From a distance they may look like just another set of paintings on silk, but thangkas are really the iconography of Tibet. The dedication, meticulousness and scholarship behind each thangka means that it is infused with the spiritual symbols of Tibet. A thangka is not just a painting in the guise of a scroll but a meditative tool. “In the recesses of Tibet’s sanctuaries, the images, now peaceful, now terrific, jump up alive before your eyes and engrave themselves deep into your consciousness. They are visions evoked with primordial forces, conjured up by painters in their wizardry of living forces,” says Lokesh Chandra, a former Rajya Sabha member who is a scholar of the Buddhist arts and author of the forthcoming book Tibetan Art.
The artist behind a thangka is normally a lama who is well-versed in sacred lore and whose work is accompanied by the continuous recital of prayers. The work has to be done in clean areas with the artist and his students using only natural colours. “Mistake in the measurements of a body given in the iconographic manuals is a great sin,” says Chandra. The paintings are normally done on silk or linen.
With myriad forms of visual art coming into focus in recent years, it is no surprise that thangkas too have found many takers. Recently, Sotheby’s held an auction of some of these rare masterpieces. An early Ming thangka depicting Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi had an estimate of $1-1.5 million (Rs4-6 crore). It sold for $1.16 million at the 2007 Asia Week fall auction of Sotheby’s. Another rare painting depicting the Mandala of Manjuvajra from the 15th century had an estimate of $100,00-150,000. It sold for $241,000. For those who cannot afford auction prices, there are always the options of thangkas made by trained artists sans the rituals. “The process of creating thangkas as they were made in the Tibetan monasteries is very rarely used today,” says Chandra.
Each thangka has an icon and different icons are for different meditative purposes. Chandra explains which icons to opt for, though he maintains individuals must decide on the basis of personal aesthetics.
Manjuvajra is Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
Bhaisajyaguru: The medicine Buddha is the icon for health. This dark blue Buddha is seen with the myrobalan (arura) plant in his right hand while his left hand holds a bowl of amrit—the nectar of immortality.
Vaishravana: The Buddhist counterpart of Kubera, who is the king of the Yakshas and the lord of wealth in Hindu mythology. This deity is usually golden in colour and has a large rounded body to depict prosperity and affluence.
Amitayus: The long-life Buddha stands for infinite life. He holds a vase of nectar topped with the leaves of the Ashoka tree. This represents without “ shok ” or “sorrow”. This way, it’s not only for long life but a life filled with a healthy body and happiness.
The tutelary deities: These are thangkas of smaller deities or the Isth Dwata or personal deities. Indians, Nepalese and Tibetans are not monotheistic people so they can have personal favourites and each of these deities provides a different function.
Tara: This figure is important and often seen in thangkas . Meditating before the Tara ensures that you are able to cross the bhavsagar or the mortal afflictions of the world.
Bhairav: Another popular deity. The Bhairav figures are normally two ferocious deities embracing each other. This represents the yab and the yum . It is the unity of wisdom and compassion in the tantric or esoteric forms.
Thangkas are available at Kiri Shop, E48 Lajpat Nagar, and at Full Circle Bookshop in Khan Market, New Delhi. The prices range from Rs1,800 to Rs16,500.