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Spotlight on Tibet: Ancient Art called Thangka Paintings

MG is an air warrior and a global traveler well as an amateur astrologer who loves to visit and explore new places.

Thangka painting of the Buddha

Thangka painting of the Buddha


Thangka Paintings are ancient paintings from Tibet which depict Buddhism as practiced in Tibet. Buddhism entered Tibet from India around the 8th century AD. Thangka paintings are from that period and are more than a thousand years old. Thangka in Tibetan means art and paintings. These paintings are intricately connected with Buddhism. Thangka art is indigenous Tibetan handicraft and goes back to Lord Buddha Shakyamuni.

Thangka paintings are usually painted on cotton and silk and usually depict the Buddha or a scene from his life. Thangkas are traditionally kept unframed and rolled up when not on display. They are further wrapped in silk cover and can be preserved for centuries. But because of their delicate nature, they have to be kept in dry places where moisture will not affect the quality of the silk.

Intricate Thangka art

Intricate Thangka art

Thangka Paintings Origin and what they Depict

The paintings date from the 8th century and are by anonymous artists. In these paintings, the life of the various deities and respected teachers of Buddhism in Tibet like Lord Buddha Shakyamuni is depicted. The paintings cover a wide panorama but cover only Buddhism. The paintings are however small by western standards but have extremely intricate details. The purpose of these paintings is to depict prayer and meditation. They also inspire and give visual support to the monks and Lamas who form the core of Tibetan Buddhism.

Thangka paintings serve as important teaching tools. They depict the life of the Buddha as well as various influential lamas and other deities and Bodhisattvas. One of the subjects is The Wheel of life (Bhavachakra), which is a visual representation of the Abhidharma teachings (Art of Enlightenment).

Songston Gampo

Songston Gampo

Spread of Buddhism and Thangka Paintings

The founder of Buddhism Gautama Buddha lived in India about 2600 years back. This was the period when Buddhism flourished in the sub-continent. Emperor Asoka the Great spread Buddhism to distant lands. Though Buddhism died in India it continued to flourish in neighboring countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Japan, Thailand, and Tibet.

Buddhism spread in Tibet during the reign of King Songsten Gampo. He was the founder of the Tibet Empire and during his reign, Buddhism spread in Tibet. He also got the original works of Buddhism which were in Sanskrit translated into the Tibetan language. He married a Chinese princess Kongjo in the early seventh century. Many Chinese painters came with her and they were the forerunners of the Thangka art and paintings. Songsten also married a Nepali princess who brought the Nepal style of Thangka art to Tibet. In effect, both forms of art flourished during the reign of Songsten Gampo.

Menri style painting

Menri style painting

Styles of Thangka Paintings

Thangka paintings have 2 styles, namely The Gadri style and the Menri style. Gadri style has Chinese influence while the Menri style can be traced to Nepal. Both styles however depict the teachings and practices of Buddhism in Tibet. Thangka paintings are hand-painted on cotton or silk cloth. They can also be painted on canvas, paper, and leather. The paintings vary from 16 to 23 inches in width and 17 to 19 inches in length. The paints used are water-based and tempered with an herb and glue solution. The Gadri style came into existence around the 7/8th century.

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The "Menri" style of Tibetan painting was founded by the artist Manthangpa Manla Dondrub in the late 15th century. "Menri" in Tibetan means Medicine Mountain and is one of the oldest forms of Thangka from which Tibetan painting has originally evolved. Vivid and vibrant colors, attention to detail while remaining spacious and simple, are characteristic of the classical "Menri" style.

Last Word

Most Thangka paintings use explicit religious symbols. Artists have to be trained in this form of art and no deviation is accepted. For example, it is specified how to paint the fingers of the Lord Buddha and many artists spend a lifetime in painting a Thangka. These paintings are only on religious subjects and no deviation is accepted. Tibetans usually spend years making paintings because of the intricate details involved. However, there is a real threat to Tibet and its culture with the conquest of this region by China in 1950. Many atrocities have been committed by the occupation army; it's a pity the USA has acquiesced with this. The second man to bear the cross is the attitude of Jawahar Lal Nehru who did nothing when China invaded Tibert in 1949.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 29, 2021:

Thank you Chitra, so nice you commented.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 29, 2021:

Great informative article about the Thangka paintings, and Tibet!

As always, great writing!

Thanks for sharing!

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 29, 2021:

Tom, thanks, China has destroyed Tibetan culture and yet the USA sleeps with it. Joe Biden needs to be tried for his family's links with China

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 27, 2021:

Thank you, Pamela, for commenting.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 27, 2021:

The paintings are be are beautiful. Thank you for sharing this information, MG.

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