Rooftop – Where India Inspires Creativity

Learn Indian art online

A Deep Dive Into The History And Evolution of Tibetan Thangka Paintings

The Spiritual Associations of Tibetan Thangka Paintings

The ancient art of Thangka painting may appear beautiful even to a layman, but the cultural and religious context added to it makes it an art form worth understanding. Tibetan Thangka paintings depict Buddhist deities, catering to rigorous and exact guidelines. The elements of these paintings are mystical, fantastical, and otherworldly. All fitting attributes for an art that originated as a means of recording spiritual visions.

Let’s explore the history and evolution of the sacred Tibetan Thangka paintings while also delving into their motifs, themes, and styles.

The Place of Origin

Thangka paintings are said to have originated in the 11th century in Tibet. However, this art form has stylistic roots that run much deeper. Early Buddhist art evolved in the form of cave paintings, like the murals at Ajanta Caves in India and Mogao Caves in China. Soon, people began to paint on cloth as well. The art of Thangka painting evolved alongside the development of Tibetan Buddhist cave paintings.

We can trace the evolution of Thangka painting through murals, as they survive much longer than portable cloth paintings. The earliest surviving Tibetan cloth paintings were found in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, on the Silk Road in China, and date back to the Tang Dynasty. It was retrieved from the Library Cave along with several other paintings, textiles, and manuscripts. The paintings are distinguished by their Tibetan inscriptions and art style. This differentiates them from Han Chinese and traditional Indian styles of painting. Later Tibetan paintings included certain aspects of Han Painting, such as adding more space and emphasis to the backgrounds and landscapes.

The Newari art of Phauba shares certain similarities with Thangka painting. Historical records reveal that Tibetans also commissioned artists from monasteries in Nepal and left them detailed instructions for the proportions and geometrical measurements of the deities and objects in the compositions.

Folk Origins of Tibetan Thangka Paintings

A thangka depicting Vajrabhairava, ca. 1740 (image source: Sotheby’s via Wikimedia Commons)

The Tibetans originally practised the Bon religion, which had shamanistic and ritualistic beliefs. A blend of Bon culture and Buddhist ideals led to the evolution of Tibetan Buddhism. It is known for its vibrant spiritualistic imagery and beliefs, that stem from ritual and meditative practises. There are two legends associated with the creation of Tibetan Thangkas. One of them states that the princess of Singala wished for a portrait of the Buddha. But the artist could not look at him directly due to how radiant and blinding his holy light was. So the Buddha created an image of himself by reflecting the holy light onto a cloth, which the artist then used to create a painting of him.

The second piece of folklore states that Thangkas developed during the reign of King Bimbisara. In this version, King Bimbisara commissioned a painting of the Buddha as a gift to King Uttarayana of Dadok. The painters he sent were blinded by the Buddha’s aura, and he cast a reflection of himself in water so that they could create the image. These legends also state that some of the Buddha’s divine energy was captured in the paintings. This led to the belief that deities could store spiritual energy in Thangka paintings.

Themes of Tibetan Thangka Paintings

Vijaya Thangla: Tibetan Thangka Paintings
Vijaya Thangka (image source: Norbulingka Institute of Tibetan Culture)

Thangka paintings are crafted on vertical scrolls of silk or cotton fabric. Great Buddhist monks and teachers, as well as deities and religious icons, make up the central themes of these paintings. Religious imagery includes the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism: the lotus flower, banners, umbrellas, knots, vases, conch shells, fish, and the dharma wheel. The artists use natural paints made with organic and mineral pigments. The end result is a tapestry of bright and vivid detail. Animal glue is the binder used in these paintings.

They are extremely detailed, and their striking appearance makes them beloved by art collectors. However, as extraordinary as they are, Tibetan Thangka paintings are extremely fragile. Their colours can fade if they are displayed in areas with a lot of light. These paintings are portable, and when not in use, they are often rolled up and stored in a dark place so as to preserve their colours.

