Tibetan Thangka Painting

The news that Chinese collector Liu Yiqian splashed around $45 million on a Thangka at a Christie’s sale in Hong Kong on Nov 26,2014 has overwhelmed social media. Then do you know what Thangka is and why it was sold at such a high price?

This imperial embroidered silk Thangka sold for 348 million HK dollars at Christie’s 2014 Hong Kong Autumn Auctions on Nov 26, 2014.
 Chinese Thangka

What is Thangka?

Thang in Tibetan means to display and ka means silk. Thangka is a kind of painting art– religious painting – that originated during the reign of Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (AD 617-650) and prospered during the 18th and 19th centuries. A Thangka is a painting drawn on cotton or silk appliqué with vivid ethnic features and intense religious colors, which usually depicts the history, politics, culture and social life of the Tibetan people.

Thangka is often worshipped in temples, Buddha’s halls or even in Buddhist disciples’ homes in Tibet, which has been not only a pure handicraft, but more of a religious symbol.

It is mainly divided into two categories, painting Thangka and embroidered Thangka. The former one is directly painted on canvas using traditional pigments. The latter is embroidered on silk satin using precious mineral gems such as gold, silk, pearl, coral, agate, zinnober and plant pigments such as saffron crocus and indigo. Obviously, the latter one is of more artistic value, whose gorgeous colors can last for several centuries.

Photo taken on June 13 shows a Thangka painting on display during Tibet’s first selection of arts and crafts masters held in the Research Institute of Ethnic and Folk Arts in Lhasa from June 12 to 15, 2013.
 Chinese Thangka

How is it created?

The creation of a Thangka piece is like a journey of self-cultivation. Generally, the manufacturing process includes chanting sutras while preparing pigments, polishing canvas, grinding painting materials, sketching, designing, measuring, coloring, shading, delineating and the finishing touch.

The proportion of Buddha figures and the overall layout of the painting have to meet specific requirements, and the painter has to follow strict ritual procedures of Tibetan Buddhism in its creation.

The creation of a whole Thangka piece usually takes months or even years. During the long process, the artist, cherishing pious Buddhism beliefs, paints while chanting in accordance with the strict standards of composition, proportion and color inherited from ancestors. Therefore, Thangka is a kind of special art form which has irreplaceable artistic values.

Visitors take photos of Thangka during a Thangka art festival in Lhasa, Tibet autonomous region, Sept 25, 2014.
 Chinese Thangka
The Thangka on display in Maizhokunggar county in Lhasa on June 28, 2013 was recognized as the world’s largest Thangka.
 Chinese Thangka

The world’s largest Thangka:

An embroidered Thangka, 120 meters high and 85 meters wide, was on display in Maizhokunggar county in Lhasa on June 28, 2013. It had 19 painted Buddhas. The creation of the Thangka took 9 years and was recognized as the world’s largest Thangka, also the world’s largest handicraft.

The world’s most expensive Thangka:

The embroidered Thangka bought by Liu Yiqian for about $45 million is seen as the most expensive Thangka so far.

Thangka art by artist Niangben from Regong in Qinghai province. Photo provided to China Daily
 Chinese Thangka

The Thangka Liu bought was from the period during the reign of Emperor Yongle in the Ming Dynasty. It is the largest Tibetan embroidered Buddha Thangka from ancient times with a theme of driving out evil spirits. According to Christie’s, there are only three pieces of Yongle Thangkas existing and the other two are both in Jokhang Temple in Tibet.

by Xiao Xiao xiaoxiao@interactchina.com

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Tibetan Thangka Painting (II)

Most of the thangkas use flat white cotton cloth as the canvas for the painting. Some are painted on paper or leather. Others are embroidered, appliquéd, woven and patchwork thangkas.

 

Painted Thangka

Painted thangkas are most commonly seen. According to the color of the background, painted thangka are divided into four types.

(1) Multi-color background

Thangka Painting

(2) Yellow background

Thangka Painting

(3) Vermilion background

Thangka Painting

(4) Black background

Thangka Painting

 

Embroidered Thangka

 

Embroidered thangka uses colored silk threads to make landscapes, figures, flowers, plumes, and pavilions.

