Thangka: Nepali Traditional Painting

History of Nepalese Paintings

Paintings from Nepal were primarily found in illustrations of Holy Scriptures from the eleventh century AD. They were painted on different materials such as leaves, wood, and the wooden covers of the scriptures. It is said that the first paintings to enter the country were those inspired from these Holy Scriptures and painted by artists in India during early eleventh century. In comparison, Buddhist manuscripts were more elaborately decorated than the Hindu manuscripts. Most of these early scriptures were written on palm leaves, a plant that is found on the plains and coastal region of the Indian subcontinent, further indicating the possibility that later paintings in Nepal were inspired by those of what is now India. The paintings found in the manuscript may be used to describe the theme or for the sole purpose of decoration. They usually depict shrines, temples, animals, and deities and their surroundings. These old paintings found in both Buddhist and Brahman manuscripts do not hold a wide variety of colors or shades as traditional dyes were used derived from raw materials. Some dyes were more commonly used in some areas as the raw materials were more easily found. The early scroll paintings of Nepal existed in different forms as patas, torananas, paubhas, and thangkas. They were mostly held in private possession and were only displayed to the public during festivals. The unique thing about most of these Nepalese paintings is that the date, title, the owner, and sometimes the artist of the painting would also be mentioned.

The oldest surviving painting of Nepal is of a vihara which was painted during the transitional period of 1015. Other paintings of the eleventh century are the Nepal-Swayambhu chaitya that looks like a conventional stupa and was completed in 1071 and Nepal vugama-Lokesvarah, a revered Buddhist deity during medieval Nepal, is another from the same year. [These three ancient paintings are presently under the care of The Asiatic Society, Calcutta; (Source: Nepal Mandala; Mary Slusser)]. These paintings represent the features of the Swayambhu in the eleventh century, with no eyes or nose on the sides. The style of painting of eyes and noses on stupas began in the fifteenth century.

Stella Kramrisch, author of “The Art of Nepal,” specifies that the first paintings that entered Nepal were in Buddhist manuscript from the Pala dynasty in what is now Eastern India during the eleventh century. Paintings on the cover and scripture of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita (Book of the Perfection of Wisdom) dated 1028 [presently in anonymous possession], is among the earliest of these paintings found to date.

According to Pratapaditya Pala, the writer of “Art of Nepal,” the paintings found in the manuscript were either intended for the description of the theme or for the sole purpose of decoration, which had little or no relation to the subject of the manuscript and most probably for the protection of the book from natural destruction. Usually the cover was more extravagantly decorated that the inner pages and was often carved. Some of these old manuscripts with portraits are Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, Paramartha Namasangiti, and Gandavyuha. Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita depicts eight events in the life of Lord Buddha. Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries manuscript painting was highly conservative; copies of old manuscripts were made without any addition of new paintings to them but were rather duplicated as exact copies of old ones.

Though the Nepalese and Indian sub continental manuscript paintings evolved from the same tradition, close examination shows differences in style and shades of color between the two. For example Nepalese paintings generally give a hint of crimson in red and show a definite outline while the Southern counterparts used a bright red vermilion color and loose outline of the subjects.

The early scroll paintings of Nepal, pata in sanskrit, torana or paubha in Nepali, and thangka in Tibetan were different in form and purpose from each other. A major contributor to these differences was when traditional paintings arrived in Tibet in the thirteenth century. There they were strongly influenced by Buddhist designs to become known as the thangka, whereas, the Newari paubha primarily highlights Hindu dieties. However, the basic painting methods were the same in all of them. In the paintings of Nepal, mudras (the different postures of hand and body) rather than the facial expressions were applied to convey the emotional state of the subject. The pata and torana were essentially long successions of paintings completing an illustrated a story. Whereas, thangka is a single complete painting with a central subject of deities. In Buddhist paintings, the seven jewels considered auspicious and figures representing the universe are common features. These paintings were initially made with chalk or other mineral powders of primary colors and glue on primed cotton cloth. These bold colors were always applied so as to make distinct images of the subject. After finishing the painting the surface was varnished with egg-white and water to preserve the paint. Scroll paintings were held mostly in private possession; the paintings of gods and goddesses were displayed during festivals and special events which highlighted the god or goddess. On Bisket Jatra, a festival in Bhaktapur, a ceremonial wooden pole around eighty feet long called a linga is raised in order to hang two banner paintings representing serpent-demons reaching down to the ground. According to legend, these two serpents emerged from the nostrils of a princess and were slain by a prince on this day.

