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Thangka at Labrang monestary

Thangkas are traditional Tibetan painted tapestries or cloth scrolls designed as aids in meditation. Painted on cotton or linen, they usually contain images of deities and religious figures and often are representations of spiritual or historical events. As is true with mandalas both making a thangka and gazing at one are regarded as forms of meditation. The idea is to lose oneself in thangka not express it. Traditionally, they were never bought or sold. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 29, 2009]

The content of thangkas varies quite a bit. They usually contain portraits of bodhisattvas, giant mandalas, and images of Buddhas. They often depict Tibetan gods and other religious iconography such gods like Padmasambhava and White Tara and Green Tara, and the circle of life with people reclining in heaven and roasting in hell.The setting, the background, architectural elements, secondary figures are all executed with special aims and symbolic meaning. One thangka artist told the Japan Times, “There is no room for originality in thangka painting. The iconography, the colors, even the way you hold the brush — everything must be done just so.”

Unlike an oil painting or acrylic painting, the thankga is not a flat creation, but consists of a painted or embroidered picture panel, over which a textile is mounted, and then over which is laid a cover, usually cotton, but sometimes silk or linen. Generally, thankgas 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 so as to prevent the quality of the silk from being affected by moisture. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Thankas generally have embroidery around the edges. They are usually hung in temples or homes. In Buddhist monasteries, they are often used to focus meditation. In Tibet, thangkas are frequently the center of Buddhist religious ceremonies. Pilgrims throw money to the thangka to show their respect. Most thangkas are designed to be portable. Before they are transported they are mounted on a brace and rolled up between two sticks. They have traditionally been carried by nomads and used by holy men, teachers and healers. Some huge ones are made to be unfurled annually at festivals.. One thangka made after 15 months of work and $2.4 million was 148 feet high, 115 feet wide and weighed over three tons.

Video: “Mystic Vision, Sacred Art: The Tradition of Thangka Painting”,1996, 28 minutes. Examines every step of the process of painting the scrolled Tibetan Buddhist devotional images called thangkas. Illustrates the preparation of the painting surface, the grinding of the pigments, and the drawing of the sacred image and its completion in brilliant color. Distributor: Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA 02172, (800) 569–6621.

Websites and Sources: Himalayan Art Resources himalayanart.org ; Buddha.net buddhanet.net ; Conserving Tibetan Art and Architecture asianart.com ; Guardians of the Sacred World (Tibetan Manuscript Covers) asianart.com ; Wikipedia article on Mandalas Wikipedia ; Introduction to Mandalas kalachakranet.org ; Books: “Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet” by M.M. Rhie and Robert Thurman; “The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs” and “The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols” by Robert Beer

Types of Thangka

Thangkas (also spelled tankas) typically feature explosions of bright colors.There are four main kinds of thangka are: 1) embroidered tangka; 2) lacquered tangka; 3) applique tangka; and 4) precious bead tangka. The latter are decorated with pearls, coral, turquoise, gold and silver.

Thangka images generally fall into 11 categories: 1) mandalas, 2) Tsokshing (Assembly Trees), 3) Tathagata Buddhas, 4) Patriarchs, 5) Avoliteshvara, 6) Buddha-Mother and female Bodhisattvas, 7) tutelary deities, 8) dharma-protecting deities, 9) Arhats. and 10) wrathful deities; and 11) other Bodhisattvas.

Thangkas comes in various sizes and types. Small ones are only several centimeters wide, and big ones are tens of meters across. The giant Thangka kept in the Potala Palace is more than 50 meters long. Among the different types are embroidered Thangka, applique Thangka, tapestries done with fine silks and gold threads, Thangka with silk-woven pictures, and Thangka with piled embroidery. The most characteristic is the Tangka with "piled embroidery". It is composed of carefully chosen brocade with different colors and designs. All the threads sewn on the cloth are made by tangling colored silk and horse tail hair. Some are partly inlaid with jewelry. The artistry and craftsmanship can be very complicated and exquisite. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

There is a thangka in one of the chapels of Trandruk Monastery, representing Chenrezi at rest, made of pearls. The Thangka is two meters long and 1.2 meters wide. The weight of the whole thangka is over 1.3kg. Most importantly, this thangka is made of 29026 pieces of pearls, one diamond, two rubies, one sapphire, 0.3 grams of turquoise, eight grams of gold, and other gemstones. The thangka has been passed down generations to generations without being damaged or lost during chaos of political struggles and wars. Chloe Xin of Tibetravel.org wrote: “ [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

