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Tibetan Art

Happiness is an Art

Akasagarbha Thangka Painting

Akasagarbha: The Bodhisattva of Infinite Happiness

“Whether this moment is happy or not depends on you. It’s you that makes the moment happy. It’s not the moment that makes you happy.
With mindfulness, concentration and insight, any moment can become a happy moment.
Happiness is an art.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

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The Fascinating History of Himalayan Masks

Traditional Cham Dance

The Origin of Himalayan Masks Cult

Nepalese and Tibetan Masks are one of the symbols that better represent the culture and traditions of people living in the Himalayan region.
The ritual of wearing masks is very old and it comes from animists Himalayan tribes used to worship spirits of nature and guardians of these majestic mountains.Himalayan Masks

The Shamans of these tribes used to wear masks during rituals they use to perform in order to protect the village, heal diseases, practice exorcisms or other purposes.
Masks supposedly had a very important functions in the social life of these community as they were used also during theatrical representations and ceremonies dedicated to ancestors.

Hindu and Buddhist cultures, that became dominant in the surrounding regions, slowly replaced the myths of this shamanic cult.
However some of the old costumes survived.
Even spirits and demons were adopted by the Buddhist tradition and some of them became wrathful protectors of the Buddhist doctrine.

Padmasambhava and the Rise of Buddhism

Guru Rimpoche Thangka

Buddhism entered Tibet in the 7th century AD. According to Buddhist mythology the main actor of the transformation of Tibet was Padmasambhava. A famous Tantric Buddhist master from the Swat Valley (today Pakistan) and founder of the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Samye, south central Tibet.

Padmasambhava was called by the first Emperor of Tibet to defeat the ancient mountain gods of the old animist cult.
In accordance with the Tantric principle of redirecting negative forces toward spiritual awakening, Padmasambhava converted the wrathful deities, convincing them to become defenders of the new faith.

He is also said to have introduced at Samye Temple the so called Vajra Dance. A dance that takes place in a monastery where masked monks in deep meditation perform rituals that last for three days.
This practice continues today under the name “Cham” and it celebrate Padmasambhava’s conquest over the indigenous cult and their deities.
In Nepal this dance tradition takes a form known as Mani Rimdu: spectacular and colorful masked dances performed during different religious festival.

Iconography of Tibetan Masks

Bhairava Nepalese Mask

Considering the polytheist nature of both Hindu and Buddhist traditions the deities represented by Tibetan masks are numerous: Shiva, Bhairava, Ganesh, Mahakala, Garuda and Varahi are the most famous.
Some of the deities are depicted using animals like the Lion associated with Sima or the Tiger symbolizing Duma.
However the images must follow the rules and prescriptions described in old manuals and iconographic books.Himalayan Mask
There are several books that set those guidelines, one of the earliest is from the first half of the 15th century. All the masks display a common element: the open third eye mark on the forehead.
The style of Tibetan and Nepalese Masks is characterized by elaborate pointed crowns with skulls, various head-bands, earrings and many other colorful elements.
These decorations not only reflect religious and symbolic aspects but also add a powerful imagery and a peculiar and fascinating look.

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The Thangkas of The Tibetan Medicine

Tibetan Medicine Paintings

Created between 1687 and 1703, these thangka paintings were commissioned by the fifth Dalai Lama’s regent, Desi Sangye Gyatso, who stepped in as interim ruler of Tibet after the Dalai Lama died in 1682.
The paintings constitute the charts of The Blue Beryl, a text written by Gyatso as commentary of the Four Tantras, the fundamental text of Tibetan medicine.

Buddhist Mandala

The main reason that moved Gyatso to create this illustrations was to avoid confusion when interpreting old texts.
Gyatso placed great value on the accuracy of the illustrations depicting such things as the use of omens and dreams for making diagnoses, hundreds of medicinal herbs and medical instruments, and fabulous diagrams of human anatomy.

As stated by the International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine (IATTM) “one of the unique features of Traditional Tibetan Medicine is that it contains a comprehensive philosophy, cosmology, and system of subtle anatomy with associated spiritual practices”.
Today these Thangkas constitute a fundamental piece of educational art that interweave Tibetan Buddhist traditions with centuries-old medical knowledge.

The first painting occupies a privileged place among the others which, in a certain sense, derive from it. It represents the celestial city of the Buddha Bhaisajyaguru, Master of Remedies “Surdasana”. The city is surrounded by four “mountains”. Further more it is square with the palace at its center. The palace, like the whole locality, is an emanation of Buddha Bhaisajyaguru. Its plan evokes a Mandala, with its square enclosure and its four gates oriented in the cardinal directions.