The paintings of Amitabh surrounded by Bodhisattva made in thirteenth to fourteenth century and Buddha Ratnasambhava with eight Boddhisattva made in fourteenth century, which are presently at Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, India are among the earliest recorded mandalas of Nepal. These mandalas show clear circles, squares, and other shapes, adaptations more common to Central Asian, and identical to those in present day Nepal mandalas.

By the sixteenth century, Kathmandu was the center of the trade route between India and Tibet. However, around that time the Indian influences in the paintings were insignificant and more Tibetan styles intervened, leaving a lasting effect on thangka paintings. The traditional method of captioning the title of the painting and its owner still existed, and in accordance to Tibetan style, a distinct border distinguished the subject of the painting from the rest of the poster. These margins of the paintings were either bold lines, or lined leaves, clouds or hills in the Tibetan style.

The sky in the paintings represented in dark indigo color, the clouds known as ‘Tai’ made in curly white structures, water represented in white curling basket like lines on a blue background, the hills illustrated in different colored peaks, etc, are all Tibetan techniques that have been handed down through generations in thangka painting. About that time, the dress seen in the paintings like the jama wore by men and hats worn by women were more of Central Asian influence than the Indian sub continental styles. A disciple of the Buddha is given credit for the first serious scroll painting in the thangka genre. In the sixth century BC, it is said, a man Sharipura took exact measurements of the Buddha’s features and defined precise colors of his skin. Since then, his standards have been maintained. In the latter years, others students of dharma, following this example, also measured their teachers so that no one would distort their looks in the future.

These measurements have survived until today and the good artist meticulously copies each figure to the millimeter. He or she is not at a liberty to change the details and usually reproduces a master copy that has come down through the centuries. To the worshippers, no variation from the assigned scale is acceptable. Scroll paintings that do not follow pre-given directions are useless for religious purposes.]

Both scripture and banner paintings are related to the Gupta tradition of arts in what is now India. However, in later years the artistic styles in Nepal continued with Buddhist paintings as seen in the murals in the caves of Ajanta, India. These Indian sub continental influences are clearly seen in Nepali painting up to the late fifteenth century. A Samvara pata of the fourteenth century (presently in display at Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, India) and Amoghapasa Pata made in 1436 (Ethnographical Museum in Leiden) show the similarity to the artistic style that passed through the Indian subcontinent around the same time they were made. The Samvara pata is based on Buddhist texture and shows the subject in Dhyana, a meditative state. Amoghapasa Pata is a unique example made in Apbhramsa mudra with the face of the subject filling three fourth of the entire painting and having big bulging eyes. This painting is made with five primary colors, which are mixed to get other shades too.

There are no archives suggesting the start of different sophisticated and equally beautiful paintings like thangkas and mandalas. Though not supported by physical evidence, paintings found from the fourteenth century hint towards their slow development from their earlier stages that have not been recorded. Narrative scroll paintings were carried by Buddhist travelers and were displayed to people while reciting a legend of the deities.

Other images of the medieval period that were recovered are:
(a) Ten incarnations of god Vishnu. Painted on wood, in 1220, Bir Library Kathmandu,
(b) Manuscript of Buddhist Sanskrit text (pancaraksa), with paintings of Dhyani Buddhas and female Buddhist deities, in 1274, Bir Library, Kathmandu. Then the paintings were done on cloth, paper, and to decorate objects like boxes. Other paintings were found on ornamental casket for woman that was covered with painted cloth and plastered, made in the fifteenth century, presently at National Art Gallery, Bhaktapur; seven scenes from a Buddhist legend (visvantara jakata); Amogpasha Avalokiteshvara, early fifteenth century, painting on cloth, 27″X 23″, (presently in anonymous possession);
(c) Hitopadesha, folding book painted on paper, 1594, Bir Library, Kathmandu, Nepal.