History of Tibetan Thangka Art

Tibetan Thangka is a Nepalese art form exported to Tibet, it is said, in the 7th century after Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, a daughter of King Lichchavi and a wife of Songtsan Gampo . The art form did originate in Nepal but more likely came much later than the 7th century.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Buddhism was first introduced in Tibet in the seventh century as a courtreligion. However, it did not gain popular support until the early eleventh century, when Tibetan Buddhist teachers traveled to India to study at the great monasteries and famous Buddhist teachers were invited to Tibet to reform the practice of Buddhist rituals. The Pala style of eastern India influenced the art of Nepal from the eighth through the twelfth century, but had a more lasting impact in Tibet, from the twelfth through the early fifteenth century. Nepalese art also had a profound influence on that of Tibet from the thirteenth century through the fifteenth. From the fifteenth century onward, the Tibetans forged their own unique style with elements from India, Nepal, and China. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Chinese historians claim that Chinese painting had a profound influence on Tibetan painting in general. Starting from the 14th and 15th century, Tibetan painting had incorporated many elements from the Chinese, and during the 18th century, Chinese painting had a deep and far-stretched impact on Tibetan visual art. According to Giuseppe Tucci, by the time of the Qing Dynasty, "a new Tibetan art was then developed, which in a certain sense was a provincial echo of the Chinese 18th century's smooth ornate preciosity." [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Functions of Tibetan Thangka Art

The Tibetan Thangka, when created properly, perform several different functions. Originally, thangka painting became popular among traveling monks because the scroll paintings were easily rolled and transported from monastery to monastery. Images of deities can be used as important teaching tools when depicting the life (or lives) of the Buddha, describing historical events concerning important Lamas, or retelling myths associated with other deities and bodhisattvas. One popular subject is The Wheel of Life, which is a visual representation of the Abhidharma teachings (Art of Enlightenment). 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 thanga image of their yidam, or meditation deity, as a guide, by visualizing “themselves as being that deity, thereby internalizing the Buddha qualities (Lipton, Ragnubs).” [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

To Buddhists these Tibetan religious paintings offer a beautiful manifestation of the divine, being both visually and mentally stimulating.

Making a Thangka

Thangkas are painted on thin sheets of linen or cotton that are tightly stretched on a frame and stiffened with glue and coated with a mix of lime and chalk called gesso. The paints are ideally made from natural materials — red from cinnabar, yellow from sulphur, blue from lapis lazuli and indigo, malachite, azurite, chochineal — carefully mixed in their own pots with water and warm glue. Many colors have traditionally been made with special plants and minerals found in Tibet. The bright colors come from grinding materials like coral, agate, sapphire, pearl and gold. Some are burnished with gold.

Usually a cotton, linen or rough woolen cloth is used as a background. Silk and satin are used as backgrounds for high quality ones. Flaxen threads are sewed at edge of the background cloth, and the cloth is stretched tightly on specially made wood frame. A kind of paste mixed made animal fat and talcum powder is smeared on the cloth and scraped off with a mussel shell to make it flat and smooth. After the cloth becomes dry thoroughly, one can paint on it. After the thangka is painted it is taken off the wood frame and mount with brocade and made into a scroll. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The majority of thankas and paubhas (from Nepal) were painted on primed cotton whose weave varied from the very fine to quite coarse. The first step was to stretch the cloth on a rectangular wood support. The fabric was then sized on one side with animal glue and mixed with kaolin, a white earth powder, to create a painting surface. The artist could then begin to lay out the painting’s composition, frequently using a grid system following strict rules of representation, scale, and arrangement. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“Most of the pigments were mineral, for instance, lapis lazuli and azurite for blue, malachite for green, and cinnabar and other red and yellow earth col- ors. Black was derived from soot and white from kaolin. Organic colors such as lac (red) and indigo (blue) were also used. The colors, mixed with warm animal glue (distemper) and water, had to be applied quickly before the glue 48 cooled and became too difficult to apply evenly. The finished painting was removed from its wood supports and mounted in silk borders.

Painting a Thangka

The painting of a thangka begins with the making of a grid and outlining the entire composition in black. The details and images are worked out in advance in accordance with strict mathematical measurements.

The artist then fills in the outlines and different segments one color at a time rather than an image at a time, beginning with the background. Usually the deep blues and greens are done first, followed by the reds and yellows. Each color must dry before another is applied. Details are added at the end. The painting is finished and ceremoniously consecrated when the eyes of the main figure are painted.

