Tibetan Thanka Paintings

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Tibetan Thanka Paintings

Tibet, with its isolated, harsh geographical location and history of political and social remoteness would seem an unlikely place to provide a “cradle for creative art” (Bailey 22). Yet it is in this desolate section of the world that one of the most intriguing artistic cultures has been cultivating over hundreds of centuries. One facet of what makes Tibetan art so unique and interesting is its interdependency on its religious beliefs.

In Tibet one might use the words “religion” and “culture” almost as synonyms, especially for the arts—literature, drama, painting, and sculpture. Not only were they inspired by religion, but religion was their very raison d’être (Pal 18).

Tibetan thanka[1] paintings are a wonderful example of the interconnectedness of religion and art. These images are “not meant to be the object of simple idolatry” (Jackson 11), but rather take on a more interactive role, which can be applied to nearly every facet of traditional Tibetan life. Tibetan Buddhism pervades all aspects of the creation and use of thanka paintings—in the training and requirements of the artists who create the paintings, in the physical creative process itself, in the iconography used, and in all the painting’s multiple functions. Tibetan thanka paintings, throughout their entire lifespan—from concept to consecrated image—help devotional religious activity for Tibetan Buddhism[2].

Thanka Artists

Types of Artists

Tibetan thanka artists, of which there were two types, monks and professionals, work within the confines of religious tradition. Trained professionals made up the majority of thanka artists, all of whom studied for years under strict instruction. Lamas were also involved in the creation of many paintings, mainly in a supervisory capacity (Pal 25). The chief centers of Tibetan art were the monasteries that often supplied artists with work (Pal 24). Usually, professional artists either had their own studios or were attached to individual monasteries for the duration of specific jobs.

Being an artist was not automatically hereditary and any talented adolescent boy could join a studio as an apprentice. The training period each child underwent was usually extensive and demanding:

The apprentice was expected to study drawing for about sixteen months, simple coloring for ten months, and mixed coloring for at least a year. Only then was he allowed to paint under his teacher’s strict vigilance. This he did for many years before he was qualified to set up his own workshop (Pal 25).

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