Chapter One

Thangka, a historical religious element

In his two-room studio filled with a variety of paint brushes, a life size poster of fourteenth Dalai Lama which is surrounded by French and American made acrylic colours, Sonam Choephel — a professional thangka artist and a teacher at Tibetan Homes School, Mussourie — shows his favourite Thangkas, as he explains the meaning of each.

“Thangka is very important in our daily lives. When a child is born, thangka is made for him and even when someone dies, it is made,” Sonam says, as he plays traditional Tibetan songs on a music player. Beside the music player on the table are stacks of music CDs of traditional Tibetan music which he listens to while making thangka.

Thangka, also spelt as “thanka”, “tanka” or “tangka”, is a Tibetan Buddhist religious painting done either on walls of monastery with a mixture of butter and sand colours, or on fabric with acrylic colours for the purpose of meditation. These scroll paintings depicting Tibetan Buddhist Gods and Goddesses, mounted on a solid backing, are believed to keep evil energy away. “Every house has a thangka. While meditating, God is present in the form of the Thangka,” explains Sonam.

Sonam Choephel — a professional thangka artist and a teacher at Tibetan Homes School, Mussourie, talks about his Thangka.

These paintings are detailed depictions of scenes containing a God, Goddess or a saint as the central figure; flanked by other lesser important subjects such as humans, animals or so. These are believed to be incarnations of Gods who have taken several rebirths to attain ‘moksha’ or ‘liberation from desires, birth and death.’

Traditionally, Tibetans observed the Bon religion, which is highly animistic and shamanistic in nature. Incorporating images of deities and saints in house-making existed since long, where these drawings were believed to keep away the malevolent forces outside the house.

It was during the reign of King Songsten Gampo in the eleventh century when Tibetans were introduced to Buddhism. Since then, a mixture of both the Bon culture and Buddhist traditions, strongly influenced each other in producing a ‘Tibetan Buddhist’ faith, marked by powerfully meditative and ritualistic practices.

Audio: Sonam Choephel on why he started making Thangka.

“There are many Gods in Buddhism, some are wrathful deities while some are peaceful, each of them has a particular role.” He goes on explaining how evil spirits of witches and demons would, in earlier times in Tibet plot against families, married couples and relatives to incite them to quarrel and then celebrate as devotees suffered. The wrathful deities then would come to their rescue.

Thangka made on ceiling of a monastery in Dehra Doon.

For the section of sacredly devoted Buddhists, thangka holds a supreme religious significance. These images of deities are narrative scenes from the lives of Gods and Goddesses, that serve as constant reminders to people to follow the right path.

Thangkas have survived since the revival of Buddhism in the 12th century and through its presence in monasteries, walls, and homes, undergoing a wave of change in its making-style, portrayal and usage of colours. With influences from Indo-Nepalese, Tibetan and Chinese paintings, the designs also varied between the four different schools of Tibetan Buddhism — Nyingma, Kagya, Sakya, and Gelug.

Chapter Two

Thangka as an art form

It takes four to five years to only learn how to draw a thangka,” says Sonam, who continues explaining the intricacies that have to be kept in mind while making a Thangka. He narrates his own experience of having being learnt the art in Tibetan Homes School and that despite an experience of thirty years, he still has to be careful like a novice when sketching a Thangka in its initial stage.

Inside the classroom for ‘Thangka-art’ in Tibetan Homes, young learners are seen busily scaling layers of lines with pencil with which they sketch images of deities. This is the initial stage, when the deity’s image is carved with pencil on paper, the method known as ‘foundational line drawing.’ The pencil-sketch must provide a smooth and dark base over which an inlay or colours would spread themselves after a period of about four to five days.

A sound geometric composition is the prerequisite for a Thangka. Arms, legs, other body parts of the deity and distinct elements are drawn on a systematic grid marked by angles and intersection of straight or diagonal lines. The process is highly methodical as it requires a deep understanding of the symbolism behind every direction and shape.

Sonam Choephel explaining the importance of Thangka in a Tibetan’s life.

Books on symbolism and allusion of shapes, forms, figures of animals and still objects dot the shelves in the classroom, which is landscaped by Thangka paintings made by students on the upper walls. Each student having his own set of colours, rulers, measurement tapes, eraser and pencils seems engrossed in the attempt to accurately design a masterpiece.

Choephel while explaining about the use of various colours says that “variations exist in making a thangka from acrylic colours or those made from sand colours. Both of these are prepared in different number of days as sand colours take more time to dry and they have to be kept away from moisture while painting.”