To paint a thangka of a thousand-faced goddess Chenresig takes an artist three months working 10 to 12 hours a day from a monastery. Exactly 1,000 faces and pairs of arms have to be made according to strict rules; the body and head have to be perfectly proportioned with gold paint applied on a pencil outline. Lobsang Lungtok, a monk artist in Sengeshong who created such a painting of Chenresig told the New York Times, “There are rules, he said, that have been handed down from one Tibetan painter to another through the centuries: The head and body must be perfectly proportioned; the gold paint goes on after the pencil outline; this particular deity has a thousand faces and a thousand arms — no more, no less.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 29, 2009]

Mark Stevenson, a senior lecturer in Asian studies at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, told the New York Times, “Painting thangkas is simply one component of an array of artistic skills among monks. Every monk has a need for artistic talent, he said. They make and assemble tormas, which are offering cakes. Many may have to work on mandalas as well. This is part of being a monk. Every monk needs some manual skill dexterity in designing ritual objects. The art tradition here suffered a break from 1958 to 1978, when Chinese authorities shut down the monasteries, first during the suppression of a rebellion, then during the Cultural Revolution. Monks were persecuted. Shawu Tsering, for example, was forced to wear a dunce’s cap.

Thangka Artists and Their Training

As an important Tibetan painting form, Thangka with a huge variety of styles, involves mastery of many demanding techniques: mastery in sketching the illustrations and numerous deities according to formal iconography rules laid down by generations of Tibetan masters; learning to grind and apply the paints, which are made from natural stone pigments; and learning to prepare and apply details in pure gold. From the canvas preparation and drawing of the subject, through to mixing and applying colors, decorating with gold, and mounting the finished work in brocade, the creation of a thangka painting involves skill and care at each stage and displays meticulous detail and exquisite artisanship. [Source: “Spiritual Buddhist Art” by Master Locho and Sarika Singh, Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Therefore, the process of learning to paint thangkas is rigorous. In the first three years, students learn to sketch the Tibetan Buddhist deities using precise grids dictated by scripture. The two years following are devoted to the techniques of grinding and applying the mineral colors and pure gold used in the paintings. In the sixth year, students study in detail the religious texts and scriptures used for the subject matter of their work. To become an accomplished thangka painter, at least ten years training is required under the constant supervision of a master. After the training process, students still need five to ten years to become experts in the field. Most importantly, Tibetan Thangka painting requires extended concentration, attention to detail, and knowledge of Buddhist philosophy, and must be carried out in a peaceful environment.

Rebkong Thangka Artists

Monasteries in the Rebkong area in northeastern Qinghai Province are famous for producing thangkas with vibrant colors and fine lines. One of the most well-respected thangka painters, a monk named Shawu Tsering, works in Rebkong Describing his skill, Stevenson told the New York Times, “watching him paint is remarkable, as if the lines were already there, and he was just moving his hand to bring them forward. It was just so effortless, and the skill and memory were there to allow him to do that.” During the Cultural Revolution Shawu Tsering was forced to wear a dunce cap.

Sengeshong in Qinghai Province is an most important centers of the Rebkong style of thangka painting. In 1999, artists in the area finished the 675-yard-long Great Thangka, which Guinness World Records certified as the biggest thangka in the world.

Of the monks in the two monasteries in Sengeshong, about 60 can paint with some skill, said Lobsang, a compact, cheerful, Red Bull-drinking man who entered the monastery at age 7 and began studying thangka painting seven years later. “There are only a few good ones, and a lot of ordinary ones,” he said of the painters.

Lobsang’s chamber is plush compared to rooms at other Tibetan monasteries. The carpeted living area has a central stove and a framed portrait of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetans. There is a photograph of Lobsang standing in his red robes in front of the Shanghai skyline; he lived for five years in Shanghai and Beijing painting thangkas for a businessman.

In warm weather, Lobsang sits in his front yard with a brush in hand, working 10 to 12 hours a day. A safe in the rear room contains some of Lobsang’s more expensive thangkas. The front wall of the foyer has wide glass windows, and it is in this sun-drenched space that Lobsang paints during the winter. Lobsang also teaches thangka painting to others, some of them lay people from nearby villages. We want them to transmit Buddhism, he said. We want them to teach people that the gods are kind.

