A four-story commercial building in Hattisar is the last place you would expect to find a thangka school. Still, when I visited the school, I expected to find an entrance covered with the kind of traditional Tibetan curtains you see in gombas, and a large, fancy sign with the school's name, "Dharmapala Thangka Center," above it. But the search for the school turned out to be the search for the mystical Shangri-La. You might get the directions and know where you're going, but if you don't focus on the little things around you, you'll miss it. I was walking around looking for the school in the building when it suddenly occurred to me, "Has this door on the first floor always been there?" So when I peeked through the plain looking door, it was indeed the school!
Run by a 9th generation thangka painter, Karsang Lama, the school was built in 1980 after he and his grandfather first visited Kathmandu. Both were born in a village called Rishanko in Sindupalchok. The village was famous for its thangka artists and clay and wood artisans. Lama learned to paint at the age of five at the local monastery where his grandfather was a monk. When his grandfather came to Kathmandu, he saw thangka paintings being sold in the tourist area of Jhonchhen, but to his disappointment, most of them seemed to have no aesthetic value. That's when he decided to settle his grandson in Kathmandu and open a school for thangka artists.
"A thangka has an essence, a philosophy that you have to understand before you start painting one," Lama says. Currently, his school teaches forty students, but the school is not limited to the Hattisar headquarters. There are two other schools in Maharajgunj and Bhaktapur. He also owns a store in Durbarmarg where the thangkas painted in his schools are sold. Although these schools are taught by artists who have studied under Lama himself, he regularly visits the three places to check on his students.
In school, many students have studied under Lama, but following his teachings is not an easy path. Unlike other thangka schools in the valley, Dharmapala Center not only teaches artists how to paint a thangka, but also requires students to acquire extensive knowledge of Buddhist philosophies through meditation practice and study. Lama encourages his students to read Buddhist scriptures to understand the meaning behind their creations. For him, thangka art is not just about copying an image of a deity, but about the ability to visualize the images through deep meditation. "This is how a thangka should be painted," he says. Through his school, he tries to preserve the authentic and ancient techniques of the art.
"Things have changed since the time I learned thangka painting," he says. "Back then, I had to live with my teacher in the gomba and study there for years." He encourages his students to do retreats in rural villages. To become a thangka master, a student must live in hermitages for a time in remote villages, isolated from society, visited only by his spiritual master to guide him. He believes that if the student meditates in seclusion, only then can he realize what he seeks to portray through his painting.
It is said that when one meditates, one can see the images of the deities and the colorful aura they emit. This is what the artists portray on their canvases. Thangka painting is a specialized art form, and as Lama says, "Art requires that artists be able to express themselves through their canvas. Thangka requires the artist to understand the subject; for that, you need inspiration." But this is a path little traveled, even among his students. Very few are able to reach this level of mastery through dedicated study.
"In today's digital age, the young generation finds it very difficult to believe in faith and devotion," he explains. He is concerned that thangka is becoming a dying art. Despite the countless artworks sold in many tourist areas, he notes that artists are no longer as dedicated to ancient painting techniques. In his opinion, an authentic thangka has three characteristics - the iconography of the deity, the traditional paint made from natural minerals and plants, and the artist's deep meditation on the subject. He insists that his students strictly follow these three aspects.
In the future, he hopes to build an institution and publish books on thangka art. He believes that it is his duty to save the dying art, and he wants to work to preserve the ancient technique. "A thangka painter is a happy person because he can offer dharma through his work," he explains, adding, "I am a happy person because I can teach the young generation who will keep this art alive in the days to come.