Dharmapala Thangka CentreIconography

What is a Thangka?


A common feature of all Tibetan scroll paintings [thangka] is that they are aids to the believer on his path to liberation from evils and sufferings that beset him. Thangkas are therefore also called "mthong grol", liberation by seeing.


From their concrete application, most scroll paintings can be divided into several categories: For example:

However, it is not always possible to clearly assign an image to a group. Thus, in the case of many images hanging in cult rooms, it is difficult to classify them into one of the aforementioned categories based on their use, as they do not seem to be used for a specific purpose, but rather hang 'unused' on pillars and walls. From the point of view of the Western observer, such images serve only to decorate the worship space, but for the devout Tibetan they are more than ornaments. They are, even if not consciously perceived individually and used in the cult, in their entirety considered sacred and revered. For they are all, thanks to their consecration, considered 'receptacles' of the deities and saints depicted on them.

The way a scroll image is used depends very much on the inner attitude and training of the individual viewer. An initiate into the mysteries of Tibetan Buddhist teachings sees a scroll painting and its purpose differently than an ordinary monk, and the latter in turn has a different attitude toward scroll paintings than a devout layman who is not versed in meditative practices. For him, devotional worship and the request for protection are paramount.

Before embarking on the work, an artist [usually a layman] should prepare himself for his demanding activity by purifying himself and mentally dealing with the content of the image to be created. Drawing and painting themselves are considered a religious act, during which attention should be paid to following the six main Buddhist virtues.

The painting ground for the Tibetan scroll paintings [thangka] is usually a cotton fabric. This is on the front, but usually also behind with a thin layer of animal glue, and after drying the same with a mass of lime and animal glue evenly coated. Then the surface is smoothed and the painter stretches the fabric in a frame.

There are several methods of transferring the outlines of the scenes to be depicted, which must comply exactly with iconometric regulations, onto the prepared fabric base:

Binding, inscriptions, consecration and styles
Before a Tibetan scroll painting is put into use, it must be properly framed and consecrated. The frame is usually made of a brocade fabric. There are usually one or two narrow strips of brocade between the main frame and the picture, and there is often a rectangular, particularly beautifully woven brocade fabric embedded in the lower, wide part of the frame. Motifs depicted on it are, for example, a dragon, water, a phoenix. To protect the image from dirt, and in the case of images with secret content, but also to protect against uninitiated glances, a thangka can be covered with a thin fabric.

Knowing the name of the person who created a particular work of art does not interest Tibetans. Apart from some frescoes, works of art are therefore never signed or dated. What is important is the product, not the maker. This is probably primarily because an artist does not create anything new, because he does not express his own feelings, but follows precise iconometric and iconographic rules.

Consecration ceremony
Cultically, a scroll painting can only be used after a long and complicated consecration ceremony, the basic features of which can be traced back to ancient Indian practices. Without this consecration, the work of art is inanimate and 'inanimate'. After appropriate preparations such as purification of the ritual place and recitation of sacred syllables, the priest invokes the deity that is to take its seat in the image in question, concentrates on it by imagining it in all its details, and finally sees himself as this deity and as that which constitutes the very essence of the deity, namely as an indestructible light substance. The actual 'enlivenment' is done by the performing priest touching the head, neck and heart region of the depicted deity with a 'diamond scepter', writing the syllables OM, AH and HUM on the back of the thangka, at the level of the corresponding body part.
From now on, the scroll image is considered to be animated by the deity, sacred, a symbol and seat of the highest principle. Finally follows a religious ablution [initiation] of the deity by means of ritual water and a mirror, an expulsion of malevolent hindering spirits, and a removal of all impurities that may still cling to the cult performers and the image. Strongly summarizing, the consecration can be seen as a transfer of divine 'essence' from the deity [created in thought] to the meditator and from the meditator to the image.

Because Tibetan artwork has been produced according to precise rules and therefore very similarly within a particular school for centuries, determining the age of almost all Tibetan paintings and statues is an extremely difficult and uncertain matter. This is not least because the basic research needed for accurate dating is still in its infancy.

Although painting is done according to very old, strict rules and the individual artists are hardly allowed to improvise freely, different styles have nevertheless emerged over time. Thus one differentiates strongly simplified a southern, a central Tibetan and an eastern Tibetan school of painting influenced by Nepal.

Source: Martin Brauen, head of the department Tibet/Himalaya and Far East at the Ethnological Museum Zurich. Publication with the author's permission

Additional information:
Collecting guide: Teachings of the thangka [Christies]