Skilled thangka and mural painters are valued across Tibet, with artists sometimes traveling thousands of miles to do commissions for prominent monasteries. Many monasteries and temples were destroyed or sacked during the Cultural Revolution, and those that have begun rebuilding are in need of painters.

Buddha Amoghasiddhi Attended by Bodhisattvas

Describing 68.-x-54-centimeter cloth thangka from Tibet dated to the early 13th century, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In Buddhist monasteries, thangkas are often used to focus meditation. This thanka depicts the transcendent Amoghasiddhi, one of the five cosmic Buddhas. Each of these Buddhas has a particular gesture, color, and vehicle and is associated with one of the five directions: north, south, east, west, and straight up. Amoghasiddhi sits in his northern paradise; his gesture allays fear, his color is green, and his vehicle for traveling through the cosmos is Garuda. A Garuda appears on both sides of the throne. He sits in the cross-legged yogic position in front of a large striped bolster and wears lavish jewelry, which symbolizes his spiritual perfection. The soles of his feet and palms of his hands are henna-colored, an ancient form of aristocratic adornment. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“Two bodhisattvas in tribhanga poses flank him, while above him are smaller bodhisattvas seated in rows who also attend his sermon. The relative sizes of the figures in this crowded scene reflect the degree of their spiritual perfection, and the entire entourage is arranged symmetrically around the central figure of Amoghasiddhi. Five forms of the goddess Tara, the protector and guide of Buddhist pilgrims , are shown seated in a row at the bottom, each a different color and with varying numbers of arms. In the lower right corner is a monk seated before an offering stand. He may have officiated at the ceremony consecrating the set of thankas portraying the five cosmic Buddhas to which this painting belonged.”

Portrait of Jnanatapa Surrounded by Lamas and Mahasiddhas

Describing 68.6-x-54.6-centimeter cloth thangka from Riwoche monastery in eastern Tibet dated to the 14th century, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The large figure at the center of this cloth painting is a great Indian practitioner of Esoteric Buddhism called Jnanatapa. His large, unfocused eyes indicate that he is in an ecstatic trance. He wears a distinctive golden helmet with a pleated fringe, a large amount of delicately made jewelry, and an apron of carved bone over his red lion cloth. In his right hand is a horn and in the left a golden casket surmounted by a lion. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“The palms of his hands and soles of his feet are hennaed in brilliant red, an ancient aristocratic sign of beauty often used in the portrayal of deities and spiritually evolved beings, including abbots. A small golden halo encircles his head with an outer rim of red, yellow, and blue bands symbolizing wisdom and protection. A pair of lions guards the double-lotus throne with jeweled decoration. Behind his throne, vertical shapes with pointed and hooked tops symbolize mountains. Onpo Rinpoche, the founder of Riwoche monastery, for which this painting was made, was believed to be an incar- nation of Jnanatapa.

“Directly over Jnanatapa’s head is a portrait of a Buddha with his consort. Both were Jnanatapa’s spiritual masters. To each side are three seated figures of abbots. The four central ones are the first abbots of Taklung monastery. The one to the far left is the teacher of its first abbot and the one to the far right, the second abbot of Riwoche. The eight figures along the sides of the lower half of the painting are famous mahasiddhas (great practitioners) of Esoteric Buddhism whose revelations included nontraditional means to achieve spiritual perfection. Their knowledge was kept secret to all but their most spiritually evolved student monks and was passed directly from teacher to adept from generation to generation.”

Thangka of Yama, the God of Death

Describing 183.8-x-118.4-centimeter cloth mandala from Tibet dated to the mid 17th century to early 18th century, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “This powerful painting, over six feet tall, was part of a large set representing the ferocious protectors of Buddhism. Yama is the Indian god of death who, in the corpulent form of a buffalo-headed demon, protects against outer perils such as storms, pestilence, murder, or attacks by wild ani- mals. When he appears with an ogre face, as he does here, Yama guards against the inner demons of emotional addictions such as lust and hate. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“He carries a chopper (katrika) which he uses to eradicate these demons once the devotee has recognized and overcome them. Yama holds a skull cup in the other hand, filled with the blood of these vanquished evils. He wears a tiger-skin loincloth and a garland of human skulls as he tramples on an agonized being who symbolizes ignorance. He is surrounded by stylized flames and is supported by a black lotus petal floating in seas of blood. On each side of the painting, lightning bolts flash out of clouds, and four small, wrathful buffalo-headed Yamas dance and grimace in the flames. Two serene seated monks holding books flank a fifth small dark- blue image of the ogre-faced Yama at the top of the painting.

