Sacred Art For Your Soul

Brief Overview of Thangka and Mandala Paintings

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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.

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