A Thangka is an extremely intricate and highly detailed hand painted image from Tibet, taking anywhere between a few months to several years to complete due to the minute detail and complex layout.
While some Thangkas may cover themes of history, society, astronomy and medicine, by far the majority cover religious themes. As with much Buddhist art, they follow strict rules on geometry, with limbs, facial features and objects all laid out systematically. They are brimful of symbolism and extraordinarily detailed.
Thangkas were and are used primarily as a form of describing various aspects of the Buddhist doctrine. People can learn the stories of the different incarnations of Buddha and various Bodhisattvas by studying the detail in the image, it is also a popular way of depicting mandalas. Those featuring Buddha will typically be split into three parts, symbolising heaven, earth and the underworld.
This style of painting originated in Tibet during the 7th Century Tubo kingdom. The story goes that King Songtsan Gambo started a sort of cultural renaissance after he unified Tibet. Amongst other projects, he commissioned the building of a palace on the site of the current Potala Palace in Lhasa and wanted to decorate it with murals.
Songtsan Gambo is largely credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet and so it naturally follows that the paintings which were commissioned had strong religious themes. Since that time the style has evolved and become more colourful but has remained a typically Tibetan art form.
Common images are those of Buddha, Boddhisatvas or mandalas.
Most Thangkas are painted onto cotton or silk. Other methods, such as embroidery, applique and brocade are used but most Thangkas today are painted onto cotton canvas. Traditionally the pigments used are either mineral or organic and are tempered using a herb and glue solution. This technique is known as distemper and results in paints which are all natural. All of the Thangkas we sell use this traditional method to make their paint. While the painting is being worked on, the area around the edge of the image itself become the pallet. This is a great insight into the methods of the painter but are usually painted over when the Thangka is complete.
Our trip to Shangri La
In July of this year we visited Shangri La in Northern Yunnan, China, also known as Zhongdian. Shangri La is in the Kham region of the Tibetan plateau and many of its inhabitants are Kham Tibetans, or Khampa. The skyline is dominated by the prayer wheel on Turtle hill, the biggest in the world, and the people of the region are unmistakeably and proudly Tibetan. The Sumtseling monastery, founded in 1679 and 5km outside town is the largest in Yunnan and is sometime referred to as the Little Potala Palace. So it is fair to say that Shangri La’s ambience, with its prayer flags, wooden houses and chortens, is distinctly Tibetan.
It’s no surprise then that the tradition of painting Thangkas is very much alive and well in the old town, or Dukezong.
We were very pleased to be able to spend time in the workshops of the Thangka masters in Shangri La. It seems that it is an artform whose poularity is always on the increase in China. Indeed, much of the style of modern Thangka painting is influenced by Chinese art throughout the centuries and has moved further away from its origins in the Indian subcontinent and Nepal. We met Dorjee Rinchen whilst in Shangri La who runs the Shangri La Thangka Painting Centre. His work has been exhibited throughout China and we were allowed to view the painters at work. Dorjee Rinchen is a very quiet, measured man and was only too happy to show us around his workshop, allowing us a wonderful glimpse into the history and culture surrounding this beautiful artform.