The Function of Tibetan Thangka Paintings

A thangka is a scroll painting. The Tibetan word thangka means “something that can be rolled up”. On Market days and at celebrations, in villages and pilgrimage sites, travelling monks and lamas unrolled thangkas and told stories about saints and deities as they pointed out elements in the painted tableaux.

For protection and liturgical reasons, pilgrims and travellers would take a rolled up thangka along on their perilous journeys. Both uses are still in practice today, but to a lesser degree than several generations ago.

The most important function of a thangka is as a religious aid in ritual actions, or as a guideline and a help in meditation. By seeing the figures depicted, concentrating on them, and identifying with the central deity or personage, the believer strives for “liberation through beholding”.

This identification is simplified for the concentrated believer if he or she can become immersed in and completely identify with all the details of the main and secondary figures. Thangkas thus provide, in visual form, precise iconographic information that the meditator can utilise.

But thangkas are more than religious visual aids. They are also commissioned when problems such as illness, death, or abstract obstacles – in personal or social matters – arise in a family. The painting is then hung up with the expectation that a protective or positive force will radiate from it, and the thangka thereby gains the function of a ‘lucky charm’ or amulet.

These exquisitely painted thangkas, or sacred scroll paintings, have been personally chosen during travels across Nepal.

They depict various Tibetan deities and are spiritually instructive mandalas, which have been meticulously produced, utilising ancient and highly specialised painting techniques – all essentially applied in an atmosphere of devotion and meditative stillness.

Each painting is mounted in a traditional frame of silk brocade, following very particular proportions and measurements.

At the top and bottom, the silk frame is stitched around wooden rods, metal caps being slipped over the ends of the bottom rod.

A thin curtain of silk which, when the Thangka is being viewed, is arranged in a particular way at the top, can be allowed to drop down to protect the image.

Over this curtain of silk, two ribbon – like bands of red silk hang down to the bottom.

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