The thangka is an important and highly developed expressive tool through which the entire Buddhist philosophy can be explained. Thangkas are mainly used in Buddhist temples and monasteries to support and strengthen meditation, but their use is not limited to monasteries and temples, as they can help meditation anywhere due to their content, idealism and design.
The history of thangkas dates back to early Buddhist painting, the remains of which can now be found in only a few places, such as the Ajanta Caves in India and the Mogao Caves along the Silk Road, which have extremely extensive wall paintings. These traditions gave rise to early Tibetan wall painting, which can be considered the predecessor of thangka paintings.
The first thangkas date from the 11th century, but their real flowering begins after the revival of Buddhism in the 12th century. Early thangkas are already complex, but less so than their modern successors.
But what exactly is a thangka? At its physical level, it is an intricate, complex three-dimensional object consisting of a hand-painted or embroidered image, a textile frame, and a silk curtain to cover the image. Its material and production allow it to be rolled up and thus easily transported.
Thangka is a Tibetan word that means "recorded message". The thangka sends a message to the person who looks at it, as each motif, each detail has a deep meaning and refers to certain parts of Buddhist philosophy. That is why, historically, thangkas were also used as educational tools to present the lives of various masters and deities.
Traditionally in education, the student was expected to understand the sutra and the direct experience of emptiness before stepping onto the tantric path. The images of tantric deities could only be seen by the spiritually prepared student who had reached such a level that he was able to interpret the images positively and effectively. The curtain made it possible for the student to see the picture at the right time during the lesson. In the case of thankgs, you can see two red free-hanging ribbons next to the central image. These are used during meditation, the purpose of which is to create a closer connection with the ideological message of the picture, by touching the ribbons, you can achieve an effect as if you were holding the hand of the deity shown in the picture, thus creating a more direct connection and increasing the quality of the meditation.
The material of the thangkas is linen, cotton or silk. The thangkas are made by hand and their preparation begins with the proper preparation of the material. Before the painting begins, the material is sewn at the edges with linen thread and stretched in a special wooden frame. The material is then treated with a liquid made from calcite powder and animal glue, dried, and repeated twice more. When the third layer has dried, the material is rubbed with a large pebble to obtain an even surface and then the material is ready for painting.
A charcoal pencil is usually used to create the sketch and the central figure is created first. Then outline the supporting characters and the surrounding landscape. Coloring is the last step. For this, pigments from non-transparent minerals and plants are usually used, which are mixed with the material used for the foundation and thus the thangka remains shiny for a long time. Finally, when the painting is finished and dry, it is applied to a silk border and draped, which allows the image to be covered. The choice of proportions, color and pattern of the silk scarf is also very important, because it can amplify or obscure the central message of the image.
The composition of the thangka, like much of Buddhist art, is based on strict geometrical rules. In order for the master to draw a Buddhist figure or mandala on the thangka, he must know exactly the proportions and dimensions of each deity, which is determined by Buddhist iconography and artistic practice. Arms, legs, eyes, nostrils, ears, and various ritual tools are all formed from angular, intersecting lines. A skilled thangka artist usually selects the elements of the composition from various prepared forms. The process seems mechanical, but it requires a lot of practice to understand the symbolism in depth and to select the right elements in order to reflect the right spirit in the image. Each thangka usually contains many references and symbols. Since the art of thangka painting is specifically religious, all symbols and allusions must conform to the strict guidelines set forth in Buddhist scriptures. That is why the artist must be properly trained and have enough religious understanding, knowledge and background to create an accurate and Buddhist thangka. Each thangka can take up to six weeks to create, from preparing the canvas to adding the frame and curtain.
Since the essence of thangka painting is not the artist's imagination, but the transmission of the appropriate spiritual content, the role of the artist is significantly different from the role of painters and artists working in the Western world. A thangka artist is a medium or channel who rises above his own worldly consciousness to create a higher light in the world through the work he creates. The tradition of thanka painting is passed down from generation to generation, with many years of training, the masters pass on their knowledge to the next generation, teaching them the use of iconographic grids, the application of correct proportions and the mixing of mineral pigments. Precisely because of this long and complex learning process, thangka painting is often passed down from father to son within the family.
Traditionally, thangka paintings are not primarily used for their aesthetic beauty, but primarily for their assistance in meditation practices. Meditators use the thangka to clearly visualize a particular deity and strengthen concentration, which helps to establish a connection with the imagined deity.
Most thangkas are relatively small, with the central image rarely exceeding 45-50 cm in size, but there are also extremely large thangkas that can reach several meters in size. These were designed to be displayed for a short period of time as part of religious holidays, usually on the walls of monasteries. However, most thangkas are for personal meditation.
At a deeper level, thangka paintings 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 thangkas are sometimes called "roadmaps to enlightenment" as they provide support for finding the path to enlightenment.
In order for each thangka to be able to help its owner in meditation for a long time, proper treatment is important. The thangka usually comes rolled up to its final location, where, with rare exceptions, it is displayed on the wall. In doing so, it is important to place the hook or nail at such a height that the deity's heart is above the eye line. It is both a sign of respect and a source of inspiration if you have to look up during meditation. Next, we suspend the thangka by the support tape and let the material slowly descend with the help of our hands.
The next step is to tie the silk curtain to the top border of the picture. The role of the silk curtain is twofold: on the one hand, it protects the image from dust, intense radiation and damage during transport and storage, and on the other hand, it hides the image from uninitiated and spiritually unprepared eyes.
The curtain is usually tied in a traditional way. The thinner string at the top of the thangka is used for this purpose - the thicker one is used to suspend the image. Then, the evenly lowered curtain should be grasped at the center of its lower edge and gathered evenly in the hands as we move upwards until we reach the top of the thangka. When we reach the top of the image, the gathered fabric must be pushed under the string at the top of the image and arranged so that the lower edges of the curtain are located in a semicircle.
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