Sacred Art For Your Soul

Brief Overview of Thangka and Mandala Paintings

Thangka (also known as Pauva पौभा in Nepali) is a painting usually illustrating a Buddist mandala or a deity. Unlike other painting, a thangka consists of picture of a panel painted or embroided over which a textile is mounted and over which a silk cover is laid. Although they are delicate in nature they last a very long time time and retain much of their lustre.

These thangka served as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, various influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas. One popular subject is “The Wheel of Life”, which is a diagram depiction of the Abhidharma teachings (Art of Enlightenment).

Buddha Life Thangka are painted by Lamas and Monks in monasteries in Nepal and thangka art painting schools.
Thangka Paintings are ever so popular in Nepal as Tibetan & Nepalese devotion for arts itself and Buddha’s teaching engraved on it. Thangkas perform several different functions. Images of deities can be used as teaching tools when depicting the life (or lives) of the Buddha, describing historical events concerning important Lamas, or retelling myths associated with other deities.
Devotional images act as the centerpiece during a ritual or ceremony and are often used as mediums through which one can offer prayers or make requests. Overall, and perhaps most importantly, religious art is used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path to enlightenment.
A thangka painting can be considered as an object of decoration, but its spiritual importance is more relevant, especially for Buddhist monks and scholars who revere it with mystic power accordingly to the deities represented.

History of Thangka in Nepal

Thangka is a Nepalese art form exported to Tibet after Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, daughter of King Lichchavi, married Songtsän Gampo, the ruler of Tibet and thus imported the images of Nepalese deities to Tibet. History of thangka Paintings in Nepal began in 11th century A.D. when Buddhists and Hindus began to make illustration of the deities and natural scenes.

Historically, Tibetan and Chinese influence in Nepalese paintings is quite evident in Thangkas.

It was through Nepal that Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into Tibet during reign of Angshuvarma in the seventh century A.D. There was therefore a great demand for religious icons and Buddhist manuscripts for newly built monasteries throughout Tibet.
A number of Buddhist manuscripts were copied in Kathmandu Valley for these monasteries.
The influence of Nepalese art extended till Tibet and even beyond in China in regular order during the thirteenth century. Nepalese artisans were dispatched to the courts of Chinese emperors at their request to perform their workmanship and impart expert knowledge. The exemplary contribution made by the artisans of Nepal, specially by the Nepalese innovator and architect Araniko, bear testimony to this fact even today.

From the fifteenth century onwards, brighter colours gradually began to appear in Nepalese Thangka. Because of the growing importance of the Tantric cult, various aspects of Shiva and Shakti were painted in conventional poses. Mahakala, Manjushri, White Tara, Chenrezig and other deities were equally popular and so were also frequently represented in Thanka / Thangka paintings of later dates.
As Tantrism embodies the ideas of esoteric power, magic forces, and a great variety of symbols, strong emphasis is laid on the female element and sexuality in the representation of Dakinis and female Goddesses.

Realizing the great demand for religious icons in Tibet, Nepalese artists, along with monks and traders, took with them from Nepal not only metal sculptures but also a number of Buddhist manuscripts. To better fulfil the ever – increasing demand Nepalese artists initiated a new type of religious painting on cloth that could be easily rolled up and carried along with them.
This type of painting became very popular both in Nepal and Tibet and so a new school of Thanka / Thangka painting evolved as early as the ninth or tenth century and has remained popular to this day.
One of the earliest specimens of Nepalese Thanka / Thangka painting dates from the thirteenth century and shows Buddha Amitabha surrounded by Bodhisattva. The Mandala of Vishnu dated 1420 A.D., is another fine example of the painting of this period.
Early Nepalese Thangkas are simple in design and composition. The main deity, a large figure, occupies the central position while surrounded by smaller figures of lesser divinities.

The art of painting Thangkas is one of the major science out the five major and five minor fields of knowledge in traditional Buddhism.
Its origin can be traced all the way back to the time of Lord Buddha.
During the reign of Tibetan Dharma King Trisong Duetsen the Tibetan masters refined their already well developed arts through research and studies of different country’s tradition.
Thanka painting’s lining and measurement, costumes, implementations and ornaments are mostly based on Indian styles. The drawing of figures are based on Nepalese style and the background sceneries are based on Chinese style.
Thus, the Thanka / Thangka paintings became a unique and distinctive art.

Although the practice of thanka painting was originally done as a way of gaining merit it has nowadays only evolved into a money making business and the noble intentions it once carried has been diluted. Tibetans do not sell Thangkas on a large scale as the selling of religious artifacts such as thangkas and idols is frowned upon in the Tibetan community and thus non Tibetan groups have been able to monopolize on its (thangka’s) popularity among Buddhist and art enthusiasts from the west.

Thangkas are produced mostly in the northern Himalayan regions among the Lamas, Gurung and Tamang communities.
Entire families belonging to these communities have preserved this art for generations, which provide today substantial employment opportunities for many people.

What’s Brian Blessed most valuable possession?

The English actor Brian Blessed recently released an interview to the Daily Mail

where he was asked what is the prized possession he values above all other.

Mr. Blessed answered: “An ancient Tibetan Thangka given to me by the Dalai Lama in 1990 before my ascent of Everest.”






