Thangka painting is a uniquely Himalayan Art that attained classical levels in the Tibetan tradition between the 7th and 12th centuries. Its origins lie in Indian Buddhist art, but Nepalese, Chinese, and Kashmiri styles have also influenced its development. A Thangka is more than a work of art; it is an object of devotion, an aid to spiritual practice, and a source of blessings to those who meditate upon it. These incredible works of art are central to Himalayan culture; however, in the recent times they have fallen into danger of becoming extinct. Thangkas come in a wide variety of styles and depict various subjects, such as Buddhas and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings), cosmological and astrological images, and subjects from traditional medicine.
The iconography of the Thangka is rich in information about the spiritual practice of Buddhists. A Thangka can help a meditator to learn and emulate the qualities of a particular deity or to visualize his or her path towards enlightenment. It can bring blessings on the household and serves as a constant reminder of the Buddha’s teachings of compassion, kindness, and wisdom. Thangkas of particular deities may be used for protection or to overcome obstacles.
A spiritual and religious expression as much as an art form, Thangka paintings can take years to complete, involving mastery of many demanding techniques: sketching the illustrations according to formal iconography rules laid down by ancient Thangka Masters; learning to grind and apply paints made from natural drawing stone pigments; and applying details in pure gold. From canvas preparation and drawing of the subject to mixing and applying colors, decorating with gold or silver, and mounting the finished work in a brocade, the creation of a Thangka painting involves the highest levels of skill and care at each stage and displays meticulous detail and exquisite artisanship.
In the first three years of study, students learn to sketch Buddhist deities using the precise grids dictated by Buddhist scripture. The next two years following this are devoted to the techniques of grinding and applying the mineral colors and precious metals used in the paintings. In the sixth year, they study religious texts and scriptures used for the subject matter of the paintings. At least ten years of training are required under the constant supervision of a Master to become an accomplished Thangka painter. After the training process, students still need five to ten years of experience to become experts in the field. Thangka painting requires heavy concentration, attention to detail, and knowledge of Buddhism, and must be carried out in a peaceful environment conducive to the meditation required to create a masterpiece.