by Linda Heaphy

thanka painting of green tara
A 13th century Tibetan thangka painting of Green Tara, artist unknown

A thangka (also called tangka, thanka, tanka, or Tibetan scroll painting) is a classical and stylised form of Nepalese and Tibetan painting, consisting of a painted picture panel surrounded by a textile mantle that is supported by scroll sticks and overlain with a silk cover. The mantle is typically constructed from a rich material, usually silk brocade, and the painting is generally executed in oils on treated cotton duck, although some notable exceptions occur, including pictures created from pigments ground from semi-precious stones, appliqué and silk or cotton embroidery. Thangkas typically depict important Buddhist motifs, the Wheel of Life, images of the Buddha, other Buddhist deities and mandalas being the most common. Thangka paintings are usually very intricate and detailed, with images inter-woven in a stylised geometric series of overlapping grids, taking many weeks or even months to complete. As stated by Wikipedia:

Thangkas overflow with symbolism and allusion. Because the art is explicitly religious, all symbols and allusions must be in accordance with strict guidelines laid out in Buddhist scripture. The artist must be properly trained and have sufficient religious understanding, knowledge, and background to create an accurate and appropriate thangka.

Thangkas fulfil several important functions for the practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. The images are used to teach students and monks about the aspects of Buddha, describe important historical events and illustrate myths associated with important deities. Devotional images act as a focus during rituals and ceremonies and are often used as mediums through which prayers are offered and particular requests made. Most importantly, thangka art is a valuable meditation tool and offers a manifestation of the divine that is both visually and mentally stimulating.

From the 14th century onwards, Chinese painting had a significant influence on Tibetan art and by the 18th century, Tibetan painting echoed and incorporated many Chinese elements of detail and design. However the thangka itself is traditionally held to be a Nepalese invention introduced to Tibet by Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal who married Sron Tsan Gampo, the ruler of Tibet, around 620-632 CE. Because they could be easily rolled and transported, thangkas became increasingly popular among the nomadic monks of medieval Tibet who travelled extensively between rural communities and regional monasteries to provide religious instruction. They are still used today for teaching and are a familiar sight in both Nepal and Tibet, becoming increasingly common in the West along with the spread of eastern spirituality.

Thanka, Kashgar. Silk surround, oil painting on canvas.
You can buy this thanka here.

References and Further Reading

Thangka. Wikipedia Accessed 15th March 2011

Lipton, Barbara & Ragnubs, N.D. 1996 Treasures of Tibetan Art: Collections of the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. Oxford University Press, New York.

Shaftel, Anna  Buddhist Art and Architecture: Tibetan Thangka Paintings Accessed 15th March 2011 

Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy

1 Response

Sunapati Thangka Art School
Sunapati Thangka Art School

July 22, 2019

Thank you for expressing the value and importance of thangka art with such nice words.
I’d like o point out also that the canvas is created using a cotton cloth treathed with white clay, water and organic glue. The canvas is then streched using a temporary frame and then smoothed with a marble stone. We still do the same.
Note: The pigments used for the colors can vary and only in few cases oil is used. We also use different gold and silver quality for the decorations.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Join our Mailing List