Thangka Painting

Thangka Painting

 

Brocade Thangka

 

Brocade thangka uses satin as the base and several colors of silk as the weft. Through jacquard weaving the design is “copied” onto the fabric.

Thangka Painting

 

Applique Thangka

 

Applique thangka use colored satin, cut into a variety of characters and graphics and pasted onto the fabric. The resulting work is also called “embossed embroidery.”

Thangka Painting Thangka Painting

 

Tapestry Thangka

 

Tapestry thanka is woven with the method of complete warps and broken wefts which applies the weft threads on the warp only where the picture or design needs. The hollowed out work produces a three dimensional effect. Tapestry thanka is thick, closely woven, delicately designed and gorgeously decorated with colored silk threads. Tapestry thangka utilizes the weft pass-through approach creating an intense decorative effect. Other colorful designs are decorated with precious stones and gems stitched together with gold threads that create an exceptionally dazzling combination.

Thangka Painting

 

Silk Tapestry Thangka

 

Silk tapestry is an art form unique to China whereby the drawing is transplanted onto silk. These Thangka fabric textures are generously thick and rigorously well knit. The designs are exquisite with magnificent coloring. Tibetan Thangka fabrics are specially designed in Mainland China, particularly in the Yong Le period (AD1402- AD1424), Ming Dynasty. Over the years, they spread to Tibet, where Tibetans were also able to produce fabrics from local embroidery and applique thangka methods.

Thangka Painting

 

Pearl Thangka

 

The pearl thangka is the most desirable of all. It is another kind of thanka in which beautifully designed colored fabrics decorated with pearls and precious stones are attached to the fabric with gold thread thereby creating a resplendent and dazzling effect. The pearl Thangka with the figure of Arya Avalokiteshvara is the treasure of Trundruk Monastery. This Thangka is 2 meters high and 1.2 meters wide. It is made of 2,9026 pearls, one diamond, two rubies, one sapphire, 0.55 liang (about 25g) purple gem, 185 kallaites, 15.5g gold and 4.1 liang (more than 200g). So many years have passed this priceless pearl thangka is still in good condition, making itself more valuable.

Thangka Painting

 

Printing Thangka

 

Thangka Painting Thangka Painting

There are two types of printing thangka. One type overlays color designs then prints is mounted. The other takes a carving of the design and dips it with ink to print it on thin silk or fine cloth, and then made color-mounted. This Thangka, thin-stroked, strong-bladed, with dyed ink colors is clearly structured and unique. This rich, elegant style possesses a three dimensional decorative effect.

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Thangka Painting (I)

 

What is Thangka

A ‘Thangka’ is also known as “Tanka”, “Thanka” or “Tangka”. Thangka paintings are essentially painted or embroidered Buddhist banner which are hung in a monastery or a family altar or even carried in ceremonial processions. Thangka is a mark of devotion to Buddhism and often serves as an object of worship.

In Tibetan language the word “Thang” means a flat surface, “Ka” means painting, so “Thangka” means “a painting on a flat surface”. Thangka painting is also known as scroll-painting as it can be rolled up when not displayed. Originally, thangka painting became popular among traveling monks because the scroll paintings were easily rolled and transported from monastery to monastery.

Thangka Painting

 

History

 

Nobody knows where and when Thangka painting originated, but comparing with other types of Tibetan paintings, the history of Thangka painting can be traced back to as early as the Tubo period or Songtsen Gampo (604 CE? – 649 CE) period in the 7th century. It is a combination of Chinese scroll painting, Nepal painting and Kashmir painting.

Until the 7th century, Songtsen Gampo united Tibet and hence a new period in Tibetan history began. Later Songtsen Gampo married the princess of Nepal and the princess of Tang Dynasty Wencheng (623 CE? – 680 CE), further strengthening the connection of politics, economy, and culture between Tibetan and Han Chinese ethnic groups. The two princesses came to Tibet with a lot of Buddhist scriptures, architecture technology, soothsaying and lawmaking, medical scriptures and many skilled artisans, greatly stimulating the development of Tibetan society, especially the flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism. At that time fresco alone could not satisfy the need of those disciples, and another art form of thangka, was easy to carry, hang and collect and became popular.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties in China (1368 CE – 1911 CE), the central government adopted the system of approving Tibetan chieftain to strengthen the control over Tibet. These methods made contribution to the development of the Tibetan society. So the Ming and Qing dynasties saw a great progress in the development of thangka painting.