Giant Thangkas

Terris Temple and Leslie Nguyen wrote in in asianart.com: Each great monastery in Tibet once possessed giant silk applique hangings for public display and worship. These often huge banners comprise some of Tibet's greatest art treasures because of their spiritual significance, size and intricate design. Some survived the cultural revolution - most did not. The giant banners of Tsurphu monastery in central Tibet - traditional seat of the Karmapas - were both destroyed during this time. Between 1992 and 1994, the making of a 23x35 metre silk/brocade applique banner of Sakyamuni was undertaken. The first ceremonial display of this image took place in May 1994. [Source: “Giant Thangkas of Tsurphu Monastery” by Terris Temple and Leslie Nguyen, December 5, 1995, asianart.com/^]

“Tsurphu monastery dates back to 1187. It is situated in a valley two hours north-west of Lhasa. The creation of huge images is traditional throughout Tibet. They are referred to as "gossku." (pronounced Ki-gu) in Tibetan, literally means "Satin-image". These hangings are, in fact, constructed using a range of heavy brocades, silks and satins sewn them together in the applique technique. The intricate linework is translated using a technique similar to that found in Tibetan tent design, typical of this culturally nomadic people. The Karmapas, in particular, were renowned for their elaborate tent settlements.” /^\

The giant thangka at Tsurphu is 23x35 meters in size. It “features nine figures: Sakyamuni Buddha in the centre (9 meters high); Manjusri and Maitreya Bodhisattvas flanking him (7 meters high); the Primordial Buddha at the top centre and a fierce wrathful protector at the bottom centre. At each corner of the image sits a great Lama of the Karmapa lineage. Symbolic beings and animals support the Buddha's throne; clouds and rainbows illuminate the sky above; peacocks and gazelles graze peacefully before the lamas below. Yaks, asses, white-lipped deer, antelopes and the bluehorned sheep all have a place in the image.

Over 1500 metres of silks and brocades were used to make the Tsurphu gossku. Seventy shades of colour were chosen and a large part of this palette was specifically dyed to meet the requirement of a Karma Gadri design which is noted for its use of pastel shades. Additional materials for finishing the thangka include: backing cloth (200 meters), a protective cover (1100 meters), a brocade border (90 meters and a 24 meter leather bag for storage. For ceremonial purposes, a 24 metre canopy to be positioned above the gossku was made, banners, umbrella and 140 metres of multi-coloured traditional streamers were all required and made for the unveiling event.

Making and Unfurling a Giant Thangka

Terris Temple and Leslie Nguyen wrote in in asianart.com: “Creating a large scale image, however, demanded quite a different approach; notably that of an important workforce of sewers to prepare and assemble large pieces of fabrics together. The White Conch factory, based in Lhasa, makes an array of Tibetan handicrafts ranging from huge elaborate festival tents to traditional opera costumes and temple hangings. Seventy odd workers there was involved in the making of the huge religious image. [Source: “Giant Thangkas of Tsurphu Monastery” by Terris Temple and Leslie Nguyen, December 5, 1995, asianart.com/^]

“The six main sewers who spent eight months diligently cutting and sewing silks together by both machine and hand, were all women with over 20 years sewing experience in this setting. Their efforts were co-ordinated by one Tibetan master tailor who, together with the artists, translated the giant drawing, meticulously measured and inked according to iconographical standards, into silken applique forms. The entire project took the artists a total of two years to complete, from its inception in 1992. The last 4 months were spent making the small scale replica of the thangka for presenting to the main patron of this project. /^\

“The month of final assembling work began outside, in the factory courtyard; but as the image quickly grew larger, a gymnasium in Lhasa became the workspace. This allowed half of the thangka to be unrolled and viewed. Before the finished image was delivered to the monastery, certain preparations were made for it to be faithfully consecrated. The sacred syllables "OM", "AH", "HUNG" were cut out in fabric and sewn behind each figure, traditionally placed at their body, speech and mind centres. Also, a fragment of the 400-year old previous Tsurphu gossku, a Bodhisattva head, was placed behind the Buddha's heart as a relic. The finished work was brought to Tsurphu and was consecrated that same day by H.H. Karmapa. /^\

