WHAT IS A THANGKA?
A Thangka painting traditionally was a portable, unframed cloth scroll, intended for personal meditation use or for teaching Buddhist teachings to others. Thangkas combine representations of deities or influential leaders with symbols and precise geometry to assist the viewer on their path to enlightenment.
WHAT ARE THE KEY SYMBOLS OF A THANGKA?
The main religious symbols seen in Thangkas include lotus flowers, banners, knots, fish, umbrellas, vases, conches, and the Dharma wheel. These patterns are called the eight auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism:
- The lotus flower, typically pink or light red, symbolizes enlightenment and spiritual purity as it blooms out of the mud. The lotus flower usually has 8 or 16 petals and can have different colors to represent different patterns. For instance, the white lotus is specific to Buddha Sikhin, but lotuses may also appear in yellow or gold.
- The victory banner, usually a cylindrical motif of four colors with a central pole, represents the Buddha's triumph over ignorance.
- Similarly, a white parasol or umbrella symbolizes Buddha's ability to triumph over everything, and a conch also represents victory over enemies.
- The knot, also called "endless knot" or "glorious knot," represents longevity and harmony.
- When fish appear in Thangkas, they are usually represented in pairs, symbolizing harmony and peace that occur as a person approaches enlightenment.
- The treasure vase, typically gold and never running out, represents abundance.
- The final symbol of the Thangka is the Dharma wheel. The Dharma wheel always has three components: the rim, the hub, and the spokes. These three pieces represent integrity, wisdom, and mindfulness. The Dharma wheel also always has eight spokes representing the Eightfold Noble Path to enlightenment. The wheel can often be embellished with jewels, ribbons, and sometimes a lotus base.
THANGKA AND MEDITATION
Thangka paintings intended for meditation practice usually take the form of a mandala. A mandala is a circular and symbolic diagram, typically made up of many concentric circles containing depictions of deities.
With a Thangka, the viewer mentally enters this visual space from the outer lines and circles of fire, diamonds, graveyards, and lotus leaves before entering the mandala itself. These circles respectively represent the burning of ignorance, enlightenment, cognition, and rebirth.
By meditating on this imagery, the viewer is supposed to be able to enter a state of calm and relaxation while becoming more aware of their spiritual connection.
WHY COLLECT TIBETAN THANGKAS?
When collecting Thangkas, it's important to note that works by higher lamas and spiritual leaders are usually considered to have more value. However, as Thangka painters rarely used this medium for their personal expression, the scrolls were seldom attributed or signed, except in very rare cases.
Many ancient Thangka paintings have inscriptions on the back with a mantra about the depicted deity, but it's rarely a personal note from the artist. That said, signatures are often found on Thangkas produced for personal meditation. Additionally, as Thangkas were often taken apart, remade, and transported from place to place in challenging environments, Thangka scrolls tend to undergo significant wear and tear.
DISPLAYING AND PRESERVING A THANGKA
Generally, Thangka paintings are not presented in frames. Instead, larger Thangkas are typically exhibited as hanging scrolls. Because of the materials used in their construction, Thangkas should be kept in a cool, dry environment to prevent silk damage. If exposed to direct sunlight, Thangka colors may fade over time.
MAINTAINING YOUR THANGKA PAINTING
Ultimately, the optimal way to care for your Thangka is to ensure that the painting is not exposed to excessive light or humidity. If feasible, only display it for brief periods; otherwise, keep the painting rolled up in a sturdy, non-crushable container and store it in a dry, dark location to prevent fading of the colors.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THANGKAS
Thangkas not only serve as crucial tools for understanding Tibetan Buddhism and its teachings but they are also intricately beautiful artworks that everyone can appreciate. Due to the remarkable amount of detail, symbolism, and precision that go into their creation, there is always something new to learn when observing a Thangka painting. Despite their fragility and potential for color fading, owning a Thangka can be incredibly rewarding, thanks to their breath-taking aesthetic appeal.
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