Most commonly while learning, a canvas size of width 40–58 centimetres is used. After a pencil outline of the figure, paint consisting of water-soluble pigments and animal glue is applied onto the image. Other finer minerals and organic pigments are used, the process known as “distemper technique” in common terminology.

Munks opening a large Thangka made on fabric at Sakya monastery in Uttrakhand.

After the sketching has been done, layers of colours are applied over a period of two weeks of alternate sun-drying of the wet colours so that the canvas soaks in all the elements, with no chances of seepage. After shading and re-shading, a final process of ‘gold application’ is carried out where the most significant elements are highlighted with liquid gold.

“It takes about twenty days to make a thangka on paper,” Choephel says, who displays Thangka paintings made by the previous batches of students at Tibetan Homes.

After five years of learning to draw a thangka, the student has two choices — either to become a professional artist and paint Thangkas in demand or to devote spiritually to understand, practice and preach the hidden meaning of Thangka by training in a monastery to become a traditional monk.

While Sonam knows both about the art and its religious importance, he hopes his students choose one and dedicate to it wholly. “I draw thangka sometimes in my studio but it is very rarely as I get little time from teaching,” he says.

He smiles in pride as he shows the book of symbolism in Thangka painting authored by one of the oldest Gurus who studied at Tibetan Homes.

Chapter Three

Thangka as a sacred art of precision 

After the first learning stage of five years when an artist has mastered the art of drawing Thangkas, he has the liberty to choose between becoming a professional artist or training to be a monk.

“Thangka carries sacred messages of the Divine that are meant to be followed as guiding principles of the Tibetan way of life,” says Khenpo Gyaltsen, the head monk at Sakya Monastery, Dehradun.

Khenpo Gyaltsen, the head monk at Sakya Monastery, Dehradun.

Gyaltsen was ten when he came to India from Nepal to attend monastic education, it has been thirty six years from then. As he waits to meet a devotee from Sweden, he is looking at the Thangka inside his room, the meaning of which he has to explain to the devotee from abroad.

As Gyaltsen sits down after a long stare at the Thangka, he elaborates on how it is not just a religious art, but a source of spirituality, a token of healing, which holds great meaning in decoding the higher truths of life, death and the attainment of ‘moksha.’

He feels, “the laymen do not understand the meaning behind these paintings. These are lessons for mankind from the lives of Gods who want them to engage in good and shun all evil.”

Gyaltsen, who is in regular contact with devotees from all over, talks of Nepal where a huge business is made out of selling what he calls ‘artificial’ thangkas. “In Nepal, thangkas are sold in markets at a cheap price. These may look similar but they are not original ones,” he says.

Head monk and Ngowong talk aboout particular definition in Thangka.

Markets in Nepal are full of Thangkas, because the demand of having them at Buddhist homes is high. These Thangkas, however, lack precision of measurement and many a times do not even fit the definition of the religious Thangka as symbols are poorly drawn in them.

In the recent years, Thangka is being purchased in a large scale, mainly for decorative purposes at homes. Many e-commerce giants also cater to the business. As the demand exceeds the rate of production of Thangkas, a whole new supply chain is operating in the market. From the usual sizes of scroll paintings to Thangka images installed in accessories like key-chains, wall hangings, clocks, etc., it dominates the goods markets of the Nepal.

Tourists from various places throng these markets, many of who also visit the head monk, sharing these experiences.

Not far from Dehradun, antique shops outside the Mindroling Monastery in Clementown host a variety of colourful souvenirs displaying Thangka — some of these are table clocks, some are wall hangings, others are in the form of playing cards, or glass frames attached to a backing frame — a huge chunk of these items, manufactured locally are meant for sale in local markets flooded by tourists throughout the year.

“There are some laymen who can make thangka beautifully but they have no idea about its meaning or content,” says Gyaltsen. According to strict Buddhist traditions, even half a degree shift in the angle of a specific segment or line would render the Thangka incorrect as a whole. Every shade of colour and shape of object holds a meaning in the painting. The inadequacy of the maker’s knowledge exposes the religious symbol to inaccuracy of depiction.

Other than the efficiency of scales of measurement, Thangkas have to be made within certain restricted habits and customs. “While making a thangka, one must avoid non-veg food and stay away from all negative thoughts,” says Gyaltsen.