Buddhist Painting

The thangkas not only depict the Buddhist background of Tibetan medicine but also the diagnostic schemes of pulse and urine analysis, picturesque representations of dietary and behavioral advice for treating illnesses, as well as anatomical knowledge,charts for moxabustion, and the elaborate “materia medica” of Tibetan pharmacology.
In fact Twenty-one Thangkas of the original series are devoted to more large human figures illustrating anatomical structures.

The first fifteen compositions have a top register. The registers contain the four main sequential topics relating to the origin myths and state narrative on the Tibetan History of Medicine of the late 17th century.
There are four main sequential topics contained in the registers:
- Medicine Buddha and early Indian Gods and Rishis.
- The Lineage of the Four Medical Tantras.
- The Yutog Nyingtig Lineage.
- The Deities and Protectors of the Yutog Nyingtig.

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Raktayamari Thangka: A Closer Look at the Thangka Worth $45 Million


Widely recognised as one of the most important Asian works of art and one of the world’s great textile treasures, this Thangka was recently bought for $45 million.
Rakta Yamari painting

From a distance it looks like a painting, however this masterpiece is not made by brush strokes but millions of carefully placed stitches of floss silk in a dazzling array of colors, covering every square inch of the surface of the textile that measure 132 x 84 inches (335.3 x 213.4 cm.).
Tibetan Thangka Painting
The Thangka depicts the majestic Raktayamari, the red Conqueror of Death, standing in yab-yum embracing his consort, Vajravetali.
Tibetan Painting
Raktayamari is an important deity of Anuttarayoga-Tantra in Vajrayana Buddhism, and one of the three Yamari forms of Bodhisattva Manjusri (the other two being Vajrabhairava and Krishna-Yamari) revered by various Tibetan sects.
The highlights on the torsos and limbs of Raktayamari and Vajravetali, to denote the musculature, are some of the most common motifs in Nepalese-Tibetan paintings and a notable characteristic of figures in classical Tibetan art.

Highlights and Symbolism

Every aspect of the form of Yamari and the consort Vajra Vetali have symbolic and coded meaning.
The red body color represents the desire to overcome all sufferings and place all beings in the state of enlightenment. The weapon that Raktayamari holds subdues the afflictions (maras).

Tibetan Buddhist weapon
Tibetan Symbolism
The left hand holds a cup made by ancient Lama’s skull and containing the essence of the four maras transformed.
Tibetan painting Skull Cup
The three round eyes express compassion for all beings in the three times of past, present and future as well as the three watches of the day and three watches of the night.
The orange and red hair is to symbolize the increasing qualities of the Buddha and the aspects of the Mahayana Five Paths.
The crown of five dry skulls symbolizes the five poisons transformed into the five wisdoms.
The necklace of fifty fresh heads represents the vowels and consonants of the Sanskrit language.
Buddhist Decoration
The eight snakes represent the subjugation of various obstacles and the accomplishment of skillful activities.
Symbols of Buddhism
The locked couple is trampling on the blue corpse of Yama, the Lord of death, wearing a tiger skin and crown, lying on the back of their mount, a brown buffalo recumbent on a multi-coloured lotus base.
Buddhist Mandala
All below two rows of buddhas and bodhisattvas seated on lotus bases, the upper including Heruka Vajrabhairava on the far left and Manjusri on the far right, flanking the five Dhyani Buddhas.
Buddha painting
Buddhist Thangka
Buddhist Painting
Below this row of deities are two Taras – Green Tara on the left, and White Tara on the right.
Tibetan Deities
Tibetan Buddhism
In the lower panel is a row of seven offering goddesses dancing on lotus bases and holding aloft dishes as offerings below the couple.
Tibetan Deities

Meaning of the artwork

The metaphor for Rakta Yamari is ‘death.’ The name means the ‘Red Killer of Death.’
In this symbolic meaning the idea of death refers directly to the suffering and unhappiness in the world as described in Buddhist philosophy.

The general appearance of the deity, number of faces, arms, ornaments, decorations and attributes are all part of a mnemonic device (memory system) that incorporates the most essential of Buddhist principles and core teachings into a single object.
The one face represents the embodiment of the wisdom of all Buddhas as having one taste, or flavor, ultimate truth. The red body color represents the desire to overcome all “maras” and place all beings in the state of enlightenment.


