Thangkas often depict deities in either wrathful or peaceful forms, producing a splendid effect through the mastery of harmonizing line and color. Gold line paintings on a red background are called Martan, those on a black background are called Nagtan and those on white background are called Gartan. Thangka paintings range in size from miniatures (2-3 cm) to large-scale designs for temples and monasteries, which can be found in vertical, horizontal, and round forms. Most of the paintings are done on a specially prepared stiffened cotton canvas, using extremely fine animal-hair brushes and natural paints.
A ‘Thangka’, also known as ‘Tangka’, ‘Thanka’ or ‘Tanka’ is a Tibetan silk painting with embroidery, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, famous scene, or mandala of some sort. The thangka is not a flat creation like an oil painting or acrylic painting. Rather, it consists of a picture panel which is painted or embroidered, over which a textile is mounted, and then over which is laid a cover, usually silk. Generally, thangkas last a very long time and retain much of their lustre, but because of their delicate nature, they have to be kept in dry places where moisture won't affect the quality of the silk. It is sometimes called a scroll-painting.
Originally, thangka painting became popular among traveling monks because the scroll paintings were easily rolled and transported from monastery to monastery. These 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).
Thangka, when created properly, perform several different functions. Images of deities can be used as teaching tools when depicting the life (or lives) of the Buddha, describing historical events concerning important Lamas, or retelling myths associated with other deities. Devotional images act as the centerpiece during a ritual or ceremony and are often used as mediums through which one can offer prayers or make requests. Overall, and perhaps most importantly, religious art is used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path to enlightenment. The Buddhist Vajrayana practitioner uses a thangka image of their yidam, or meditation deity, as a guide, by visualizing ‘themselves as being that deity, thereby internalizing the Buddha qualities (Lipton, Ragnubs).’
Thangka is a Nepalese art form exported to Tibet after Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, daughter of King Lichchavi, married Srong Btsan Sganpo, the ruler of Tibet imported the images of Avalokiteshvara and other Nepalese deities to Tibet. Thangkas are painted on cotton or silk. The most common is a loosely wove cotton produced in widths from 40 to 58 centimeters (16 - 23 inches). While some variations do exist, thangkas wider than 45 centimeters (17 or 18 inches) frequently have seams in the support. The paint consists of pigments in a water soluble medium. Both mineral and organic pigments are used, tempered with a herb and glue solution. In Western terminology, this is a distemper technique.
Thangkas are further divided into these more specific categories:
- Painted in colors (Tib.) tson-tang—the most common type
- Appliqué (Tib.) go-tang
- Black Background—meaning gold line on a black background (Tib.) nagtang
- Blockprints—paper or cloth outlined renderings, by woodcut/woodblock printing
- Embroidery (Tib.) tsem-thang
- Gold Background—an auspicious treatment, used judiciously for peaceful, long-life deities and fully enlightened buddhas
- Red Background—literally gold line, but referring to gold line on a vermillion (Tib.) mar-tang
Whereas typical thangkas are fairly small, between about 18 and 30 inches tall or wide, there are also giant festival thangkas, usually Appliqué, and designed to be unrolled against a wall in a monastery for particular religious occasions.
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