“The ceremonial hanging of the Tsurphu gossku takes place each year on the 12th day of the Tibetan 4th lunar month. This date is the important religious event of "Saga Dawa" which marks the Buddha's birth and enlightenment. In the early morning, the huge thangka is carried from inside the main temple, where it is kept, through the monastery courtyard, across the river and up the facing hill to the top of the steep inclined wall on which it is unfurled. This physically demanding preliminary requires the effort of at least 70 monks. The image is then unrolled and once its protective veil is raised, is visible for about 4 hours. During this time formal ritual offerings are performed and prayers are recited by monks below. This is followed by streams of pilgrims of all generations, presenting themselves before the giant thangka to make their devotional offerings (through the giving of silken scarves and making prostrations) whilst receiving its great blessing. From his balcony at the temple, the Karmapa witnesses the ceremony and crowded scenes below. Before the image is carefully rolled up and carried away for another year, the lines of pilgrims move away from it, across the landscape, towards the temple courtyard, where they wait to pay their respects and make offerings to H.H. Karmapa and receive his blessings.” /^\

Commercialization of Thangka Painting

Artists from Rebkong create works commissioned by other monasteries all over the Tibetan world and recently have produced works for Chinese and foreign collectors. Because so many works in monasteries were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and thangkas are popular with collectors more and more young people are taking up the art as a way to make money.

In recent years, thangkas have gained a following among some ethnic Han Chinese, and individual collectors from Chinese cities and foreign countries have driven up the prices. A typical thangka made over three months by a skilled artist sells for about $530, a fortune for most Tibetans. That’s meant the painters of Rebkong are wealthy compared to other groups in Tibetan society.

“Commercialization has driven thangkas far from their origins, from their use as religious objects, Zhang Yasha, a teacher of fine arts at the Minzu University of China who specializes in Tibet, told the New York Times. “We see more young people learning the art because it’s lucrative.”

Tibetan Mandalas

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Making a mandala

A mandala is a form of Buddhist prayer and art that is usually associated with a particular Buddha and his ascension to enlightenment. Regarded as a powerful center of psychic energy, it symbolizes the macrocosm of the universe, the miniature universe of the practitioner and the platform on which the Buddha addresses his followers. The design for the mandala is said to have been brought to Tibet by the legendary 1,000-year-old lama, Guru Rinpoche, in the Each Ox Year of 749.

A typical mandala measures five feet across and contains a pictorial diagram of Buddhist deities in circular concentric geometric shapes. Many are shaped like a lotus flower with a round center and eight pedals, with a central deity surrounded by four to eight other deities who are manifestations of the central figure. The deities are often accompanied by consorts. In large mandalas there may several dozen circles of deities, with hundreds of deities.

Mandalas can be painted, constructed of stone, embroidered, sculptured or even serve as the layout plan for entire monasteries.. Most are painstakingly made from sand, preferably sand made from millions of grains of crushed, vegetable-died marble. The tradition of making mandalas is said to be derived from ancient folk religions and Hinduism. Today mandalas are mostly made by followers of Tantric Buddhism.

Most mandalas are destroyed after a few hours or days. The destruction of mandalas after a short time ties in with the Buddhist idea that nothing is permanent and things are always in a flux and one should not become too attached to things because they will disappear and bring unhappiness.

Meaning and Uses of Mandalas

Buddhists use mandalas as aids for mediation. Both making a mandala and gazing at one are regarded as forms of meditation. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung called mandalas universal maps of the human subconscious and "antidotes for the chaotic states of mind." He said their circular shape was a symbol of the divine.

Mandalas have three levels: 1) the outer level representing the universe; 2) the inner level showing the route to enlightenment; and the 3) secret level depicting the balance between the body and mind. Each shape is said to contain an attribute of a deity, and sometimes these shapes are used to forecast the future.

Mandalas aid individuals in visualizing various celestial Buddha realms. Two dimensional ones are regarded as part of the three-dimensional world of the central figure and a microcosm of the universe. During meditation a user using a mandala as a visual aid focuses on the deity, visualizing up to 722 deities associated with it, with the deity disappearing into nothingness and re-emerging as the deity. To do this takes extraordinary concentration.

Creation of the Mandala

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Destroying a mandala

Describing a monk making a mandala, Nicholas Day wrote in the Washington Post: "The monks precisely plop the sand down on fine lines...A false breath, a sudden shift of elbow or the wrist, and the mandala would scatter, kaleidoscopic dust in the wind...The monks themselves — almost prostrate on the table...convey a spiritual energy and sense of peace of unearthly patience. They work diligently and silently, although occasionally they stop briefly to debate their work in Tibetan. They work two-hour stretches, often in positions that look painful."