Henss, Michael. ‘The Woven Image: Tibeto-Chinese Textile Thangkas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynatsies’, Orientations, November 1997.

Himalayan Art Resources. Rakta Yamari Main Page. Jeff Watt, 2-2005.

Himalayan Art Resources. Rakta Yamari Textile. HAR no. 57041.

Raktayamari-tantraraja-nama. Gshin rje’i gshed dmar po zhes bya ba’i rgyud kyi rgyal po [TBRC w25383, w25384].

Reynolds, Valrae, ‘Buddhist Silk Textiles: Evidence for Patronage and Ritual Practice in China and Tibet.’ Orientations, April 1997.

George Roerich (trans.), Biography of Dharmasvamin, A Tibetan Monk Pilgrim. Patna: K.P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1959.

George Roerich (trans.), The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1996, 2nd ed.

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The Himalayan Times: Sacred Nepali art losing colors

Colors and BrushesExtract from 

One of the traditions Nepal can really pride itself upon is the art of thangka paintings — which are so exquisite that foreigners have been known to extend their stay to learn the techniques. However, the rise of unhealthy competition, lack of regular-isation and emigration of artists is posing a threat to the inventive profession. Thangka is a Tibetan silk painting with embroidery, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, famous scene, or mandala. It is done on cotton canvas — found in Asian countries such as Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, India and Mongolia — used exclusively for this purpose. Native Buddhists of Kathmandu valley call it ‘pauva chitra’ whereas it is also known as ‘tangka’, ‘thanka’, or ‘tanka’.

These paintings lucidly represent Buddhist deities and divinities that appear in sacred Buddhist practices called ‘sadhana’. This means artists are not allowed to use their imagination. There is also a belief that thangka emanates positive vibrations and good luck. “Thangkas may merely seem like beautiful and luxurious showpieces for those who are unaware about Buddhist beliefs. But for Buddhists, it is a scared tool for meditation and purification of the soul,” says Anil Ghising, general secretary of Thangka Traders Association (TTA).

The most popular thangka designs include mandala, wheels of life and life of Buddha. They can be divided into three categories according to the quality — student piece, medium piece, and master-piece. Student piece is the work of a practitioner with a year’s experience, medium piece is the work of an artist who has over five years of experience, whereas master-pieces are created by artists with over 15 years of experience in thangka painting.

This is the major reason for the difference in the prices of similar-sized thangkas. The lack of uniformity in prices also depends upon size, art, toil and materials used. The price of thangkas begins at around Rs 500 and goes up to millions of rupees.

Meanwhile, Hajar Singh Lama, president of TTA, laments about the unhealthy competition in the market. He says, “The trend of pre-set contract with tourist guides is the major reason for such competition. Tourists are compelled to buy thangkas at the store specified by the guide, which is akin to deception.” According to him, the best way to stabilise the business is to draft and implement regulations for establishing thangka shops. Thamel, Bhaktapur and Boudha are the core areas for buying thangkas, whereas one can get them at Patan, Swoyambhu and Changu Narayan as well. According to TTA data, 222 thangka galleries function from Kathmandu valley, of which 72 are in Thamel.

Anil informs that the process of making thangka is very tedious. “An artist needs to meditate before starting his piece. Patience and dedication are essential to complete the assignment, which I feel is lacking in the new generation,” he says. Worried about the future of the industry, he suggests the government to include thangka and Buddhist scroll paintings in academia. He adds, “Thangka artists are gradually migrating to foreign lands, which threatens survival of the entire business. The government should carry out concrete work if it wants traditional art to be preserved for future generations.”

Another complaint of thangka artists is the lack of increment in business during ongoing Nepal Tourism Year. “The number of tourists has increased, but since majority of tourists come on special packages, our business has not fostered as we’d hoped,” laments Akka Lama, owner of Tibetan Thanka and School of Thanka Painting at Thamel. According to him, global economic crisis, political instability, and insecurity are main causes for the annual decline in business. However, Lama optimistically says, “The country can benefit from the tourism industry, if the government and concerned professionals concentrate on reducing the challenges and work towards making Nepal a tourist-friendly destination with ample facilities and attractions — one of them being thangka.”

Agreeing with this, Narayan Shrestha, owner of Traditional Art and Handicraft at Patan, says, “Our business relies upon foreigners, so the government should plan well to attract budget tourists.”

He opines that various ministries need to join hands to uplift thangka, tourism, and the nation as a whole.


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