Thangka – The Art Of Storytelling, Meditation and Enlightenment

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This article by Manisha Sarade, National Law University, Mumbai

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A Thangka, diversely referred to as Thangka, Tangka, Thanka, or Tanka, is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. Thangka is also known as scroll painting. Roughly translating to “recorded message” in Tibetan, it is an ancient form of Buddhist art that originated within Tibet around the 11th century. These are densely illustrative, and painstakingly detailed, and serve as a striking centrepiece that can be appreciated by all admirers of Asian art.

Superfine Museum Quality Thangka of Guru Padmasambhava's Lineage - Tibetan Buddhist

Buddhist thangka paintings are visually captivating and impressive — but there is more to them than meets the eye. Thangkas often focus on a specific deity and scene, and their form and surrounding details are often rich with symbolism, turning them into a medium for religious storytelling. Because of this, extracting all the intricacies and meanings from the paintings requires training. Tibetan thangkas were originally created for the purpose of helping the viewer or Buddhist practitioner on his journey to enlightenment. A thangka's characteristics like organization and juxtaposition of figures, repetition of figures, and size contribute to the storytelling of the painting.

Following a complex grid system, thangka artists must draw each figure and frill according to precise measurements and proportions stipulated by Buddhist iconography. In this sense, the role of the artist is somewhat different than the inventor we know him to be in the West. The role of the artist becomes one of a medium or channel, who rises above his own mundane consciousness to bring a higher truth into this world.

Symbolism and Allusion – Significance

Thangkas fulfil several important functions for the practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. The images are used to teach students and monks about the aspects of Buddha, describe important historical events and illustrate myths associated with important deities. Devotional images act as a focus during rituals and ceremonies and are often used as mediums through which prayers are offered and particular requests made. Most importantly, thangka art is a valuable meditation tool and offers a manifestation of the divine that is both visually and mentally stimulating.

From the 14th century onwards, Chinese painting had a significant influence on Tibetan art and by the 18th century, Tibetan painting echoed and incorporated many Chinese elements of detail and design. However, the thangka itself is traditionally held to be a Nepalese invention introduced to Tibet by Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal who married Sron Tsan Gampo, the ruler of Tibet, around 620-632 CE. Because they could be easily rolled and transported, thangkas became increasingly popular among the nomadic monks of medieval Tibet who travelled extensively between rural communities and regional monasteries to provide religious instruction. They are still used today for teaching and are a familiar sight in both Nepal and Tibet, becoming increasingly common in the West along with the spread of eastern spirituality.

Thangkas overflow with symbolism and allusion. Because the art is explicitly religious, all symbols and allusions must be in accordance with strict guidelines laid out in Buddhist scripture. The artist must be properly trained and have sufficient religious understanding, knowledge, and background to create an accurate and appropriate thangka.

Since the Thangka depicts the physical manifestations and the distinctive qualities of Buddha, it readily becomes a meditational tool for those who would like to reflect on the life and existence of Buddha. It is also believed that believers who meditate on the scenes and depictions on the Thangka gain merits and further make progress in their spiritual quest.

In the past, there were countless Thangkas that were created. Some of the most popular and colourful Thangkas ever created are the following deals with the following scenes and concepts:

Wrathful Deity/Protector

Vajrapani is the red wrathful protector. Hence, the Thangka that depicts the red wrathful protector showcases the wrathful and ferocious qualities of the deity. Thangka—that depicts this deity—illustrates the symbolical stamping of Maya or illusion or any attachment to earthly illusions.

Krodha Vajrapani - Tibetan Buddhist Diety

The Benefactor Deity/Protector

The benefactor deity refers to Vaishravana. Vaishravana is considered to be a semi-wrathful deity who readily provides prosperity and wealth to his devotees. This deity is often depicted as someone who is riding a very fair lion while holding on his hand a black mongoose that spews jewels.

The Meditational Deity

The Meditational Deity called Chakrasamvara is usually depicted in this type of Thangka. Chakrasamvara is usually depicted with great accoutrements that depict his divine powers.

Guru Padmasambhava

The Historical Figure

Thangkas that depict the historical teacher Tsongkhapa show the teachings of this master of Buddhism and his lineage. This Thangka also depicts blessings coming down from heaven.

The Mandala

A Mandala usually showcases the two-dimensional form of the three-dimensional space that is inhabited by the Deities. Mandala also outlines the meditative path that a practitioner should take in order to connect to the deity.