Read more:

Tattoo Artists on Tibetan Thangka Art

It is always rewarding for us to read western artists opinions about the traditional art of thangka paintings.

thanka tattoo

Thangka Inspired Tattoo

Especially if the artists comes from a background that have such a strong appeal on younger generations as Tattoo art.

Here an interesting article written by Heidi Minx posted on


Top tattoo artists talk Tibetan thangka art with Heidi Minx

Having studied art and dharma, and being tattooed for over two decades, my interests collided when I worked on the “Tattoos of Tibetan refugees and ex-political prisoners” project in India last year. Much of the pieces I saw were simple, hand-poked ones that frequently incorporated Bon and Tibetan symbols such as the yundon and dorjee. Here in the West, it’s common for us to see more elaborate, full-color pieces inspired by Buddhas and dharma images by very talented artists from across the ages.

In 2009, I briefly studied the process of thangka with a master in Dharamsala. The training process (a minimum of a five-year full-time commitment), as well as the discipline required, reminded me of the time-honored tradition of tattoo apprenticeships. For example, thangka students must learn the grids and proportional measurements for the three body types: male Buddhas, female Buddhas, and wrathful deities. They must first learn to draw perfectly, often drawing consistently for three years before they are even allowed to touch the paints. They must hand-grind the paints and make canvasses for the senior students — all of this reminded me of tattoo artists learning to clean shop stations properly, drawing, learning how to make needles by hand.

I’ve also learned that tattoo artists themselves often have deep admiration for this style of art, themselves. Here, three big names tell us why in their own words. (Click their names for more information about these artists and to see more of their phenomenal work.)


“I’ve been attracted to Tibetan art for a long time. In 93, I traveled through Northern India, Nepal, and Tibet, and purchased quite a few thangkas. They are beautiful and tell such elaborate stories and I know what I feel when I look at them: They seem to be a call to the primal love of god, even if they are not specific to your religion. The details, imagery, layouts — I love them. The fact that the wrathful deities are meant to protect us, it makes perfect sense to me that they be transposed to skin.

“I have tattooed a lot of the imagery over the past 20 years. The contrasting colors and the lines allow them to translate onto the skin so easily. I don’t think in general people are aware of how skilled a painter must be to create these. We can easily find the value of work by, say, Andy Warhol. Several years ago I went to have one of mine appraised. It was a 300-year-old thangka, the appraiser simply told me he didn’t know; it was worth whatever someone would pay for it.”


“Personally, I’ve always been attracted to thangka for the dynamic life/death struggle represented as well as the anthropomoprhic representations of the deities. Thangkhas contain all the elements of mystery that, when I was a young man, fascinated me about the East: strange “alien” text, hallucinogenic geometric designs, shamanistic sacrifice, otherworldly structures. It’s one art form that really has it all.”


“The process of thangka painting seems to parallel tattoo art like no other art-form. Like tattooing, the process is thousands of years old. If done correctly, the paint is hand-mixed with mineral pigments. Artists make their own canvas using natural glues and distemper on 100% cotton. The studying is intense — a minimum of five years. You must draw perfectly first, for 3 years, before you ever touch paint. Your lines must be delicate. You learn to shade with the mineral pigments, and lines must be precise and delicate. The best brushes from Japan are preferred. When it is done correctly, it is fine art.

“That reminds me of tattoos — another ancient art, originally passed on from master to student. The apprentice tattooist learns to make needles, mix colors, cut stencils and draw. The traditional tattoo apprentice must learn to pay close attention to detail and do what his teacher asks him to do. Eventually, the apprentice progresses to tattooing, maybe himself at first. Like thank painting there is a sense of discipline and respect for tradition that, when learned properly, will shine through in the work.

“These are images that tell stories, and aren’t just painted to be pretty artistic expression (although they usually are). Most importantly, they, like the best art, have the power to teach the viewer things about life.”

Shoton Festival 2013. Thangka art and Tibetan Masks exhibition in Lhasa

The Shoton Festival is held each summer in Lhasa and it is considered to be the largest Tibetan festival.  Also known as the Yogurt Banquet festival it dates back to the 11th century and was originally a religious occasion, when local people would offer yogurt to monks who had finished their meditation retreats.
It is a very appealing event not only for Tibetans and Buddhists coming from different countries, but also for many travelers willing to discover this striking event on the roof of the world.

Shoton Festival Lhasa 2013

People attending the Shoton Festival 2013. Lhasa.

The festival mainly consists in exhibitions showing the art, tradition and the appealing culture of the Tibetan people. Very famous events are the Tibetan Opera Show and the Horsemanship and Yak Race Show. However the main event that open the festival is the display of the giant thangka showing the Great Buddha.
During the ritual more than 100 monks unveil an old 1,480 square-meter portrait of Sakyamuni knitted with colorful silk.

Great Buddha thangka Shoton Festival 2013

Great Buddha thangka at Shoton Festival 2013

During the festival (this year from the 6th to the 12th of August) there are celebrations in the streets, squares and monasteries of Lhasa.
As part of this year’s festival, a grand exhibition of traditional Thangkas and  Tibetan masks is staged at Norbu Lingka, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lamas.



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