The Thangka is a religious scroll of paintings of murals particularly the images of Lord Buddha, gods and goddesses and allied deities of benevolent and malevolent nature of the Buddhist pantheon. The Thangka, so called as Kuthang in local terminology of the Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh is regarded as an object of worshipping which is primarily been displayed in the monasteries, Gompas (Buddhist temples) and Lhagang i.e. family chapels. The display of Thangkas signifies a great dedication towards the religion and self reliance to achieve salvation. The meditation and worships in front of the Thangkas and the sculptures indicates right way for self purification and get protection from all evil motifs. Besides, the display of these holistic materials compensates peace and tranquilities amongst all living beings. Such are the believes amongst the Buddhists to pay heed to preserve and display of Thangkas and sculptures in the holy-shrines for offering worships and prayers. Thus, the importance of Thangkas and sculpture amongst the Buddhists of Tibetan Mahayana sect are narrated in the literature.
The legend says that the Buddhism took birth in India and developed in its own way. Later on the Buddhism was transported to Tibet not merely as a body of doctrine but with a highly developed art whose role was to teach the same things in visible form. How the art of paintings developed in Tibet and the Thangka, an art object of painting became a prominent is the desireness of one and all. In this context, a renown painter, Jamyang Losal, An Amdo Painter, on January 15, 1982 brought the background on the importance of Thangka painting which was forwarded by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in Tibetan National year 2108 (December 31, 1981) are reproduced below.
To begin with, let me narrate the history of the origin of painting tradition in this world. Long, long ago, there was a benevolent king who ruled over his subjects most kindly. One day, in his kingdom, rather unexpectedly, the son of an old Brahmin died. He went to the king and said, “Your Highness, my son died without any cause prematurely. If you do not bring him back to life, I’m going to commit suicide before you. Helpless, the king took him to the God of death and appealed to him, thus “O! Lord of the Faithfull”. The son of this old age has died prematurely. I request you to bring him back to life again. The God of Death”, however, ruled out the possibility of restoring life to one already dead due to Karma. The king insisted and the God of Death resisted. In the end, a dual ensued between the two kings. While they were combating, there appeared from the sky Brahma negotiated between the two. He advised the king to prepare a portrait of the dead son of the sage following which he would restore life to the deceased. The king executed the order and thus Brahma restored life to the dead son of the sage which, as one would expect, filled him with unknown joy.
Later, the king even vanquished the world of Yidags and assumed the title of “Jigthul” or Conqueror of Fear. He then went to heaven where he mastered the art of painting and was rightfully called the “First Painter.” Since then, the tradition of the painting has begun.
From India, the art of painting gradually spread to Nepal, China and Tibet. Historical records also mention that painting was introduced to Tribet from India as well as China. The most renowned early Tibetan painters were Nentha Dhundup, Khentse Chenmo and Trulkul jew.
In Amdo region, painting became so popular, in legend boasts of there being once around thousands of painters among whom Bhawen and Lubum Lhadri earned nationwide fame. According to folklore, once an artist painted a rat kept it at a place where it would be visible to a cat and, as expected, the cat, on first sight of the mouse, jumped onto it. So realistic was the representation of the animal on paper!
Elsewhere, in Gyarong, there once reined a feudal chief named Samang Gyalpo. His fieldom was as rich it was populous. His fiefdom, it was said, was dotted with renowned artists, astrologers, doctors, gold and silver workers and sculptors etc. The chief opened many centres of learning for all the arts and decreed that the fine arts so developed in his fieldom should not decline for generations.
The designing and painting of arts of religious nature or scrolls are well known as Thangkas. These are treasure because of their great beauty, divine themes, colorful designs and portable size are already known all over the world. Painted on a specially treated piece of cotton cloth or canvas, the generally oblong piece is attached to a frame and kept taut during painting.
The painting on completion is placed in an attractive frame consisting of two strips of silk or brocade in different colors sewn round the painting. The whole piece is then surrounded by a broader piece of brocade, care being taken to see that the bottom portion is wider than the top and the sides are narrower still. At the bottom, another rectangular piece of bright silk or brocade is sewn on and this is known as the “door” of the Thangka. The Thangka is not merely the product of creative self-expression or the desire to depict beauty. It is primarily an object or worship, and in the centre of the painting a deity resides. To reach the deity there has to be a door, even as in a temple there has to be a door before one can approach the altar of the deity.
The subjects of the Thangkas are numerous and varied, depicting themes from Buddhist mythology. One of the most popular subjects of delineation, however, is Guru Padmasambhava, his two consorts, and his various emanations. The proportions of the figures, the folds in the dress, the Mudra or hand gestures, are all depicted in strict accordance with tradition. The color scheme of most of these paintings, especially of the older Thangkas, is breath taking beautiful. The use of gold powder is particularly effective in bringing out many details of the dress.
While painting is primarily a medium of expressing religious themes, it has nonetheless also become a decorative art. On some important auspicious occasions decorative patterns on the ground are made with rice in various colors as is the custom in Bengal and other parts of India. In spite of the bright colors, effective is vivid and gay and never garish. The local Buddhists also use a lot of silk or brocade in different colors for decorative purposes, cutting them into thin strips and hanging them in symmetrical undulating patterns (chenzi) at the entrance of Shrines. But all these painting either Thangkas or other decorative are not considered a religious purpose until and unless these are consecrated by a lama.