The Gracious Mandala Of The Buddha Ratnasambhava


The origin of the Thangka is not easy to trace. Some believe that it would require us to go back in time, back to the Neolithic age in the Tibetan Plateau. The Thangka could be traced back to the Mogao caves along the silk road. Inside these caves, the earliest surviving paintings of Tibetan origin were found. These Tibetan paintings were set on the walls of the caves, though some of them were set on cloth. From these early forms of Tibetan paintings evolved the traditional scroll paintings, which was later perfected during the Tubo Dynasty. The Tubo Dynasty was a period of powerful rulers in Tibetan History. This Dynasty started when a great Tibetan ruler by the name of Songtsan Gambo united the 10 separate tribes of Tibet during China's Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Based on an old legend, however, Songtsan Gambo, a Tubo King, started the tradition of the Thangka. Prompted by divine guidance and using the crimson blood that was oozing down his nose, he began to paint Bailamu. Thus, the first Thangka was created. Legend also said that the Living Buddha hid the first Thangka within the abdomen of the statue of Bailamu.

Yet according to a more popular version, the tradition of thangka painting comes from India. At the time of the Buddha's life, his main patron, Anathapindika, upon receiving the Buddha's blessing, sent his daughter to Sri Lanka to be married to the King of Sri Lanka. The King of Sri Lanka, thereby, made a connection with the King of India (at the time, King of Padna) and offered to him many different jewels such as diamonds, pearls, and rubies, including a precious conch. He requested that in return for these offerings the King of India would send him something that was unique in the world. The King of Padna thought about this and realized that an image of the Buddha would be something unique. The King asked the Buddha's permission to make a representation of him. The Buddha agreed, and many artists were sent to draw him. However, the artists were unable to depict the Buddha faithfully, with all the incredible features such as the rays of light he emanated or the ushinisha protrusion atop his head. The artists were unable to represent all the 32 major and 80 minor marks. In fact, the artists were even unable to see their own work because of the Buddha's brilliant rays of light. Realizing that the artists were unable to draw him, the Buddha went by a lake one day and, upon seeing his reflection in the water, the artists were able to capture the Buddha's image. Thus, it was possible to make a representation of the Buddha on a large piece of cloth.

The Buddha sent this representation, along with many words extracted from the sutras, to the King of Sri Lanka. Since the thangka was very large, the King hung it up in his palace where it could be seen by many people. Among the people present there to see the thangka were many who had travelled from the central land of Magadha. As soon as they saw the image, they instantly prostrated themselves and said, "To the master, Buddha Shakyamuni, I pay homage!" Through this the King of Sri Lanka realized that the Buddha was, indeed, extraordinary. Such is the history of the origin of the first thangka and the origin of the tradition of representation of the Buddha as a visual art form.

Super Large Shakyamuni Buddha in Bhumisparsha Mudra with His two Chief Disciples Shariputra and Maudgalyayana

During and after the time of King Ashoka's reign in India many stones were engraved with representations related to the Buddha. Likewise, before the Buddhist teachings reached Tibet, in India and China there was a tradition of making drawn representations of the Buddha on cloth. Thus, the tradition of representing the Buddha in thangka and other art forms preceded the coming of the teachings to Tibet.

Purpose of the Art with respect to Buddhism

1.    The Art serves four purposes mainly. First, they act as a method for gaining merit, which is what accrues good karma. This was often the motivation behind commissions, which was the traditional way which thangkas were funded.

2.    Second, they aid the dead during transmigration. After death, beings take seven to 49 days to be reincarnated, during which karma can still be influenced. Thus, thangkas can be used to positively influence a deceased being’s karma through death rituals conducted by monks.

3.    Third, they are used in single point meditation. Thangkas act as a body support, which is an item which aids in meditation. By looking at the thangka during meditation, it is easier to focus solely upon the object of meditation, which is often the deity shown in the thangka.

4.    Lastly, they are used in a variety of tantric practices, in a similar way to during single point meditation.

Thangkas have also traditionally been used as a teaching tool. Monks used to use them to teach younger monks or laypeople about Buddhism. Additionally, they are used in Traditional Tibetan Medicine to illustrate a number of medical ideas, from medicinal plants and minerals to the stages of a human embryo.

