Dharmapala Thangka CentreSchool of Thangka Painting

Painters of Gods

by Bernard Henin

It's the display of colours and patterns that strikes you first. Then you notice the tranquillity of the workshop contrasting nicely with the racket of Kathmandu city centre. I shouldn't be surprised as I am in a Thangka workshop in the heart of the Nepalese capital and surrounding me are ten Thangka artists painting quietly. Concentrating on each brush stroke, most of them barely notice my presence.

What they create nevertheless is something that is noticeable and exported the world over. Why would this commonly known Tibetan art form be produced predominately here in the heart of Nepal and not in Tibet? As we shall see, history provides the answer and it's more surprising than you would think.

The Dharmapala Center in Kathmandu, a traditional Buddhist Thangka painting school, is a good place to understand more about this ancient artform. Indeed this centre founded more than thirty years ago has been creating high-quality Thangkas closely adhering to traditional painting customs and supervised by lamas of the Nyingma order. The exquisite paintings from the school have been featured in exhibitions all over the world [US, Japan, Europe, Australia, ...] bearing testimony to the skills of these talented artists. Formed by Karsang Lama and then followed up by Master Karma Tse Ring Moktan-Lama and Yubaraj Lama, the school has trained more than three hundred artists in the fine art of Thangka painting over the decades.

Thangkas are paintings on silk or cotton fabrics which usually depict a Buddhist deity or a mandala of some sort [mandalas are geometric figures representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism]. Master Karma Lama explains; "Thangkas were first created in Ladakh, India then it moved into the Kingdom of Nepal more than fifteen hundred years ago and naturally found it's way through Tibet where it blossomed. The word thangka actually derives from the TIbetan word of "Thang-yig" meaning a written record." And as such it was originally intended to serve as a written record or guide to the complex world of Buddhism.

In those days it was common for a group for scholars and priests to travel by yak to distant regions in the Himalayas, set up tents, unroll the Thangkas and serve the local people by teaching before moving on to another area. Rolling and unrolling the paintings combined with rough transport handling and poor storage unavoidably damaging the paintings and much of the original paintings have been lost. The popularity of the paintings grew very quickly with the spread of Tibetan Buddhism. In the 14th century until the 18th century, the Thangkas were heavily influenced by Chinese culture as well.

Coming from the Tamang people, Master Karma Lama's personal story reflects the cross cultural origins of the Thangkas. The Tamang people were Tibetan warriors who decided to stay in Nepal due to the favourable living conditions they encountered there. Nevertheless, they were proud of their Tibetan roots and kept strong links with their heritage while living in Nepal. Indeed when Karma Lama was eleven years old he was sent to a remote monastery in Tibet to learn the fine art of Thangkas and the spirituality that is associated to it.

He returned six years later and became a well known Thangka artist in his area, mainly being commissioned for local monasteries or burial ceremonies. "In those days, I never thought I could actually sell my Thangkas to other people than practising Buddhist".

However things changed when he first visited Kathmandu in 1979 with his grandfather. He remembers vividly "In those days, the Thangkas being sold to tourists in Thamel were fake imitations that didn't respect the rules and norms of true Thangka paintings. I couldn't understand any of them". He returned to his village disheartened by what he saw; "These were artists without spirits, what was the point?".

He came back to Kathmandu in 1982 with Master Karsang Lama and Yubaraj Lama and decided to challenge the artistic landscape of Thangka paintings in the capital. They first set up a workshop and while the beginnings were tough their business slowly started to grow and they soon began to hire the fake Thangka painters to teach them the religious significance of the Thangkas. Thirty years later and over hundred artists trained, the result is inspiring. "We are living the new golden age of Thangka paintings." says Master Karma Lama.

So what makes a good Thangka? First of all time. A lot of it. The canvas by itself takes at least three days to manufacture. It is silk or cotton which has been impregnated with a mixture of mud and yack skin, dried out in the sun and then scrubbed manually with a round stone several times. Once the drawing is made on the canvas there are three stages in the painting. First comes the colour and shading which will be applied by the less experienced artists in the workshop.

This is followed up by addition of gold and linings by a more experienced artist. Finally, the visages and expression in the eyes is painted by the most experienced artists or the master himself. Depending on the size and complexity of the Thangkas, they can take months to manufacture.

A Thankga will usually represent one of the more than 1000 deities in Tibetan Buddhism each with their own set of rules on the exact depiction of the god, it's colour, position, artefacts and other subjects associated with them. Deviating from these rules is not allowed as the paintings should reflect first and foremost the spiritual message. There is only room for personal artistic expression in the landscapes and various ornaments surrounding the paintings. Master Karma Lama finishes off the interview; "China is a unmature market for us and just as we managed to educate our western visitors in what makes an authentic Thangka, we are looking forward in doing the same with Chinese visitors"

Their highly coloured patterns are visually very attractive and will make a great souvenir for anyone visiting Kathmandu. Thangkas can keep their bright colours for a long time if they are kept in dry places where moisture won't affect the quality of the silk or cotton. To learn more about this artform and see for yourself the authentic paintings, visit the Dharmapala Center next to the Annapura hotel in Kathmandu.

Published at Silkwinds [Regional wing of Singapore Airlines] inflight magazine.

Bernard Henin: Freelance Cultural & Humanitarian Photographer - E-Mail: info@bernardhenin.com - facebook: Bernard Henin Photography

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