalai Lama period.
According to the color of the background, bris-thang can be divided into five
(1) tsho-thang: The background is multi-colorful.
(2) gser-thang: The
background is yellow.
(3) mtshal-thang: The background is vermilion.
dpar-thang : The background is black.
(5) dpar-thang: The method making this
kind of Thangka is the same as that of water printed.
The largest bris-thang is 3 meters long and 2 meters wide while the smallest
one is about 30 centimeters long and 20 centimeters wide.
Different styles of Thangka represent different schools of paintings in
1. Karzhi School
Karzhi is one of the schools of Tibetan paintings and sculptures styles. It
is said this school follows the painting style which had been used by Karma
Mikye Dorje in the Figure Measurement composed by himself and was famous for
painting calm and kind-hearted personal figures.
2. ChenZher School
ChenZher School is founded by ChenZher ChanMou of KhongKarLdo in Tibet. This
school was born out of ManThangPa painting style and prolongs this style.
3. Mansale School
The founder of Mansale School was Qiangpa-Quyang Gyel-tshap. Their painting
style is close to the ManNiang School with characteristics of boorish lines,
powerful faces, taller figures, dense color and fine painting
4. Karlri School
Karlri School was founded by the Living Buddha LanMuKar ZhaXi who combined
the technique of measurement in Tibetan painting style with those of coloring
and arrangement in Chinese painting. It has characteristics of large picture and
various contents. The personage painted usually with a comeliness and pretty
face and implicit smile.
5. JeJuBi School
JeJuBi School is a school of painting founded by Karma Quyhang Dorje who
absorbed the painting style of Kashmir on the basis of Tibetan
6. Manlu School
Manlu School is the collective name of ManNiang School and Mansale
7. DenLu School
It is the painting style of scholars named ChiJar and ManThangˇ¤CharKar, etc.
They had written many art books like Figure Measurement Favonian Beads,
8. ShiGamPa School
The painting style of ShiGamPa and schools that kept this painting style are
all called ShiGamPa School. It is also called Nepal School because of been
influenced by the painting style of Nepal.
9. Deri School
Deri School is a school that combined the painting style of Karlri School and
ManThangPa School. They mostly pay attention to the sculpture, expression and
connotation of the persons painted.
10. ManNiang School
Founded by ManlaThongZhu in the 14th century, it is the earlist painting
school in Tibet. The persons painted in their works were almost with a smile or
anger, with a slim and graceful figure and verisimilar expression, wearing
magnificent clothes, finely colored, and the yardstick of every position of the
body is moderate.