Four Major Symbols Used in a Thangka to Represent the Buddha

When it comes to representing the Sugatas, however, the Buddha himself said that it was not possible to represent all the features, marks and signs of a fully enlightened being. But in order for us to remember the Buddha, at least four signs need be represented. For example, in order to represent the extraordinary birth of the Buddha - who was born from the side of his mother and at birth took seven steps in all four directions - the artists depict the great Sala tree under which Queen Maya stood while giving birth, with seven lotuses arranged in the four directions. Or, in another example: in order to represent (and thus recall) beings of enlightenment, the Buddha is drawn on a throne by the Bodhi tree emanating rays of light of all colours.

The Tender-Faced Bodhisattva Manjushri

In order to represent and recall beings of the Buddha's turning of the wheel of the dharma, the Buddha is depicted by the Bodhi tree giving teachings. In order for people to remember the passing of the Buddha into Parinirvana, the Buddha is drawn lying down on a long bed-like throne between two Sala trees - one at his head and one at his feet - with many monks in mourning gathered around. These are the four famous symbols of representation, or the signs for remembering the Sugata. Even in the tradition of the Vinnaya, in order to remember the Tathagatha, the four major symbols of representation are described in the teachings. In the secret mantra vajrayana, the main support for the practice is the thangka, which is a samaya substance.

Other Vital Symbols found in the Thangka

Some of the key religious symbols that can be seen in thangka paintings are lotus flowers, banners, knots, fish, umbrellas, vases, conch shells, and the dharma wheel. These motifs are outlined below:

•           The lotus flower, which is usually pink or light red, symbolizes enlightenment and spiritual purity as the flower emerges from the mud. The lotus flower usually is seen with 8 or 16 petals, and can have different colours to represent different motifs. For example, the white lotus is specific to Buddha Sikhin, but lotuses can also appear in yellow or gold.

•           The victory banner, which usually appears as a four-colored cylindrical design with a central pole, represents the triumph of Buddha over ignorance.

•           Similarly, a white parasol or umbrella represents the ability of Buddha to triumph over everything, and a conch shell also represents victory over enemies.

•           The knot, also known as the “endless knot” or “glorious knot”, represents longevity and harmony.

•           Conch Shell – The reverberation of a conch shell is said to symbolize the deep, melodic, far-reaching sound of the dharma, the Buddha's teachings, that awakens spiritual disciples from ignorance.

•           When fish appear in thangka paintings, thy are usually seen in pairs, symbolizing the harmony and peace that arrives as a person approaches enlightenment.

•           The treasure vase, which is usually gold and never runs dry, represents abundance.

           Vitarka Mudra – In Sanskrit, vitarka means applied thought or reasoning. The mudra is often considered to be the gesture of discussion or debate. Here, we have a lama with his right hand up and with his thumb touching his index finger, indicating he is teaching.

•           Dhyana Mudra – This gesture is often associated with meditation, representing the supremacy of an enlightened mind and wisdom.

•           Bhumisparsha Mudra – With all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground, this hand gesture symbolizes the Buddha's summoning Sthavara, the earth goddess, to witness his defeat of mara (the hindering force) that will be followed by his attainment of enlightenment.

•           Varada Mudra – This mudra symbolizes charity and compassion. It is the gesture of the accomplishment of the wish to devote oneself to human salvation.

•           The final symbol of the thangka is the dharma wheel. The dharma wheel always has three components: rim, hub, and spokes. These three pieces represent integrity, wisdom, and attentiveness. The dharma wheel also always features eight spokes representing the eightfold Noble Path towards enlightenment. The wheel can also often be embellished with jewels, ribbons, and sometimes a lotus base.

Types and Themes of Thangkas


Thangkas can be categorized based on two factors: how it is wrought or done (technique) and which materials it is made of. Based on these two categories, Thangkas can be categorized into two groups: the painted thangkas and the embroidered Thangkas.

Thangkas are also further categorized into silk appliqué (ornamental needlework), painted in colors, block prints, black background, gold background, red background, and embroidered ones. Furthermore, Thangkas can also be grouped according to content, size, and materials.


Further, there are six themes in Thangka paintings and each theme has its own significance:

       Minti Theme: More importance is given to use blue and green colours.

       Chanti Theme: Light colours are used more.

       Kamgatti Theme: Sketch based painting.

       China getti Theme: Painting through comic designs.

       Gotti Theme: Floral designs are made without making the outline floral.

       Khamtti Theme: Paintings are made using the place name as base.