 

Themes

 

The themes of thangka painting include various subjects, i.e. historical events, religious figures, religious philosophy, Tibetan scenery, social customs, folklore, myths, great deities and Buddhas.

Thangka Painting

Thangka Painting

The theme also encompasses Jataka stories of the Buddha, and so on, involving politics, economy, history, religion, literature, art, social life, Tibetan astrology, pharmacology, theology, and many other aspects.

Buddhas appear on almost every single thangka painting. The artists must follow the sacred laws for portraying gods and Buddhas. Scripts from Buddhism are written on the back. Thangkas are always unsigned so it is impossible to know who paints thangka and when it is painted.

 

Features

 

The structure of Tibetan thangka painting is precise, balanced, thick, and flexible. The painting methods are mainly bright color and line drawing.

Most thangka paintings are in upright rectangular shape while thangka with Mandala themes are in square shape. A thangka comprises a painted or embroidered picture, a mounting, which is further embellished with a silk cover, wooden dowels at the top and bottom, leather corners and beautiful metal or wooden decorative knobs on the bottom dowel.

Thangka Painting

Thangka paintings vary in size, ranging from a little over a few square centimeters to several square meters. A large thangka often takes months or years for a large team of artists to paint.

by Xiao Xiao @ InteractChina.com

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Tibetan Thangka Painting- Wheel of Life

Thangka served as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, various influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas. One popular subject is The Wheel of Life, which is a visual representation of the Abhidharma teachings (Art of Enlightenment).

The Wheel of Life (called the Bhavachakra in Sanskrit) represents the cycle of birth and rebirth and existence in samsara. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is believed that the drawing was designed by the Buddha himself in order to help ordinary people understand the Buddhist teachings.

Thangka Painting

 

The Figure Holding the Wheel: Impermanence

Thangka Painting

The wheel is being held by a fearsome figure who represents impermanence. This figure is often depicted as Yama, the lord of death. The meaning is that the entire process of cyclic existence (samsara) is transient; everything within this wheel is constantly changing.

 

Hub

 

Thangka Painting In the hub of the wheel are three animals: a pig, a snake, and a bird.

The pig stands for ignorance; this comparison is based on the Indian concept of a pig being the most foolish of animals, since it sleeps in the dirtiest places and eats whatever comes to its mouth. The snake represents aversion or anger; this is because it will be aroused and strike at the slightest touch. The bird represents attachment (also translated as desire or clinging). The particular bird used in this diagram represents an Indian bird that is very attached to its partner. These three creatures chase and bite each others tails, giving rise to the endless cycle or becoming.

 

The Second Layer

 

Thangka Painting The second layer of the wheel shows two-half circles:

One half-circle (usually light) shows contented people moving upwards to higher states, possibly to the higher realms.

The other half-circle (usually dark) shows people in a miserable state being led downwards to lower states, possibly to the lower realms.

 

Third Layer: Six Realms

 

Thangka Painting

These six realms can be divided into three higher realms and three lower realms.

The three higher realms are:

God realm: the gods lead long and enjoyable lives full of pleasure and abundance, but they spend their lives pursuing meaningless distractions and never think to practice the dharma.

Demi-god realm: the demi-gods have pleasure and abundance almost as much as the gods, but they suffer from competitiveness and ambition as they strive for the realization of their desires.

Human realm: The human realm is considered to be the most suitable realm for practicing the dharma, because humans are not completely distracted by pleasure (like the gods or demi-gods) or by pain and suffering (like the beings in the lower realms).

The three lower realms are:

Animal realm: wild animals suffer from being attacked and eaten by other animals. Domestic animals suffer from being exploited by humans.

Hungry ghost realm: hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long thin necks.

Hell realm: hell beings endure unimaginable suffering for eons of time. There are actually eighteen different types of hells, each inflicting a different kind of torment.

 

Outer Rim: The Twelve Links

 

Thangka Painting

The outer rim of the wheel is divided into twelve sections that represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.

