Thanka Painting

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The history of Tibetan thangka-painting in Gardri style

I.  Buddhist art
II. Tibetan thangka-painting

Tibetan art first of all is religious, Buddhist art. In Tibetan art the most common are two types of images: the sculpture and thangka.

is the Buddhist icon made on the fabric, it can be rolled up and so it’s easy to keep and carry.

I. The Buddhist art

• The origin of Buddhist art
Gautama Buddha, or Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha, or Buddha Śākyamuni was the founder of teaching, known as Buddhism. He lived in India in 5th century BC. “Buddha” is not proper name, in ancient India it was the title meaning “awakened one” or “the enlightened one.”


During the life of the Buddha there were no pictures of him, his image wasn’t the objects of religious worship. Buddha told his disciples to follow his Teachings, the Dharma, and not to perform various kinds of religious activities. After his passed away the first images that symbolizing the Doctrine became the wheel of Dharma with eight spokes, the Bodhi tree, the imprints of the feet of Buddha, or an empty throne.

• How did Buddha really look?
While it says that there were no Buddha’s lifetime images, according old legends such images had been created. The first is the sculpture — Sandalwood Buddha.

So, when the Buddha was in heaven preaching the Dharma of his dead mother Maya, raja Udayana (or in other source raja Prasenajit) wanted to see an Enlightened Master. He told his palace masters make the statue of Buddha, and they made the sandalwood statue in the natural size. When Śākyamuni Buddha returned to earth, a statue made six steps to meet him. Buddha said that it’s really like him and made the prophecy that where it will go, there will be a flowering of Buddhism.

Russian scientist Andrey Terentyev conducted a detailed historical research and published the book “The Sandalwood Buddha of the King Udayana” in 2010, there the long history of this remarkable statue is described.

There were any more statues made, according to the legends, during the life of the Buddha. God Indra (Shakra) asked the great Indian master Vishvakarman create the statue for the humans. The artist created three images of the Buddha: the 8-year-old, a 12-year, 25-year-old from precious metals and stones.

The last statue was taken to the heaven the realm of the gods, at the age of 12 years in China and at the age of 8 years in Nepal. They remained in these countries for many years, until the last two were transported to Tibet (by China and Nepal brides of Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo) and installed on the altars in temples in Lhasa.

The 12-year image of Buddha is the most famous statue in Tibet — Jowo Rimpoche.

• How the first drawings of Buddha were received
The first drawing image, which was created during the life of Buddha and actually under his guidance, is the picture The wheel of existence” (sanskrit ‘bhavacakra’). According to the legend, in Buddha Śākyamuni time there lived Bimbisara, raja of Magadha. Once he received from Roruka’s raja Rudrayana (a.k.a. raja Udayana) precious gift. Wishing return the gift Bimbisara ordered his artist to draw the Buddha’s portrait. But Buddha radiated such a strong glow that it was really impossible to look at him. That is why the Buddha set on the bank in lotus-asana, and artist captured his reflection in the water. This image was called “The form, obtained by reflection,” or “The sage’s image taken from water.” Around the Teacher artist draw the 12-chains wheel of existence, that depicts our world — the world of suffering. The other raja — Rudrayana — having meditated on it throughout the night, reached the level of ‘non-return’ — progress which would otherwise take years, or even lifetimes.

The other legend concerns the time then the Buddha stayed in Kapilavastu. The local queen sent her maidservant Rohita with gift to the Buddha, but by the way girl were killed. After death she rebirthed as the princess of Sri Lanka, and once she sent Buddha the letter and a lot of pears. Buddha in response to her gift sent the portrait, there his body was surrounded by halo of light. According to the legend the artist outlined the Buddha’s shadow on the canvas. These kind of Buddha’s proportions is known as “The form obtained by light,” or “The shining sage.”

The proportions of Buddha image remain unchanged since very ancient times. In different cultures could be certain features (e.g. elongated ushnisha, connected on the same line eyebrows, pointed or rounded shape of the nose, more or less the length and thickness of the earlobes, etc.), but the basis is always the same.

In future, while Buddhism spread throughout the world, the Buddhist art blossomed greatly. There were created the countless examples of Buddhist art in architecture, sculpture and fine arts. Buddhist art has become a kind of ‘visual Dharma,’ presenting and transmitting the Buddha’s Teachings.

• The arrival Buddhism to Tibet. Tibetan art
The history of Buddhism in Tibet effectively begins in 641 CE. In that year, king Songtsen Gampo unified Tibet through military conquest and took two Buddhist wives, princess Wen Cheng of China and princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. The princesses are credited with introducing their husband to Buddhism.

Each of king’s Songtsen Gampo wives brought to Tibet a precious dowry, the Nepal princess a lot of sacred images and 8-year-old statue of the Buddha, and the daughter of the emperor of China a statue of the Buddha at the age of 12 years (both images till now are in Lhasa). These were the first examples of which the many generations of artists and sculptors were guided by.

