An Ancient Art Form Forging its Future

Photos and Text by Anne Petry

Nepali thangka paintings have vivid colors with red, orange, yellow, blue and green dominating, capturing the cosmic world of Buddhist and Hindu Gods and Goddesses plus local religious monuments and landscapes.

Sacred Design

Photos and Text by Anne Petry

Thangka is the Tibetan name for the ancient Nepal art painting. This art originated from manuscript illustrations, first made on palm leaves. The earliest Nepali paintings are found in the eleventh century Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript. Later on, they were made in the form of either wall paintings or cloth paintings (also called paubha in Sanskrit). In ancient times, to better fulfill the great demand, Nepali artists created this type of religious painting on cloth so it could be easily rolled up and carried to remote destinations. Initially the artists creating thangkas were from the Buddhist community called Newar, one of Nepal’s many ethnic groups, and Newari artists were famous all around Asia for the high quality of their craftsmanship. 

If today thangkas are usually bought as pure art, they were commonly used in the past as icons to worship in both Nepal and Tibet. In fact, these religious paintings are based on myths and illustrate Hindu and Buddhist Gods and Goddesses that occupy the central position while surrounded by smaller Deities. 

Though the art of thangka has evolved through centuries, the technique, style and iconography remain quite conservative. For refined paintings, pigments like plants, minerals and soil are still used in order to achieve bright colors that will last longer. The biggest paintings are created by a whole team, each person being specialized in one particular act: drawing with pencil, adding colors or applying gilding. Creating a thangka can take weeks, sometimes months. To perform such precise work, the artists have to put themselves into a high state of concentration, a form of meditation. Let’s now discover together this ancient and precious art coming from the lofty reaches of the Himalaya.

The main colors used for these specific paintings are red, green, yellow, blue, and white. While the basic thangkas are painted with acrylic paints., traditional pigments are used for the most refined ones. The most demanding artists, like Urgen D. Lama bring the pigments from Tibet, finding they give more vibrant colors and last longer.

 Painters must have precise knowledge of the measurements and proportions of each Deity as established by the Hindu and Buddhist iconography. To achieve a thangka, several artists will work on it, as shown above, each painter being specialized in one task. One will do the design outlines, another one will be in charge of the color gradient, a third one will focus on the details, one will take care of the touch-ups and the last one will do the final touch by adding gold and giving a glittering look to the painting. Such accomplished teamwork gives even more value to the painting.
Ganesha is one of the best-known and most worshipped Deities in the Hindu pantheon. This God is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, bestower of good luck, intellect and wisdom, and the patron of arts & sciences. He is worshiped as the God of education, knowledge and wealth. Ganesha has an elephantine countenance with a curved trunk and big ears. The elephant head denotes wisdom and His trunk represents Aum, the primal sound of cosmic reality.
Urgen D. Lama is a renowned Nepali artist, the sixth generation in his family to create thangkas. With more than 30 years’ experience, he shares his knowledge with the youngsters at a school he created in Kathmandu, called “Yoga Life.” Working on this masterpiece of devas and Mahadevas took him over two months.
“Great Time:” Mahakala is a Deity common to Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism. in Hinduism, Mahakala is a fierce manifestation of both Siva and Vishnu, and He is prayed to for protection. In the Bhagavata Purana and Linga Purana, Mahakala is described as Lord Narasimha or the fire of destruction. In fact this God has the power to dissolve time and space into Himself and so can disintegrate the whole universe. He is also responsible for annihilating great evils and great demons. Mahakala has four arms and three eyes, He is adorned with skulls, sits on five corpses and holds in His hands a trident and a drum. He is drawn with black color. Just as all colors are dissolved into black, all names and forms are absorbed by the God Mahakala.
Tools of the Task: First, the drawings are traced directly on the canvas with all the appropriate measurements. For this, a pencil is used. Then different types of brushes are used depending on the task that has to be done. In fact, size and texture of the brush will change depending if the painter is working on the main lines or making the final touch-ups.
Work frame: In the past, canvases were stretched on bamboo or wood frames, but nowadays it is more common and convenient to use cotton threads and iron frames that both can be re-used. Thanks to this method, the artist ensures that the required uniform tension on the canvas is maintained so that he can then paint properly.
Prasad Offerings: In both religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism the offerings of food or fruits are common. When this offering is made to the God while reciting prayers, it is believed the blessing of the God strewn on the prasad will go to the devotees while they share the food.

Trishula: The trident, an attribute of Lord Siva, Shakti and Kali, is the most powerful divine weapon. The trident of Siva is called trishula and is considered as a magic protection that drives demons away. The three teeth of the trident are a reminder of creation, preservawtion and dissolution. It may also reflect the three fundamental qualities: goodness, passion and darkness, which are in all things in different proportions. The shaft symbolize the axis of the universe.

Agni: In the Hindu universe, agni, fire, is one of the most ancient and most sacred objects, being a potent vehicle to convey prayers. As such, the God Agni is considered as the mediator between men and Gods, as protector of mankind and their home, and as witness of their actions.

About the Author-

Anne Petry is a French photographer focusing on indigenous populations. Her nomadic life takes her from the Himalaya to the natives in Mexico, from the Shamans in Amazonia to the Hindu priests in India. She is passionate about people who keep alive their beliefs and traditions. Contact Instagram: annepetryphotography