Day wrote: "the mandala is created — in a breathtaking paint-by numbers type of production — with 23 colors of sand and a highly detailed outline that the monks drew...The sand is poured through metal funnels called chak-pur, rubbing a rod against the ridged surface of the chak-pur produces vibrations that causes the sand to run out smoothly. The vibrations also produces noises — hoarse and dissonant — that sound like a yard full of crickets."

One monk told the Washington Post, "we never consider this an artistic work...It's like having a beautiful garden in which all kinds of different flowers grow. If there was just one flower, it wouldn't be very beautiful."

Three-Dimensional Mandalas


Three-dimensional mandalas look like elaborately-sculpted wooden wedding cakes and sometimes take years to make. Some of them are representation of the Shi-Tro mandala, a mansion for deities with so much power it can release any person from his or her negative karma. Many three-dimensional mandalas were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Describing one three-dimensional mandala, Teresa Watanbe wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The intricate work included wood working, painting and shaping figures ranging from sea dragons to deities. But the dense spiritual meaning embedded in every doorway and post, measurement and form, is most striking."

"The floor doors to the palace, for instance, represent the 'four immeasurables' of loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and joy. There are lion beams signifying strength and a fire circle in which all negative forces are burned and transformed into wisdom."

Paramasukha-Chakrasamvara Mandala

Describing a 68.2-x-50.5-centimeter cloth mandala from Nepal dated to around 1100, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The painting depicts the Paramasukha-Chakrasamvara (Supreme Bliss Wheel) mandala. The main circular area contains a diagram of a palace with four elaborately decorated gateways. This structure should be imagined as three-dimensional. From the square base, the palace rises up as a pyramid and is topped by a circle within a square containing the major deity, in this case Chakrasamvara, a horrific form of the Buddha Akshobhya, one of the five cosmic Buddhas from the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon. He is shown in union with his consort, the goddess Vajravarahi, a metaphor for the union of wisdom and compassion, ways and means. The main figures are surrounded by a group of six attendant deities standing within stylized lotus petals. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“Surrounding the main circular area are vivid depictions of the traditional eight charnel grounds of India, auspicious sites for meditation on wrathful deities. Here the worldly existence of transitory pleasure and the inevitability of death contrast with the realm of the Buddha envisioned in the center. The horizontal shape of the lower register resembles ancient Indian wooden book covers used to bind manuscripts written on palm leaves. The Pancaraksha, the five protective goddesses especially favored in Nepal, are flanked by donors on the right and a monk on the left, each seated in front of offerings. This is the earliest paubha (painting on cloth) known from Nepal. The style of apparel worn by the monk in the lower register is typically Nepalese rather than Tibetan.”

Mandala of Jnanadakini

Describing 84.5-x-73.3-centimeter cloth mandala from the School of the Ngor monastery Tibet dated to the late 15th century, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In Tibetan monasteries, Buddhist monks use mandalas as aids to meditation. Mandalas are representations of a deity and his or her entourage. They often take the form of a cosmic diagram with the main deity at its center. The architectonic arrangement of many mandalas resembles a square palace with four entrances surrounded by circular bands that represent abstract realms. Often the palaces are multistoried. The entire structure should be imagined as a three-dimensional stepped pyramid whose top is inhabited by the deity with whom the devotee hopes to become one. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“In this mandala, the deity is the wrathful goddess Jnanadakini, who sits within a red circle on a throne guarded by two lions. She has three heads and six arms to display her multiple powers. Her wrath protects Buddhists from the evil and ignorance that hinder their quest for spiritual enlighten- ment. Surrounding her are four other seated deities and four lesser, animal-headed deities. The palace is set inside concentric circles of styl- ized lotus petals, vajras (ritual thunderbolts), flames, and extraordinary scenes of charnel (cremation) grounds. The latter are auspicious places for the contemplation of wrathful deities. In each of the four red circles at the outer corners is a female deity in an energetic pose, flanked by smaller attendants. There are thirteen lamas in the row at the top; on the bottom register in the two niches on the left, the donor of the painting is seated in front of an offering table. The other figures in the register are wrathful deities and protectors of the faithful.”

Image Sources: University of Purdue, Kalachakranet.org, CNTO; Mandala images, Univeristy of Liverpool, Harvard Education Review

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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