The twelve causal links, paired with their common visual representations, are:

  1. ignorance – a blind person, often walking, or a person peering out

  2. volitional action or conditioning – a potter shaping a vessel or vessels

  3. consciousness – a man or a monkey grasping a fruit

  4. name and form- two men afloat in a boat

  5. six senory organs (i.e. eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) – a dwelling with six windows

  6. contact or touch – lovers consorting, kissing, or entwined

  7. sensation – an arrow to the eye

  8. desire, craving, thirst – a drinker receiving drink

  9. grasping – a man or a monkey picking fruit

  10. becoming or existence – a couple engaged in intercourse, a standing, leaping, or reflective person

  11. birth – woman giving birth

  12. decay and death – corpse being carried

 

Top

 

Thangka Painting

At the top right of the painting is the paradise of Amitabha. A pathway leads from the judgment hall of the dead in the hell realm to Amitabha’s paradise, along which those being with the most fortunate Karma proceed. At the top left is Shakyamuni Buddha who, having attained liberation from the wheel of existence, points towards his perfect wheel of the Buddhadharma.

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Tibetan Thangka Paintings – Meditation or Blessings?

A Thangka is more than just a painting. It is an object of devotion, an aid to contemplative practice, and a bringer of blessings. Thangka paintings can have multiple functions.

 

Teaching Tools

Thangka Painting

Images of deities can be used as teaching tools when depicting the life of the Buddha, describing historical events concerning important Lamas, or retelling myths associated with other deities.

 

Contemplative Practice

 

Thangka Painting Thangkas are intended to serve as a record of, and guide for contemplative experience. To Buddhists these Tibetan religious paintings offer a beautiful manifestation of the divine, being both visually and mentally stimulating. Its brilliant colors and forms awaken the mind and energize consciousness; its images stimulate capacities for visualization and nourish the heart. Looking at a thangka is in itself considered to be a meritorious activity. By further meditating on such objects, under the guidance of a qualified teacher, one can train the mind and gain an understanding of certain types of awareness that the specific image portrays.

For example, you might be instructed by your teacher to imagine yourself as a specific figure in a specific setting. You could use a thangka as a reference for the details of posture, attitude, colour, and clothing. etc., of a figure located in a field, or in a palace, possibly surrounded by many other figures of meditation teachers, your family, etc.

 

Bringer of Blessings

 

Thangka Painting

Another reason for commissioning a thangka painting may be bring about good health, prosperity or long life. Sometimes they are commissioned to aid the recovery of a sick person, or to protect a person, or to help in the rebirth of someone who has died. In these cases a spiritual teacher or Lama is usually consulted to advice on which deity should be painted to be of greatest benefit to that person.

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Tie-Dyeing of Bai Ethnic

Tie dyeing is the traditional handicraft of the Bai. The tie-dyes are not merely daily attire of the Bai people , they are art pieces, considered as precious relics in Chinese art.

 

History

 

Bai Ethnic
Tie-dyeing has a very long history, dating back to over 1,000 years ago. Tie-dyeing skill, known as “skein tie” in the ancient time, is a kind of old textile dyeing workmanship in China. Tie-dye craft of Bai nationality in Dali is introduced from the central plains of China and now is mainly spread around Dali city, Dacang and Miaojie street of Weishang county. And the industry of tie-dyeing in Zhoucheng Village in Dali City of Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture is most famous so it is awarded the title of “The Hometown of National Tie-Dyeing”.

 

Patterns

 

Bai Ethnic Bai Ethnic There is a vast repertoire of tie-dye patterns, including flowers, plants, birds, mammals, fish, insects, folk characters and symbols, most of which are wishes for auspiciousness and good luck. The 1,000 or more tie-dye designs also reflect Bai history, culture, customs and aesthetic preferences. Having both decorative and practical applications, tie-dyed fabric is fashioned into both clothing and items of interior décor.

 

Dying Material

 

Bai EthnicBai tie-dyeing alone uses Radix isatidis, a Chinese medicinal herb used to dissipate heat, remove toxic substances and diminish inflammation and detumescence, as a dyeing agent. It once grew in wild profusion, but high demand of tie-dye articles has depleted the herb, and the Bai people now cultivate Radix isatidis in mountainous areas.
Tie-dyed fabrics are in more muted shades than those that have been through a chemical process. They are also less apt to fade and more hardwearing. The medicinal qualities of the Radix isatidis dye make Bai tie-dyed garments and bedding comfortable to wear and soothing to the skin, especially in hot weather.

