Conservation of Tibetan Thangka Painting

Thangkas are intended to convey iconographic information in a pictorial manner.

Thangka Painting

There is a vast amount of iconographic information provided in thangkas, some of it literally spelled out for you. If you look closely, many thangkas spell identification of figures and scenes in formal and delicately rendered scripts.

Thangka Painting Thangka Painting

Even a subtle change in colour alters the message of an icon. For example, a particular shade of the colour green indicates effective activity, while a white often indicates peacefulness and unassailable compassion. It is significant therefore if the same form of a feminine figure is rendered in green or white.


Anonymity of Thangka Painting

The vast majority of created thangkas, therefore, have taken shape as a scientific arrangement of content, colour and proportion, all of which follow a prescribed set of rules. These rules, however, differ by denomination, geographical region and style.

Only rarely do thangkas express the personal vision or creativity of the painter, and for that reason thangka painters have generally remained anonymous as have the tailors who made their mountings.

There are, however, exceptions to this anonymity. Rarely, eminent teachers will create a thangka to express their own insight and experience. This type of thangka comes from a traditionally trained meditation master and artist who creates a new arrangement of forms to convey his insight so that his students may benefit from it. Other exceptions exist where master painters have signed their work somewhere in the composition.


Factors Causing Damages to Thangka Paintings


Without date and artist’s name on thangka paintings, if a piece of thangka painting is damaged, especially for those ancient ones, even indigenous Tibetan scholars trained in the iconographic details of Buddhist deities generally would not presume to know the iconography associated with every deity, it is unlikely that most conservators could guess the identity and details of unfamiliar figures.

Thangka Painting

There are several factors which would cause damages to Thangka paintings.

Sometimes water damage (yak-hide glue is susceptible to water damage) washes away several fine layers of pigment on final paint layers or shading layers. This damage exposes either underdrawing or flat colours which the artist never wanted you to see.

Thangka Painting

Often, a combination of water-damage, greasy butter lamp soot and smoky incense grit permanently alters the original colours. Evidence of this is often seen at the edges where a mounting has protected the original colours.

Thangka Painting

Damage was particularly likely given the tendency of Tibetans to travel long distances in harsh conditions. Thangkas were important articles of the tent culture of nomadic monastic groups in medieval Tibet. It was not unusual for a group of scholars, yogins and priests to travel by yak to distant regions, set up tents, unroll the thangkas and serve the local people by teaching before moving on to another area.

This was good for the people but intense for the thangkas! Rolling and unrolling was, and still is, unavoidably damaging for thangkas. Rough handling and damp walls damaged both the paintings and their mountings, in medieval Tibet and today as well.

The monks in this monastery value their thangkas. But rolling and unrolling combined with rough handling and poor storage constantly damages their treasured thangkas.

In summary, the conservation treatment of a thangka is a complex process which requires superb skills and rich experience as thangka paintings are such complicated composite objects which are designed to communicate iconographic ideas in a beautiful and practical form.

by Xiao Xiao @

P.S. We need people with similar passion to join or partner with us in promoting ethnic handicrafts! Please contact us at to make any suggestions that you may have in co-operating with us, or join as Affiliate.


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.

by Xiao Xiao @

P.S. We need people with similar passion to join or partner with us in promoting ethnic handicrafts! Please contact us at to make any suggestions that you may have in co-operating with us, or join as Affiliate.

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




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.




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.




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 @

P.S. We need people with similar passion to join or partner with us in promoting ethnic handicrafts! Please contact us at to make any suggestions that you may have in co-operating with us, or join as Affiliate.

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.




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




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.

by Xiao Xiao @

P.S. We need people with similar passion to join or partner with us in promoting ethnic handicrafts! Please contact us at to make any suggestions that you may have in co-operating with us, or join as Affiliate.

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.

by Xiao Xiao @

P.S. We need people with similar passion to join or partner with us in promoting ethnic handicrafts! Please contact us at to make any suggestions that you may have in co-operating with us, or join as Affiliate.

Thangka Painting Mandala

Mandala is a Sanskrit word that means “circle”. In the Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions their sacred art often takes a mandala form. The basic form of most Hindu and Buddhist mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point. Each gate is in the shape of a T.

Thangka Painting

These mandalas, concentric diagrams, have spiritual and ritual significance in both Buddhism and Hinduism. The term is of Hindu origin and appears in the Rig Veda as the name of the sections of the work, but is also used in other Indian religions, particularly Buddhism. In the Tibetan branch of Vajrayana Buddhism, mandalas have been developed into sand painting. They are also a key part of anuttarayoga tantra meditation practices.

In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, as a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. According to David Fontana, its symbolic nature can help one “to access progressively deeper levels of the unconscious, ultimately assisting the meditator to experience a mystical sense of oneness with the ultimate unity from which the cosmos in all its manifold forms arises.” The psychoanalyst Carl Jung saw the mandala as “a representation of the unconscious self,” and believed his paintings of mandalas enabled him to identify emotional disorders and work towards wholeness in personality.



Thangka Painting

The Mandala shown here is connected with the Buddha Vajrasattva, who symbolises the original crystalline purity.

In the centre is a lotus blossom with eight petals, resting on a bed of jewels. In the next place are the walls of the palace with gates towards the four corners of the earth. The gates are guarded by four angry doorkeepers. Before the meditating person arrives at the gates, she must, however, pass the four outer circles: the purifying fire of wisdom, the vajra circle, the circle with the eight tombs, the lotus circle.