Association of Deity with Canvas Colour

Sometimes different coloured canvases are used to paint the thangkas. In these thangkas figures are not coloured much; the paintings are mostly outlines with not much colour and often with gold or silver highlights. A particular colour canvas is associated with a particular deity –

       White: normal colored paintings

       Brown: Amitava Buddha

       Blue: Medicine Buddha

       Red: Guru Padmasambhava

       Green: Green Tara

       Reddish Brown: Manjushree

Tibetan Buddhist Deity Green Tara

Medicine Buddha with Colorful Inlay Work

Large Size Manjushri


The tradition of thangka painting came to Tibet from India and was largely influenced by the art form developed in Nepal. The subject of iconometry came along the same route to Tibet; iconometry is a system of specific measurements and proportions used to represent the Buddha on cloth. There are different proportions used to depict the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and peaceful and wrathful deities. A thangka painter must study this system and abide by it correctly when making a representation of the Buddha. This iconometry science is extremely sacred. For example, if you start drawing purely out of personal inspiration you will not be able to consecrate the image so that the actual wisdom deity can remain in the image. In Tibet, four great traditions [of thangka painting] evolved based on a single transmission of iconometric proportions.

Temptation of Buddha by Mara

Expressions and Usages

Visual expression

On a deeper level thangka painting can be seen as a visual expression of the highest state of consciousness, which is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist spiritual path. This is why a thangka is sometimes called a ‘roadmap to enlightenment’, as it shows you the way to this fully awakened state of enlightenment.

Ceremonial use

Up until today some Tibetan monasteries possess huge scrolls -usually appliqué thangkas– that are unrolled on certain holidays (such as for Losar, Tibetan New Year) for public viewing and ceremony, as you see here.


To sketch the Buddha figures and mandalas in a thangka, the artist needs an exact knowledge of the proportions and measurements of each deity as established by artistic practice and Buddhist iconography. A grid containing these proportions has been essential for all these centuries to establish the correct transmission and continuity of the figures.

The Practice – Years of Dedication

Superfine Medicine Buddha On The Six-Ornament Throne of Enlightenment in His Universe

Thangka painting is practiced by artists who go through years of training and practice. The art of Thangka Painting is not gender bound, anyone who is willing to dedicate themselves to learning this art can practice thangka. Thangka earlier was seen as a meditation, a means of communication between the artist and the deity. The person who wants to learn the art of painting a thangka gets empowerment by the lamas, and then under the guidance of the master thangka artist as his guru, learns and practices Areas in Himachal Pradesh where Thangka Painting is practiced 5 thangka for years. A thangka artist also needs to have a thorough knowledge of the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. Thangka has very strict and set rules which are written in the Buddhist scriptures, thus a thorough knowing of the iconography and meanings stated in the scriptures is a must. A Thangka artist learns to sketch Buddhist symbols and figures of deities for initial few years.

Materia Medica of Vegetable Origin

The whole process of perfecting the art of Thangka takes years with the learning process itself taking up to twelve years. Thangkas are painted whole year round. Though being practiced indoors, the paintings require dry atmosphere. Sunlight is only required during the preparation of canvas for its good and fast drying. Therefore, many a times several canvases are prepared in advance during good sunlight and dry weather. In Dharamshala, Thangka painting is practiced by the Tibetan community in exile. Dharamshala is the centre of the Tibetan exile world in India. Following the 1959 Tibetan uprising there was an influx of Tibetan refugees who followed the 14th Dalai Lama. Thus, Dharamshala has communities of Tibetans, amongst whom a few try to preserve their culture and art by learning and practicing them in institutes like Norbulingka Institute.

Shakra Devanam Indra

The Artistic process

Materials used:

Varieties of tools and raw materials are used for making this traditional art.

1. Cotton cloth

2. Thread (for fastening the canvas to the frame)

3. Mineral colours

a.    Carbon Black (Tib: nagtsa): Black

b.    Cinnabar (Tib: chog lama): vermillion color

c.     Lapis Lazuli: Blue

d.    Lac Red (Tib: gyatso)

e.    Malachite Green (Tib: pangma): Green color

f.      Minium Orange (Tib: litri): Orange color

g.    Orpiment Yellow (Tib: ba la): Yellow color

h.    Yellow and Red Ochre (Tib; ngang pa and tsag)