Thangka-making is an essentially ritualistic process. Thangkas of different deities are prepared in different time intervals. Some of them, made usually at the birth of a child — called ‘Ninthang’- takes only a day to be complete while many take weeks or even months.

Like Gyaltsen, monks who have learnt about the religious art believe that it is the source of contemplation, power and reflection. For them, Thangka is beyond art and they believe that this makes it even more important to preserve their art in exile. Many of these monks at Sakya Monastery are from Tibet, some were abandoned by their families while some came to India to for monastic education.

As they continue to live far away from their homeland, surrounded by a people of a different culture, these monks believe that even though the distances have separated them from their families, the Thangka deities are keeping a watch over their loved ones back home.

Timeline showing various important stages in Tibetan struggle for freedom.

According to sacred scriptures, there are many protector deities in Buddhism. These deities are believed to be keeping a record of every act of tyranny and injustice, waiting to react at a predestined time and hour. Many Tibetans, too, feel that the deities are witness to the atrocities that have been brought upon them since China invaded Tibet in 1959.

Video: Thangka and its influence on the Tibetan struggle for freedom.

“When China occupied Tibet, the Gods didn’t act. It does not mean that the Gods are incapable,” says the head monk. Looking at the Thangka of the ‘Wheel of Life’ on the outer walls of the Monastery, Gyaltsen explains how it depicts ‘karma’ and penance. He believes that the deeds of Tibetans in their past lives are the cause of their suffering under a foreign invasion. He says, “

Chapter Four

Thangka as a commodity

A window pane outside the Tibetan Settlement Office in Deikyling displays a beautiful symbolic art, through which sunlight is reflected into a fine spectrum of colours that lights the lane in front of the gate of Exile Creations.

Started by 34-year-old Ngowang Tsultrim, Exile Creations is an entrepreneurial venture that manufactures glass art, with its customer base extending beyond India. Rows of tables are laid down in equal distances from each other as scores of heads of busy Tibetan youths remain fixated to the glass and beads on the table.

Video: Ngowang explains his motive to blend Thangka art into stained glass.

Ngowang, who lives nearby, is seated in a table far away from these rows, where a unique style of paint is seen shining on the surface of layers of stained glass. When asked, Ngowang explains how he was inspired by medieval English cathedrals where stained glass art dominated the typical architectural design of the walls and windows of these structures. His friend from Holland, knowing his zeal for trying something new, suggested him to fuse the traditional with the modern. That’s how, he started making Thangka into stained glass.

“Our purpose is only for art. Not everyone buys the thangka for religious purposes, some buy it for decoration,” says Ngowang. He describes how there are different artists for glass art and those specializing in Thangka, in his workplace. He brought some traditional Thangka artists from Dehradun and Mussorie nearby, and taught them how to work in glass, as “the working and painting in glass is totally different,” he explains.

Artists busy working at the factory setup by 34-year-old Ngowang Tsultrim called ‘Exile Creations.’

When asked if the sacredness of Thangka is kept in mind while his artists make a stained glass Thangka, Ngowang says, “I am not that religious. We do not follow the traditionally religious process of making a thangka as it would mean many restrictions.”

He looks at the shards of glass on the table on which Goddess Tara, the deity of benevolence is painted, and smiles, “Our main purpose is to reach to everybody. I think in a different way, I want to generate employment for people.”

Audio: Ngowang tells his modern take on traditional Thangka art.

Many local Tibetan youths who haven’t been employed or those who cannot go far off places to work, signed up for Exile Creations.

Ngowang shares his future plan of approaching monasteries both in and outside Dehradun to sell these stained glass Thangkas as he believes these would look equally beautiful like the sand or appliqué Thangkas in the walls of these shrines do.

Thangka, which has evolved beyond time and space, is one of the memories the Tibetan refugees have brought with them here. As they continue to live in these settlements, each carving out their own way — they remain together in spirits — with their Gods, through the Thangka inspiring and motivating them.

An Artist busy in making Thangka on a glass.

For many, the Thangka is an art of awe, placed in the high walls of their personal spaces adding to the decorative value, for some Thangka brings them their daily bread in a land abroad, for others its sight provides healing and peace while for most, it mirrors the image of the Divine in direct contact with the devotee listening to his silent prayer, enveloping him like an omnipresent superpower in his troubled times.

Multimedia story by:

Ieshan Wani, Maariyah Siddique, Sumaiya Ali, Sahiba Khan, Zarafshan Shiraz.