Thangka Painting

Here are the four circles, symbolizing the enlightenment, which the meditating person must gain, before she can enter the illuminated palace:

Fire of wisdom: the outermost circle consists of the purifying fire

Vajra circle: the diamond circle expresses strength and fearlessness

Tombs: there are eight tombs, which symbolizes the eight states of consciousness, which the person must go beyond

Lotus circle: expresses the open state of devotion, that is necessary to enter the palace




Thangka Painting

The symbol of Buddha lives in the centre, surrounded by eight Buddhas for meditation – symbolic deities: four male and four female. These figures, facing the corners of the earth form together a lotus flower.


Mandala in Tibet


In ancient Tibet, as part of a spiritual practice, monks created intricate mandalas with colored sand made of crushed semiprecious stones. The tradition continues to this day as the monks travel to different cultures around the world to create sand mandalas and educate people about the culture of Tibet.

All monks at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are required to learn how to construct mandalas as part of their training. The learning process is two-fold, including the memorization of texts that specify the names, lengths, and positions of the primary lines that define the basic structure of mandalas, as well as the manual techniques of drawing and pouring sand. These texts, however, do not describe every line, nor every detail of each mandala, but rather serve as mnemonic guides to the complete forms of mandalas that must be learned from the repeated practice of construction under the guidance of experienced monks.

As a meditation on impermanence (a central teaching of Buddhism), after days or weeks of creating the intricate pattern of a sand mandala, the sand is brushed together and placed in a body of running water to spread the blessings of the mandala.

by Xiao Xiao @

P.S. We need people with similar passion to join or partner with us in promoting ethnic handicrafts! Please contact us at to make any suggestions that you may have in co-operating with us, or join as Affiliate.

Thangka Painting Making

Technically making a painted thangka occurs in six steps.


Prepare the Canvas

Thangka Painting

A piece of cotton cloth is stitched onto a wooden frame along all its four sides. After setting up the cloth canvas in the frame, the cloth is applied on both the front and the back with a thin layer of gesso, which is made of glue and zinc oxide. The canvas is then rubbed on both sides with a stone to make the canvas surface smooth and lustrous.

Tibetan painters pay great importance to the preparation of the canvas surface since thangka paintings are rolled up for storage and any sort of defect due to neglect may cause cracks or make the paint peel off.




Thangka Painting

Before sketching different parts of the composition, eight major lines of orientation are drawn. These include a central perpendicular, two diagonals, a horizontal and four outer borders. Now with charcoal or graphite the rough drawing of the deity in full accordance with the canonical proportions is delineated. Within a given composition, the center stage is invariably occupied by the principal personage, while all acolytes and attendants are greatly reduced in size to further emphasize the majesty and enormity of the central figure.




Thangka Painting

Painters apply pigments on the sketch, with black, green, red, yellow, and white as the basic colors. All the colors are mixed with animal glue and ox bile to keep them bright.

Color is more than a visual proposition in sacred Buddhist painting. The five basic colors white, yellow, red, black and green have different symbolic meanings. Black symbolizes killing and anger, white denotes rest and repose, yellow stands for restraint and nourishment, red is indicative of subjugation while green is the known hue of exorcising practices. The palette of the thangka painters has been classified into ‘seven father colors’ and one ‘mother color’. The seven father colors are deep blue, green, vermilion, minimum orange, maroon, yellow and indigo. The mother color is white which interacts perfectly with all these hues. The lighter shades resulting from the mixture of ‘father’ and ‘mother’ were referred to as their sons. Written evidence from the eighteenth century identifies fourteen such ‘sons’.

Thangka Painting

For any large project, the master painter first visualizes the final color scheme and indicates them on the sketch with an abbreviated notation system. While applying the colors the painter proceeds from the distant parts to those parts stationed near him.


Color Gradation


Thangka Painting

After laying the initial coats of flat color the painter proceeds to apply thin coats of dyes diluted in water. Shading in Tibetan Thangkas is always done to add effects of volume and dimension to the form be it a human figure, an anthropomorphic image of some deity or clouds, water, flames, rocks, flowers, curtains, seats, etc. Cast shadows and highlights are unknown aspects of the pictorial imagery of the Thangka. Very often the empty green field of the foreground is shown fading gradually into the horizon and such effects are obtained with ‘wet shading’, a technique of gradual blending of two adjoining areas of wet paint.




Thangka Painting

In an essentially linear pictorial expression like the Thangka, the art of outlining plays a significant role. To set off objects from the background or to demarcate subdivisions of a certain form, or to emphasize a swirling mass of flames, painters select the indigo and lac dyes for perfect results.


Finish Details


Thangka Painting

At this final stage the facial features are finished and the eyes of the deities are painted. For this ‘eye opening’ an elaborate consecration ritual on an auspicious full moon day is fixed and only after the vivification ritual does the painter complete the eyes in swift sure strokes. The whites of the eyes are softened with orange and red at the corner ends, eyelid edges are darkened and then the iris is added according to the required stance of the deity. The two most commonly fashioned varieties of eyes are ‘bow eyes’ and grain eyes’ besides a few fearsome looking ones for the wrathful deities.

After the artist finishes the details, the canvas is removed from the frame and mounted on a piece of brocaded silk. The wooden sticks are attached to the top and bottom of the silk. After a dust cover of gossamer silk is attached, the thangka is ready to be hung up.

by Xiao Xiao @

P.S. We need people with similar passion to join or partner with us in promoting ethnic handicrafts! Please contact us at to make any suggestions that you may have in co-operating with us, or join as Affiliate.