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The Sanctity of Thangka Painting

Brief Background

Thangka painting has a contiguous history from about the 11th century CE when they were first made in the Buddhist monasteries of Tibet. Some researchers draw connections to the 4th-14th century CE Mogao Caves of China. You can trace the traditions back to the 4th century CE practices of the Lalitpur Valley of Nepal.

The word ‘thangka’ can be inferred to mean a couple of things. First, the etymological breakdown of the Tibetan word into ‘thang’ and ‘ka’ translates into “plain cotton cloth” and “deity”, respectively. Other translations are – “a recorded message”, “a message from the temple”, something “flat”, and “a painting”. The Nepalese word for thangka is ‘paubha’, which also means a “painting”. Thus, it we can conclude that the name of this art form points to exactly what it is.

Some Details of Thangka Painting

Thangka paintings can be classified into three styles based on their geographic location, which can be either Nepal or Tibet, or Sichuan in China. Each of these three can also be distinguished from one other based on the differences in their composition and structure.

Initially, like most folk paintings, this Buddhist art form was also created on cave walls. An example of this can be seen in the Mogao Caves. However, with the development of cotton and silk, these cave paintings acquired the textile painting form we know today. One of the reasons for this shift could be that the cloth versions could be transported easily, and used to spread the word of their faith to places far and wide.

Image Source: Culture China

They had the deities painted in the centre, and other characters of the tale were put in the background. The focus on a specific deity in each creation is evident. An easy distinction can be drawn by observing their sizes and the colours used for the different characters.

Purpose of Thangka Painting

Thangka Paintings to Worship Deities

Regardless of the different styles or the canvas that they use, the purpose of all thangka paintings remains the same. They are part of religious ceremonies and are seen as intermediaries between the mortal and the divine world, i.e., the world we humans live in and the world of the deities, respectively. Thangkas are used for worshipping. They are sacred and are considered a means of religious storytelling, carrying rich symbolism. 

Sometimes they are so huge that they are hung on the outer walls of monasteries during festivities like Losar (Tibetan New Year) so that the devotees can offer their prayers to the deities. It is only natural that such magnificent creations evoke so much awe and reverence among pilgrims.   

Image Source: High Peaks Pure Earth

Interestingly, these thangka paintings are believed to not only be depictions of their deities but are considered as the deities themselves! This belief makes the thangkas extremely sacred. Today, when thangkas are put up in places other than monasteries and temples, they are positioned such that people’s feet are never pointed toward them, as that would be considered disrespectful. This respect for the thangkas and their painted deities is the manifestation of their devotion. 

Image Source: Thangka Mandala

Thangka Paintings for Meditation

Apart from this, these visually captivating compositions are also meant to act as aides for enhancing meditation. The viewer, when concentrating on the thangka, is drawn into the impressive intricacy of the work. The delicate mingling of the colours in the background along with the use of patterns to draw focus to certain parts pulls the viewer in. It is aimed to guide the meditator through the complexity of the materialistic world they inhabit and into a zone of calm and peace. Some observers even define these works as the visual expressions of the highest state of consciousness. Meditation is the way to achieve this ultimate spiritual goal in Buddhism. This perspective shows a second way in which the sanctity of thangka paintings can be acknowledged by the viewer. 

Image Source: Chris Roche


In conclusion, there are different ways in which the sanctity of a thangka painting can be perceived by individuals. Some see it in the form of emotions it inspires within the viewer, for others, it is the painting in itself. 

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