A Thangka is a painted or embroidered Tibetan banner which was hung in a monastery or a family altar and carried by lamas in ceremonial processions. In Tibetan the word ‘than’ means flat and the suffix ‘ka’ stands for painting. The Thangka is thus a kind of painting done on flat surface but which can be rolled up when not required for display, sometimes called a scroll-painting. The most common shape of a Thangka is the upright rectangular form.
Thangkas in the West have often been regarded as decorative wall hangings (although this has changed in recent years), but their history in the East is usually purely religious, and there is a long tradition of blessing thangkas by Lamas before they are hung. Blessed thangkas are almost never sold, save through black market traders or collectors who are usually uninformed or have little care as to the traditions and origins of the art.
Types of Thangkas
On the basis of techniques involved and materials used thangkas can be grouped into several categories. Generally they are divided into two broad categories: those which are painted (called bris-than in Tibetan) and those which are made of silk either by weaving or with embroidery called (gos-than). The painted thangkas are further divided into five categories:
- Thangkas which have different colors in the background
- Thangkas which have a gold background
- Thangkas which have a red background
- Thangkas painted on a black background
- Thangkas whose outlines are printed on cotton support and then touched up with colors
Thangkas are painted on cotton canvas with water soluble pigments, both mineral and organic, tempered with a herb and glue solution. The entire process demands great mastery over the drawing and perfect understanding of iconometric principles.
The physical construction of a thangka, as with the majority of Buddhist art, is highly geometric. Arms, legs, eyes, nostrils, ears, and various ritual implements are all laid out on a systematic grid of angles and intersecting lines. A skilled thangka artist will generally select from a variety of predesigned items to include in the composition, ranging from alms bowls and animals, to the shape, size, and angle of a figure’s eyes, nose, and lips. The process seems very scientific, but often requires a very deep understanding of the symbolism of the scene being depicted, in order to capture the essence or spirit of it.