i.      Gold (Tib: ser) - powdered gold, stored as drops

j.      Silver (Tib: ngul dul) - Powdered silver, also stored as drops

Initially, designs are drawn on a gelatine paper using pen. The cloth is tied to an iron or wooden frame using cotton threads. To avoid pores on the cloth, a mixture of distemper and gum boiled with water is applied on the cloth before painting and dried. After drying sanding is done on the canvas surface using stone or sand paper in order to make the surface smooth and even for painting. Different parts of the designs are drawn on an A/3 size paper and they are joined to make a single image. The drawings are directly drawn on the canvas with all the measurements or traced. The first part of the painting is always started by painting the sky as a background. Commercial (enamel) paints are mixed with fabric paint solution (fabric colours) to reduce the shine of the colour. Vibrant colours such as Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, and White are mainly used.

Tibetan Buddhist Yamantaka - Encounter with Death

It requires perfect skills in drawing, perfect figures and great understanding of the econometric principles to make these paintings. Balanced grid of angles and intersecting lines are used to portray arms, legs, eyes, nostrils, ears, and various ritual implements and composite with the flawless design sky landscape using colour saturation and shading which gives more embellished look and style to the painting, according to the theme. After tracing the colourful design on the canvas, artisan gives a final emboss golden touch to the painting. Small cold gold coins and leather gum is mixed in water (soaked to make a paste) is applied as final touch, which gives a glittering look. The gold finishing is done with a different brush called chew (local name), which has a glass fibre instead of hair. Cold gold is also known as “Ser” which is brought from China. After finalizing the painting, they cover it with red and yellow satin cloth, as the colour is symbolized as GOD wear. The traditional art form is basically religious that is implemented in harmony with the guidelines set in the Buddhist scriptures.

Vijaya Stupa: For Long Life of The Patron (Brocadeless Thangka)

The very last step in the thangka process is the consecration ritual. Monks chant, pray, and invoke the deity depicted. The eyes are then “opened” by painting in the pupils, and then an artist inscribes “om ah hum” (“body, mind, speech”) on the back of the scroll. Once consecrated, the thangka is no longer a painting—the deity inhabits the body of the figure. The image is brought to life. To most tourists and collectors, they are paintings of buddhas. To Tibetans, they are the buddhas themselves.

Innovations and changes in thangka painting have been made only in terms of tools and materials and otherwise the practice and process are same as it was years back. Along with pigment colours, acrylic colours and poster colours are also used. With the help of blow dryers and room heaters, ideal situations are created during unlikely weather for paintings to be painted efficiently. This helps the artist to paint thangkas all year round.

Global Presence of the Art

Tibetan Buddhist painting developed from the traditions of early Buddhist paintings, like paintings in Ajanta Caves in India and the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China, which have elaborate wall paintings. The Thangka form developed alongside the tradition of Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, which are or were mostly in monasteries. The earliest survivals of Tibetan paintings on cloth are in some pieces from the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang in China. Earlier Thangka forms of paintings were made in ancient scriptures and manuscripts and textiles. Over the following centuries Tibetan paintings, both on walls and Thangka, continued to develop in its distinctive style, balancing between the two major influences of Indo-Nepalese and Chinese painting. Styles vary considerably between the different regions of Tibet as well as the wider region where Thangkas are painted. Within Tibet the regions nearer Nepal and China are often more influenced by those styles. Bhutanese Thangka were mainly influenced by Central Tibet. The different monastic orders also developed somewhat different stylistic characters. Thangkas were painted in all the areas where Tibetan Buddhism flourished, which include Mongolia, Ladakh, Sikkim, and other parts of Himalayan India in Arunachal Pradesh, Dharamsala, and Lahaul and Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh. It is also practiced in parts of Russia (Kalmykia, Buryatia, and Tuva) and Northeast China.

To see our beautiful Hand-picked Handmade Thangkas, click here

References and Further Readings:

McGuckin, E. (1996). “Thangkas and Tourism in Dharamsala: Preservation Through Change.” The Tibet Journal, 21(2), 31-52.

“Norbulingka thangka's Norbulingka Institute” - Tibetan Thangka Paintings from the Tibetan Government's Institute under the Chairmanship of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Powers, J. (2007) “Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism” (5th ed.). Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Wanczura, Dieter (2010). "Traditional Tibetan Rugs - Artelino." Thangka Classification.

Wein, L. (2016) “Translating the Tibetan Buddhist ‘Thangka’.” The Tibet Journal, 41(1), 9-64.

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