Chinese princess Wen Cheng was a beautiful woman of superb talents, she played a major role in stabilizing relations and cultural exchange between China and Tibet. Also she brought to Tibet seeds of high-land barley and farming technology, as well as great quantifies of Buddhist classics, medical and astronomical books, all of which greatly advanced Tibet’s development. Her image was greatly venerated in Tibet. Princess Bhrikuti, the Nepalese wife of king, brought from Nepal to Tibet a lot of painted images, such as Avalokirteshvara and other Nepalese deities.

Songtsen Gampo built the first Buddhist temples in Tibet, he also ordered the Nepalese masters many sacred images. Later, His Holiness 5th Karmapa (the beginning of the 15th centuty) ordered to make a mural painting of several monasteries and also ordered a lot of thangkas in Nepalese style. Many images such as White Tara, Maitreya and other deities were made in the 1500s in order the 2nd Dalai Lama. In fact the Tibetan art formed through great interpenetration of styles: Indian, Nepalese and Chinese.

For beginning

II. Tibetan thangka-painting

Thankga can be defined as something that is painted on a scroll and can be easily carried from place to place. Another term, used rarely, is reidri — a painting on a cotton cloth. Besides the usual thangkas on the ground cloth (most popular size is 75x50 cm) the images can be painted on the wall, rock, stone, embroidered or done as applique work. The size varies from tiny images made for bearing on the body is small boxes to giant thangkas prepared for some special event.

• The history of Tibetan thangka-painting and establishing the Karma Gardri style
Tibetan art was forming under influence of Indian, Chinese and Nepal art. In the 7th centure Tibetan king Songtsan Gampo married Chinese and Nepalese princesses who then brought with them Buddhist art to Tibet. With the spread of Buddhism in Tibet, the Buddhist art become very popular there. There were established three styles of Tibetan painting: Mengri, Gardri and Mangsar.

The first style Mengri was developed by Menla Dondrub in 1440 in Southern Tibet. He studied under the artist Dhopa Tashi Gyatso, master in Nepalese style painting. Menla Dondrub revised true proportions of deities and religious objects, developed new pigments and defined the spiritual qualities of artist.

The second style Karma Gardri was formed in Western Tibet in 16th century by His Holiness the 8th Karmapa Mikyö Dorje (1507-1554). The founder of this style was Namka Tashi, an incarnate artist. Namkha Tashi studied with Kunchok Phendey who was himself considered to be an emanation of the Chinese princess Wen Cheng. [Copies of Kunchok Phendey's nine thangkas see here.]

The main sources for this style were:
1) Chinese scroll painting, offered to the Karmapa by Chinese emperor;
2) painted masks, depicting the moment when the face of the Third Karmapa appeared on the full moon;
3) Chinese thangka of the sixteen arhats.

The meaning of the name of this style is the following: “karma” is derived from the word “Karmapa,” “gar” means “camp” and “dri” is “to draw.” So, it means that the style was formed and mostly used by painters who travelled with Karmapa and his religious camp in Tibet, spreading the Buddha teaching.

Lineage of Karma Gardri includes a lot of eminent persons. The 8th Karmapa Mikyö Dorje (1507-1554) by himself was the excellent artist, 10th Karmapa Chöying Dorje (1604-1674) was skilled in the carving, sculpture and silk embroidery. Many other Karmapas, Shamarpas, Karma Kagye teachers and yogis were real masters in painting and sculpture. (Many thangkas of 10th Karmapa see here and few statuettes — here).

The 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje pointed out three distinctive features — so called ‘Three jewels of Gardri style’:
1) forms according Indian tradition;
2) the colouring and texture of the Chinese method;
3) composition and land shafts are typical for Tibetan manner.

Transparent landscapes, close to the Chinese tradition are the features of Gardri style. Gardri thangka is realistic, soft shading, very delicate, harmonious colouring. The landscape is performed in the special painting technique. A lot of dots or strokes are put on canvas’ surface; intensive colour is achieved by the multi-layering points. The technique is extremely time-taking, but it allows to achieve softness of colour and the effect of glowing. Sky, clouds, rivers and waterfalls, snow-top mountains and hills, trees, flowers, birds and animals painted like really Tibetan. Thangkas in Gardri style were quite rare in Tibet and were highly valued.

Later, the big role in developing and spreading of Karma Gardri style belong to two other of “three Tashis”: artists Cho Tashi and Kasho Karma Tashi.

The last style, Mangsar or New Mengri, was developed by incarnated master Choyang Gyatso in 1645 and was spread in Eastern Tibet. The style was based on the Mengri painting school but with some differences in the tone, pigments and texture.

For beginning

Karmapas painting

As said, many Karmapas, Shamarpas and Situ-incarnations were improved masters in painting, sculpture, poetry, etc.

Two works attributed to 10th Karmapa Chöying Dorje are kept in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, Russia. 1st silk thangka, the Buddha Sakiamuni image, and 2nd — the statuette of Avalokiteshvara. The HH 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dordje during his visit to Russia in June, 2009, visited the Hermitage and saw his own previous incarnation’s artworks.

When HH 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje not busy he works in painting, poetry, singing and drama.

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa learns painting and Calligraphy. See YouTube  Part 1...  Part 2

For beginning


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