Thangka paintings are Buddhist paintings, or Buddhist art you can call it too. Illustrations of Buddha and other deities and gods are painted on specific undergrounds like cotton and silk. Usually it’s a loose woven cotton on which the illustrations are painted. The size of thangkas vary. There are small ones with a 20 cm width to medium sizes and you can even find ones with 2 meters of width. Prices vary on quality, design and size. The real thangkas should be painted with special paint made out of organic and mineral pigments, which have their own particular names.
The history of thangkas goes back to the 10th century. It spread over several countries where Mahayana Buddhism gained ground in India, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, Vietnam and a few more countries. The thangkas have the style and designs of each country, which defers slightly from one another. For ages huge thangkas were made in Tibetan monasteries. Once a year when a special Buddhist festival took place, the one huge thangka of tens of meters wide and long was brought to the roof of the monastery to roll it out and down from there to be seen by the public. Those thangkas were made from cloth.
Even nowadays in many monasteries thangkas are made from some kind of colorful powder over many square meters. Creating this all takes months or even years. The monks are creating the design and with a steady hand use the powders to eventually complete it all. At that moment there is a short discussion among the monks and their rinpoche after which it will all be destroyed. No picture as souvenir whatsoever. Years of work will be destroyed in a minute. This as a part of the Buddhist training of non attachment and impermanence.
Thangka Types – Wheel of life
Many of the thangkas show a painting of the six realms. This has to do with the cycle of birth, death, rebirth according to Buddhism. A never ending cycle, unless one reaches nirvana, which simply means no more rebirths and therefore no more suffering. The rebirths can happen in one of the six realms, depending on your karma, how you lived your life and what you’ll get back for it.
There are three good realms and three bad realms. 1- heavenly, 2 – demi god, 3- human / 4 – animal, 5 – ghost, 6 – hellish. Each of those realms has an explanation how and why to get into that next life. The thangkas usually show what looks like a monster holding the circle with the six realms, divided and shown with symbols of how that next life will be. This thangka is often called the wheel of life thangka.
Types – Kalachakra
Kalachakra is often referred to as a advanced and complex Buddha teaching. It means literally wheel of time, or time cycle. Kalachakra refers actually to many different Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The Kalachakra represents time, as everything is under influence of time. The illustration is without beginning and end. There are a few categories of kalachakras like the ground kalachakra and outer kalachakra. It’s a timeless and very important thing in Buddhism.
Types – Tara
Tara is a female Boddhisatva, which means a practitioner of Buddha’s teachings. Tara has many titles and importance. It goes from mother of liberation to super mother. From meditation deity to representing compassion, emptiness and achievements, among many more. Tara is very popular under Buddhists. She appears on thangkas in different colors. The green tara that stands for protection from fear, pride, ignorance, hatred, anger, jealousy, wrong views, desire and attachment. The white tara represents a long life, compassion and fights illness.
Overall there is a lot of history, a lot of symbolism, a lot of religion and a lot of explanation about thangkas. They can easily be bought in Nepal around Boudhanath stupa and Patan Durbar Square area. You might be brought by a guide to a building where the painters are painting and you’ll be pushed to buy one. Here lies a bit of an issue. They are often highly overpriced in comparison to what the painters earn. The paintings are sold for easily $50 for one medium size thangka. The painter itself usually gets only $5 to $10 for painting one, which takes days.
For Buddhists the thangkas have special meanings. They hang as decorations in all temples and monasteries of Mahayana Buddhism. For ordinary people who are not into Buddhism, a thangka can be a very nice thing to hang at home on your wall. A colorful, hand painted creation with meaning. More info can be found here http://www.buddhanet.net/thangkas.htm