To travellers and collectors, thangkas are vibrant paintings of deities but to Tibetans, they are the buddhas themselves. Thangkas are a distinctly Tibetan form of art centred around religious figures and symbols. They are hand-painted by Tibetan artists and Buddhist monks who have devoted years to studying.

According to Tibetan lore, thangkas date back to the time of Sakyamuni Buddha. King Uttrayana of Dadok commissioned a painting of the Buddha as a gift to King Bimbisara of Magodha but when the painters started to paint Sakyamuni Buddha, his holy light blinded them. They completed the painting by observing his reflection in water and by capturing the Buddha’s reflection, the painters also captured some of his spirit.

Today, at least twenty thangkas are known to date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. The tradition is rooted in the early paintings surviving in the Ajanta Caves and Magao Caves of China, where thangka painting developed alongside Buddhist wall paintings. The painting of thangkas spread wherever Tibetan Buddhism was practiced including Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Mongolia, and other parts of the Himalayas.

Thangkas usually depict religious figures such as Buddha, Buddhist deities, bodhisattvas (enlightened beings), and teachers. They can also depict Buddhist teachings, events, scripture, and symbols, such as the Bhavachakra (the Wheel of Life). When painting a thangka, it is crucial to depict deities in appropriate body postures (asanas), hand gestures (mudras), and proportions (iconometry). Upholding age-old traditions and painting each brush stroke with intention is important because thangkas are viewed as a form of visual scripture. It can take a painter years to learn the iconometrics, stories, and characteristics of different figures. While some elements of a thangka follow clearcut rules, a painter has total creative freedom when it comes to other decorative elements such as landscapes and backgrounds.

Before a thangka is painted, painters first purify themselves and their environment by washing their hands and lighting incense. They stretch white fabric across a frame and apply white gesso (a type of primer) or chalk. They burnish the surface with a smooth stone then outline the image in black or red ink, paint the background black or red, then add the central figure. Final touches are made as the painting is gilded or embellished with gold leaf and mounted on silk.

A thangka is not complete until the consecration ritual. Monks chant, pray, and invoke the deity depicted in the thangka. The deity’s eyes are “opened” as the pupils are painted and the words om ah hum (body, mind, spirit) are inscribed on the back. Upon consecration, the thangka is not just a painting; it houses the spirit of the depicted deity.

With intricate designs that require hours of artistry, most thangkas are the work of many hands. They are commonly overseen by a master painter who oversees the production of the work and handles the intricate brushwork while allowing students to contribute. To satisfy the commercial demand, some thangkas intended for non-religious use are produced through a combination of hand painting and machine printing.

Today, thangkas are hung in monasteries and homes around the globe. They run the gamut from fine art comissioned by patrons and passed between generations to souvenirs mass-produced for backpackers. Travellers visiting Tibet or enclaves of Tibetan culture like India’s Dharamsala will find colourful thangkas lining the walls of souvenir shops and spilling into alleyways. The beauty of thangka paintings and the ease with which they are transported has made them highly sought-after amongst tourists. Although commercial production was initially frowned upon, that sentiment has evolved. Many Tibetans believe the commercialisation of the thangka is beneficial because it sparks curiosity in Buddhism and paves the way for more people to embrace Buddhist teachings.

While thangkas make beautiful decorations, it’s important to remember that thangkas serve deeper purposes. They are made to be venerated and can aid in meditation or tantric practices. They have also been used to teach young monks, students, and laypeople about Buddhism and Traditional Tibetan Medicine. Last but not least, thangkas can be commissioned to positively influence the karma of someone who has passed away if done during the seven to forty-nine days it takes for reincarnation to take place.

Modern thangka artists continue to keep this sacred cultural tradition alive; they do so by believing that painting a deity remains an act of deep worship and upholding the notion that the power of a thangka lies in the heart of the practitioner painting it.