Dharmapala Thangka CentreSchool of Thangka Painting

Tibetan Iconography

Early Paintings from Central Tibet

Excerpted from Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet,

by Steven M. Kossak and Jane Casey Singer, with an essay by Robert Bruce-Gardner

© 1998 by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Reprinted by permission


Most thankas have inscriptions on the reverse, in a variety of categories, colors and scripts; most often seen is a simple mantra, perhaps with Buddhist creeds, sometimes written within the form of a stupa. The mantras are cited on the reverse, behind the image of the deity or figure depicted on the front, and are frequently marked with a stroke of light yellow. It may be presumed that not many painters were also highly competent calligraphers, and that these location marks were for the guidance of such a specialist in the final preparation for the ceremony of consecration. This sanctification and empowerment incorporates and activates the written Symbols at the reverse of images already painted, but this was not always the case. An X-ray detail of the figure on the left side of Vaishravana reveals an instance in which the unpainted surface of the front, the space that was to be occupied, was empowered with the mantra and can be seen under the face of this figure.

The dark blue indigo of the figure of Yamantaka, transparent in infrared, allows a record of the otherwise invisible mantras and the spiral creed that sanctified the surface before painting commenceither of these has any inscription on the reverse; there is no need. They bear a hidden message of transmission, unseen since the moments before their creation in paint. These are secret visions below the sacred images, wherein the gods may be realized by practiced men.

Table of content ...