 

Tie-dyeing Technique

 

 

Tie

 

Bai Ethnic Bai Ethnic Tie, was originally named knotting, means that after the selection of cloth material, according to the requirement of the motif and pattern, the craftsmen take methods such as pinching & crimpling, folding, turning & rolling, squeezing & pulling to make the clothe become certain shapes and then stitch and bind, and tighten them, so strings of “knots” appear on the material.

 

Dip-Dyeing

 

Bai Ethnic Bai Ethnic Dip-dyeing means that the makers dip and wash the well-made “knots” with clean water and then put them in the dye vat. It can be soaked and dyed in cold, and it can also be dyed with hot water; after a certain period of time, it is taken out and air dried, and then the cloth is put in the dye vat again, and the actions aforesaid should be repeated for several times. After each time, the cloth will become more “blue”. The parts which have been stitched become nice-looking patterns naturally, as the dyes fail to reach them; the stitches are not the same, the dyeing degrees are not the same, so many arbitrations are presented on the cloth, thus the artist flavor come out.

 

Maintenance and cleaning of tie-dyed cloth

 

Soak with cold saltwater before the first cleaning. Because using pure natural wood indigo as the dyestuff. Do not exposure in the sun or wash with other products which are easy to fade.

Dali Bai tie-dyeing cloth displays an artistic style of strong national flavors. It is the epitome of the thousand-year history of the Bai people, and it reflects Bai people’s national customs and aesthetical interest, so the tie-dyeing skill and other craftsmanship constitute the unique and charming weaving and dyeing culture of the Bai nationality.

by Xiao Xiao @ InteractChina.com

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Miao Hmong Batik- Nature, Totem and Myth

Miao Hmong Batik is plain, aboriginal and powerful. The traditional designs are geometric. With the influence of the Han Chinese, more figurative designs like flowers, birds, and fish have been introduced over the centuries.

These pictures, not confining themselves to exact details of natural images, are boldly different and exaggeratedly drawn. Miao Hmong love nature. They enjoy expressing their joy with nature and their own aesthetic feelings in the way of Batik art. As they do not have written transcripts, you may also find abstract symbols or geometric patterns in their artworks, which could be their totems or myths.

 

Butterfly and Whirlpool

 

Miao Batik Local artists have developed a diversity of batik motifs, including those based on images of butterflies, whirlpools, centipedes, fish, birds, dragons and pear blossoms. Every motif conveys special meaning. Among these, butterfly and whirl pattern are most popular. Miao regard butterfly as the god for reproduction and beauty. Therefore, it has become a popular subject in Miao batik. The whirlpool motifs inspired from rivers embody union and auspiciousness in Miao culture.

 

Drum

 

Miao Batik Simple, traditional patterns such as the bronze drum are the oldest forms found on quilt covers dated before the 20th century. The bronze drum is a powerful symbol relating to the spirits of the ancestors, and is a traditional pattern found in many Miao’s embroidery and batik.

 

Crab and Pomegranate

 

Miao Batik

Crabs and pomegranates both relating to birth of many kids are often found in batik designs.

 

White Tiger

 

Miao Batik This handmade batik table cloth features the image of the White Tiger, a mythological guardian according to Chinese legend. Legend had it that when a tiger reached 500 years old, its tail would turn white. In this way, the white tiger became a kind of mythological creature. It was said that the white tiger would only appear when the emperor ruled with absolute virtue, or if there was peace throughout the world.

 

Vermilion Bird

 

Miao Batik The Vermilion Bird is an elegant and noble bird in both appearance and behavior. It is very selective in what it eats and where it perches. The Vermilion Bird is often associated with the mythical Phoenix due to their associations with fire.

 

Water Buffalo

 

Miao Batik

The horns of the water buffalo, symbolizing Miao ancestor’s life and death.

 

Modern Batik

 

Miao Batik Although there are thousands of different batik designs, particular designs have traditionally been associated with traditional festivals and specific religious ceremonies. Previously, it was thought that certain cloth had mystical powers to ward off bad luck, while other pieces could bring good luck. Today, a large number of artists apply the traditional batik in their modern art. They bring in new themes and include more cultural and social messages adding modern concept in line with batik.

by Xiao Xiao @ InteractChina.com

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