The Art of Thangka Painting: A Short History & Explanation

The Art of Thangka Painting: A Short History & Explanation


Thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk applique, mostly depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. The Tibetan Thangka paintings were a means of expression through which the entire Buddhist philosophy could be explained by the lamas and their own stories. Traditionally, the Thangkas are kept unframed and rolled up when not displayed in Chinese scroll paintings style, with a silk cover.


Thangka can come in various sizes, but mostly they come in small sizes and sometimes can be extremely large with several meters long and wide. Thangkas are traditionally used for meditation purposes and also for teaching the students in a monastery. The composition of these Thangkas includes a mix of various small figures where the central deity has other small identified figures in the surrounding.

Thangkas are essential in depicting the lives of various influential figures like Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and various other lamas and deities. They reflect the wisdom and knowledge of Buddhism in the Abhidharma teachings, the Art of Enlightenment. The printed form of the Thangkas is widely used these days for devotional and decorative works.

Buddhists have a belief that Human Beings transmit and receive subtle energy with other enlightened souls emitting powerful energy through the Yogic Nervous System. This transmitted energy can be felt in their presence and can also be absorbed by various items used by the souls during meditation. So Thangkas and Mandalas consist of these spiritual weights carried over during the course of time.


Traditionally, Thangkas were painted on cotton or silk with an embroidered silk border and silk covering screen. They were originally painted on palm leaves, but as paper became more common, the use of palm leaves gradually decreased and finally disappeared by the 18th century. 

The use of cloth Thangkas increased during the 9th century in Nepal. In these modern days, the demand for the traditional Thangkas increases along with the change in styles and is developed organically over time and regions. The use of gold in the Thangkas is becoming more popular in the Nepalese community. 

The paintings were colored using herbs and adhesive elements, which caused the paintings to retain their vibrancy and last for a long lifespan. The use of silk often requires that the paintings should be kept in dry places.


Thangka, derived from the Tibetan word Thang Ka, has the meaning of “recorded message.” The Thangka painting is used for teaching because the paintings’ details give a real sense to various Buddhist Philosophies. The life of a Thangka starts in the Himalayas and can travel a long, long journey through different owners, mostly monks. 

Thangka is also known as Paubas in Nepali and Newari. It depicts Buddhist and Hindu Gods, Goddesses, Buddha and his life cycle, The Wheel of Life, Bhairab, Green Tara, Manjushree, etc., the Thangka painting evolved in Tibet between the 7th and 12th centuries. The painting is made on a canvas wrapped up in silk and is governed by iconographic rules. Painting of a Thangka involves patience, skill, and great care at every level of painting, and the final result can be beautiful and exquisite. 

Making of a Thangka Painting

The process of making a Thangka is very long and involves many stages. At first, the canvas must be prepared by stretching it and making it very smooth for outlining. Then, the outline of the art, mostly deity, must be made according to the lamas’ guidelines, first by a pencil and only then by a fine brush. At the final stage of the painting, the colors are added to them.

Initially, the canvas is hanged on a bamboo frame and then stretched to create tension on the canvas for the artist to enable drawing in it.  The canvas’s surface is coated with chalk, gesso (animal glue), and base pigment.

The Drawing process includes the visual representation of spiritual reality into a canvas. Here, the drawing of the deity must be made according to the strict guidelines because the stance, mood, and color of the art all have a great significance in the paintings of Buddhist art. The outline is first made with a pencil or charcoal and must be as per the iconographic grids.

Finally, adding the right color is as necessary as the drawing because only the right color can show the painting’s true character. The painting is done with fine brushes where the artist blends various shades and colors to provide the necessary depth to the image. A good Thangka painting can take a couple of months to complete. The colors were all made using vegetable and mineral pigments traditionally, but acrylic paints replaced them as time changed.

The artist drawing a Thangka should work on the same painting for few months. So, having excellent knowledge and understanding of Buddhist art. These days, the lamas provide training to other Thangka painters to give them knowledge about the subjects and other attributes to be painted. 

The final painting of a Thangka is given a silk brocade border, usually a yellow, red, or blue-colored fabric. Before using a new Thangka, it is traditionally made sacred by a high priest. 

Types of Thangkas

  1. Block Print Thangkas: The Block Print Thangkas are made on a canvas, but the outlines are printed with wood engraving on the same canvas before painting it. After the outlining is done, the painting process is started. This type of approach gives a unique design to the Thangka by providing the depth of the art. 
  2. Embroidery Thangkas: The Embroidery Thangkas are not painted but rather are embroidered with colorful silk. Embroidering means creating or sewing patterns using a thread or silk (in Thangkas). 
  3. Wooven Thangkas: The Wooven Thangkas are weaved by long interlacing threads passing in one direction with others at a right angle to them. This kind of Thangka is unique and provides a signature to the people developing it.
  4. Applique Thangkas: The Applique Thangkas are also not painted, but they are made using many small pieces of cloth. Various fragments of different colored silk are first to cut into a required shape and then collated onto a background or with each other to form a mosaic. Further, necessary details are added later on or painted to develop a fine Thangka.
  5. Metal Thangkas: The Metal Thangkas are made on bronze, and making Metal Thangka is a complex process compared to other Thangkas types.
  6. Wooden Craved Thangkas: The Wooden Craved Thangkas are 3-dimensional Thangkas where the deities are carved in a wood piece by a wood-carver.
  7. Paper Mache Thangkas: Paper Mache Thangkas are made of Paper Mache. This type of Thangkas is also 3-dimensional and provides a unique look to the traditional Thangkas. After the Mache is dried and the shape is perfect, colors are added to the paper Mache.


The Thangka Paintings give the Buddhist practitioner a message looking at the paintings and help in meditation as it shows you to visualize the deity. The details on the painting have a deep meaning attached to them, and some details refer to the parts of Buddhist Philosophy. 

The then lamas and Tibetan Monks would use the Thangkas to give education on Buddhism to people from different villages far from them. As the Thangka Paintings could be scrolled, it could be carried to villages far from the monastery, and the lama would describe the stories by pointing at different details on the Thangka.

Thangka is sometimes regarded as a “roadmap to enlightenment,” as it shows a visual representation of the highest state of consciousness, the Buddhist spiritual path’s ultimate goal. Some monasteries still have tremendous scrolls, like Applique Thangkas, which are unrolled on auspicious occasions for public viewing and ceremonies. 

A completed Thangka can only be placed in a home after completing few rituals where the priests perform a long ceremony for a whole day. During this ceremony, various mantras relating to the deity in the paintings are chanted. The painting can offer a lot when placed on your home, but only if you follow few rules after putting it on your home. If you are able to do them and please the gods, the Thangka gets more powerful.

The beautiful art of Thangka Painting has been preserved and passed on by the Thangka masters to their students after years and years of training. The Thangka lineage has stayed in the same family from father to their son. The artist who makes the Thangka paintings needs to understand his subject so that the deity’s true nature and their spiritual powers and teachings can be passed on through generations.