The Evolution In Style

Tibetan Thangka Paintings
The Buddha Shakyamuni by Luo Sang and Three Master by Luosang Sang (image source: Times of Malta)

Early compositions were very detailed and complex. Tibetan Thangka paintings slowly began to feature a central figure surrounded by smaller figures and fantastical imagery. Often, monks painted different incarnations or reincarnations of the same figure. Certain bodhisattvas are painted in styles that are reminiscent of traditional Indian art. As the link between Thangkas and meditative practise deepened, mandala patterns began to feature prominently. Their rhythmic patterns guide monks through the process of moving from one mandala to the next.

Thangkas did not remain in Tibet and Nepal but spread elsewhere as well. These paintings were found everywhere Tibetan Buddhism thrived, including parts of Russia, northeast China, Mongolia, and the regions of Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, Dharamshala, Lahaul, and Spiti in Northern India. Since they were painted in such a widespread region, there was a lot of variation in style. Even within a particular region, the different monasteries developed different interpretations of the art form. Thangkas created in Bhutan have a significant Tibetan influence.

The figures derive inspiration from Indian and Nepali art. Many imperial artists of the court of the Qing dynasty created paintings on themes of Tibetan Buddhism. These paintings ended up influencing the local styles of painting. Many styles of Tibetan painting, such as Japanese painting, do not fall under the thangka category but developed in similar ways.

The Cultural Significance of Tibetan Thangka Paintings

Avalokiteshvara Mandala Thangka :Tibetan Thangka Paintings
Avalokiteshvara Mandala Thangka
(image source: Norbulingka Institute of Tibetan Culture)

The deities only inhabit the most beautiful Thangka paintings, and beauty is not dependent on aesthetic appeal but on factors such as how accurate the proportions are, who created them, and what the creator’s intentions were. 

Typically, Thangkas have four uses:

  1. They accrue merit and good karma
  2. They guide the souls of the dead during reincarnation
  3. They are used in single-point meditation
  4. They are used in tantric practises

The majority of Thangka paintings were commissioned by individuals to gain merit. Since gold is a pure and precious metal, it is believed that using it in worship collects good karma. This led to the evolution of Black Thangka paintings. These paintings bear a resemblance to the black texts of Buddhism like Kanjur and Prajnaparamita, which were written in gold on a black background. The legend associated with the creation of the Black Thanka paintings states that a monk spread the ashes of a holy lama in the background of a painting and painted the Thangka with gold.

All four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism have different styles but use Thangkas for the same purposes. As monks and high lamas are considered to share a close connection with divine beings, the paintings they create are considered the most beautiful. Painting a Thangka is a meticulous process that begins with geometric guidelines, fixed proportions, and measurements for the deities and imagery to be drawn. This rigid attention to detail is rooted in the religious and symbolic beliefs of Buddhism and serves to add an element of precision to the ritualistic art form.

Thangka Today

(image source:

Artificial Thangka paintings, which are created in the same style but without proper proportions, are a very common sight in Tibet and Nepal. They are also used for decorative purposes. However, these paintings are not considered real Tibetan Thangka paintings. Most authentic Thangkas are created by monks, and the time and dedication they devote to the painting serve to add even more spiritual significance to it. 

Laymen can also paint beautiful Thangkas, but they often do not understand the symbolism and religious sentiments associated with each of its elements. Each shape, measurement, colour, and angle of the objects in a Thangka holds profound cultural significance, and ignorance on the part of the artist can render the entire painting incorrect and an inaccurate depiction of religious iconography.

Some artists believe that Thangkas should remain purely devotional, whereas others, like Ngowang Tsultrim, want to blend traditional art with contemporary mediums and create awareness and employment while sharing Tibetan cultural practises with the world. Ngowang creates Thangka-inspired stained glass paintings and runs a studio that employs fellow Tibetans, safeguarding their livelihoods while paying homage to their cultural roots.

Also read: Are Artists Abandoning Traditional Painting Techniques In Favour Of Modern Technology?

Interested in learning more about traditional and folk art forms? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to experience Indian art like never before. Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app!

Related Posts