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Apart from the spiritual element, Buddhism inspired and promoted art and culture throughout the sub-continent and it enthused artists to create aesthetic marvels in the form of paintings, architecture, and sculptures. Thangkas are mainly sacred scroll paintings depicting Buddhist deities, events of spiritual significance from the lives of Buddha, monks, and masters, or even compositions of mandala designs that have a symbolic relevance and aid in meditation. These paintings are part of a living and practised tradition and hence highly revered among the Buddhist communities. The iconography and structural composition play an equally important role in making these paintings divine.

The pictorial composition of a Thangka painting is complicated and includes a number of elements that need to be executed with perfection and precision. Initially, these were painted by the Buddhist Lamas and monks and the art was passed to the lay artists much later. However, even lay artists were put through rigorous training before they could become accomplished.

Shakyamuni Buddha with Avadana Legend Scenes

A Thangka artist at the Norbulingka Institute, Dharamsala

During the initial stages of preparing a Thangka painting, a cloth is strung and stretched across a bamboo/wooden frame to provide a uniform base and avoid slackening. The base is in the form of a ground layer- gesso (glue) and chalk. In some cases, a light pigment is applied. The outline of the drawing is sketched once the ground layer has dried. This is a crucial step in shaping the painting since it is believed that through the drawing one can visually transcend into the spiritual reality. The artists follow firm guidelines while drawing the postures and gestures which visually describe the emotions and mood of the painting. Since these are elements of symbolism and are of utmost significance, the drawings are divided amongst symmetrical iconographic grid patterns. Subsequently, the artist adds depth to the painting through the final step, which involves the filling of colours. Originally, natural pigments derived from vegetables and minerals were used, but later, acrylic colours became more popular as they were easily available. It is the paint that gives character to the painting since each colour annotates a different deity and meaning in Buddhism. The background of the painting is filled first and then the foreground is painted. The facial expressions of the deities are filled at the end.

This transformation of an object of artistic value to an object of religious significance is not an overnight process. On interacting with artists and monks of monasteries, one understands the efforts that go into making a Thangka and the whole process is a sacred ritual for the artist. The Thangka achieves its divinity through three stages. The first step is the drawing, it should be precise and the guidelines for this cannot be compromised. Once the first step towards the ritualization of the Thangka paintings is taken, the art form is blessed with the spirit of enlightenment through a ritual consecration, and this signals the second step of the ritual. Traditionally, Thangka paintings were instruments of meditation. The final step of the ritual comes from the reverence of the artist. The Thangka projects the meticulous dedication and devotion put in by the artist while making the painting, and this is what makes the painting divine. In fact, the long process involved in creating a Thangka painting is a meditative experience for the artist.

Sarvavid Vairocan with three faces and two arms holding the Dharmachakra