Painting, process as prayer

4 min read
03 Mar 2018
4 min read
1718 words
To become a thangka artist requires years of devotion to craft, and creating a thangka painting requires the artist to paint in a state of devotion

A thangka usually features subjects that have deep roots in Tibetan
Buddhism--such as the different versions of buddhas, bodhisattvas, mandalas and Tibetan Buddhism masters. The word 'thangka' translates to 'that which can be rolled up'--a term coined by the itinerant monks who travelled across Tibet, carrying these artworks and using them as tools for teaching. More importantly, they serve as meditation tools: practitioners use a thangka image of their yidam (meditation deity) as a guide, visualising themselves as the deity. Thangkas also often serve as records of historical events concerning important monks and legends associated with Buddhist deities.

To the people of the Himalayan region in Nepal, many of whom are Buddhists, a thangka plays an important role in their religious rituals. The importance of thangkas has led to many people taking up thangka drawing as a profession, and there are many schools that teach the ancient art of thangka drawing. To learn more about how modern-day thangka schools teach this ancient artform, VMAG paid a visit to the Tsering Art School, on the premises of Shechen Monastery, in Boudha. The following paraphrased version of the information provided to us by Kesang Namgyal, the principal of Tsering Arts, explains how the school produces bona fide artists who are equally devoted to mastering this artform and keeping the art's authentic form alive.

The school's objective

Tsering Arts School was established by Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche in 1996, when thangkas were becoming commercially popular. "The school's sole objective is to preserve the authentic Tibetan Buddhist thangka lineage and to stay true to the thangka's purpose and its significance in Tibetan Buddhism," says Namgyal."We have been doing this by training young artists in the authentic styles of Buddhist thangka painting."

Techniques in thangka painting

At Tsering Art School, every painter must undergo a primary six-year course to master the fundamentals of thangka painting. During this time, a novice painter has to be completely invested in the painting process, both artistically and spiritually.

Each day at the school begins with students participating in a prayer for half an hour followed by five minutes of meditation. The students then learn to sketch on blackboards different elements of thangka, with pencils and sticks. They also practice painting the sketches. Once the day's classes are over, students congregate for another prayer. The concluding prayer is conducted to ensure that the blessings obtained from the paintings are shared among all living beings in the world.

Before thangka painters (even after they have graduated school) begin painting a work, they have to spend some time praying with all their tools and paraphernalia. This ritual is believed to ensure that the Buddha himself inhabits the paintings. And they must perform a prayer at the conclusion of the day too.

To truly master thangka, the six-year course alone wonít do. Artists must spend many more years of dedication and practice to polish their craft. Along with mastering the art of thangka, painters must also be familiar with Buddhist teachings and philosophies in order to endow the paintings with authenticity.

The painting process

First, a piece of cloth, preferably cotton, is smeared with a thick mixture of chalk powder and skimmed glue until its surface is evenly coated with the mix. Once the canvas is dry, the surface is rubbed vigorously with a stone to smoothen it. The canvas is then stretched and fastened to a wooden frame.
Before beginning the painting process, measurements on the canvas are made in order to precisely frame the deities and secondary components. Usually, artists cannot break away from the traditional elements that have been in use over centuries, especially the deities' gestures, ornaments and adornments. However, artists do have the freedom to make additions--such as mountains and clouds to signify characteristics of heavenóin the background, to create a more scenic appeal. The thangka's background is the first element that is painted. Once the background is done, the artists concentrate more on the intricate details, such as the deities themselves and the objects that they interact with.

Thangkas' multiple purposes

In Tibetan Buddhism, thangkas also serve the same purpose that statues do--to aid in religious worship. Because thangkas depict the teachings of the Buddha, stories of Buddhist masters and legends about deities, they are perfect for use in Buddhist rituals. They are also used as a medium to transfer prayers and blessings. Today, thangkas are also regarded as collectible artwork, with the most intricate ones commanding great prices around the world.

Today, many artists thus sell thangkas to buyers who do not appreicate their religious significance, but are instead drawn by their aesthetics. Most such buyers of thangkas regard them as commercial products--to be used as decoration pieces. "Selling thangkas solely to make money is said to lead to bad karma," says Namgyal. That's why, at Tsering Art School, students are encouraged to make thangkas that will be only be used for religious purposes.
ìThe paintings created by the students of Tsering Art School are made for monasteries, teachers and local residents who intend to use them for rituals and for worship," he says.


Buddha Amitabha

Amitabha, also known as the Red Buddha, is the most ancient among the Five Dhyani Buddhas of the Vajrayana tradition. Amitabha was believed to be a king, who called himself 'Dharmakara Bodhisattva' upon renouncing all his titles and worldly possessions. It is believed that after accumulating merit over countless lives, he finally achieved nirvana (or enlightenment). His red skin symbolises the attainment of nirvana.

Guru Rinpoche

Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, was an eighth century tantric Buddhist hailing from Oddiyana, in India. He is widely recognised for playing an instrumental role in bringing Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet. Most thangkas depict him situated between his two consorts, Mandarava and Yeshe Tsogyal. He is seen holding a vajra (dorje in Tibetan) with his right hand, while with his left, he holds a skull-cup containing a vase filled with the nectar of longevity and wisdom.


Avalokiteshvara is one of the most revered bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. It is believed that a long time ago he made a vow not to return to nirvana until he had relieved all sentient beings of their sufferings. In his four-armed form, Avalokiteshvara sits on a lotus, with his legs fully crossed. His arms represent the four qualities of a bodhisattva: compassion, love, joy and equanimity.

Green Tara

Green Tara is the most popular representation of Tara among her 21 variations. She is the most venerated female Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism and is also known as the 'Mother of all Buddhas'. She is believed to be the female incarnation of Avalokiteshvara. Green Tara is usually shown sitting, with one of her legs drawn towards her, the other resting on a lotus bud that springs from the pedestal. Her hands, holding the stems of blue a lotus, depict the mudra (stance) of generosity.

The Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life, or the 'Bhavchakra', represents the reasons behind the suffering of mortals. This metaphysical illustration is depicted using four concentric circles, held up by Yama, the God of Death, under the sky, which symbolises freedom from the cyclic existence, with Gautam Buddha pointing at the wheel to signify the possibility of liberation.

Life of the Buddha

The Life of the Buddha illustrates the pivotal moments in Siddhartha Gautam's life and his path to spiritual enlightenment.


In Tibetan Buddhism, a mandala is an intricate geometric symbol that represents cosmic powers and the universe. Buddhist practitioners use them to strengthen meditative practices. Commonly, mandalas are depicted in the form of concentric circles with a four-walled palace in the middle typically accommodating a deity or its symbol.


The Mahakala is the wrathful incarnation of Avalokiteshvara. His ruthless power of destruction is said to help annihilate evil when other gods fail to do so. Representing time, or ëKalaí, the Mahakala is said to show no mercy while destroying the universe or its inhabitants.

Medicine Buddha

Buddha Bhaisajyaguru, also known as the Medicine Buddha, is normally depicted sitting cross-legged on a lotus throne. He is represented as a doctor who cures dukkha (suffering) using the medicines of his teachings.