With the enthusiasm towards arts shown during the Malla period from the thirteenth to eighteenth century, the paintings continued to flourish. There have been changes in style though the basic tradition of painting remained the same through out the period. With the start of seventeenth century the paintings made, along with the dress worn during the Malla regime, some accordance with the paintings of Rajasthani, Pahari, or Mughal styles. Except for the basic traits of the Rajasthani style, paintings in Kathmandu also contributed to the development of this style. For example, the smaller gods seen around the central subject of paintings was a style that developed and was implemented in Nepal and not seen in any of the Indian sub continental paintings. Though some paintings were still drawn in the earlier tradition of Nepali style to the end of Malla period, the Rajesthani tradition became popular for manuscripts, paintings on cloth and paper, and murals on walls of Malla buildings. These murals specially portrayed the kings and their families. Some paintings that are painted in the Rajesthani tradition are:
(d) The invading Mukundasena, a king of Palpa, in seventeenth or eighteenth century painting on cloth, Itum Bahal, kathmandu; King Pratap Malla at prayer, watercolor on paper, seventeenth century, (private collection);
(e) JayaPrakash Malla, the last king of Kathmandu, National Museum, seventeenth to eighteenth century. Tibetan influence on some paintings is also seen in some of the paintings of the Malla period.

In 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah invaded the Valley and took over the throne, he still insisted that the tradition arts of the Valley not be disturbed. Instead he patronized the artists working in different fields and asked them to continue in their previous fields. It is his steps in preserving the ancient culture that has enabled the continuation of it into the modern period.

In the nineteenth century the Rana rulers came to power and were highly influenced by British styles in order to better trade relations. The Valley witnessed an influence of a new tradition of painting that had no Asian artistic styles, the European arts. There were still some traces of the Rajesthani style remaining such as in Jalasayana Narayana, Laksmi, Brahma, Madhu, and Kaitav with a king, priests and counselors on the right, detail of a multicolored mural, Mohan Chok, and Hanuman Dhoka, done in the nineteenth century. Later in the century the Ranas exclusively preferred portraiture in European fashion. This can be seen by the vast number of oil portrays that were made during the period.

Thangka Painting Process

Upon receiving a customer’s order, the artist can determine the painting’s dimensions, color and the design to be used for sketching. Raw materials, bought at wholesale prices in local markets, are used in the painting’s production. Cotton fabric, although others prefer to use silk, which is thought to preserve the painting’s long life, forms the foundation on which a Tibetan Tamang’s thangka or Newari paubha painting is completed. Today, representations found on postcards produce most of the market demands for paintings.

The cloth is cut to size, sealed and fastened with ropes in order to stretch the fabric. The cloth having been stretched and the desired thickness reached then allow for special soil ingredients to be added. Ping, gum, and solace are mixed with the cloth and then pressed for a day becoming a rassi in Tamang or a makapa, translated into English as “mother-cloth,” in Newari. To press the cloth, a smooth, round stone is used while the cloth itself rests on a smooth, flat wooden plank. The cloth stiffens after the pressing process and increases in durability. As a result, the painting is more resistant to tearing when the stresses of production are applied and also when it arrives in the customer’s possession.

The first step in creating the thangka’s image is in sketching the desired design and setting. The artist selects the design from a book or reference card and traces it onto a piece of paper. A photocopier to make a larger model for the full size sketch of the painting itself is then used to enlarge the sketch. The painter then sketches the enlarged design onto the pressed cloth. It is assumed that Paubha artists traditionally apply accordingly written prayers to the sketched deity’s body, which are later hidden with paint. Formerly, monks would meditate to attain inspiration for a painting’s image and its color. Today, it is increasingly rare for a thangka or paubha to develop from an artist’s personal inspiration. However, it is sometimes necessary for an artist to visit certain monasteries to find ideas for design colors.

Once a makapa is ready to be turned into a painting, it is said that the artist should add gold layering as according to tradition; a rassi does not always demand a gold layering, likewise a makapa may also sometimes receive a silver layering. For this, a yellow base is applied and left to set four one to two hours. The artist then retraces the sketch of the painting. On top of this, a thin layer of gold is added having been diluted with water into a paste. The artist then uses a fine-tipped bulbous pen to press the gold into revealing a brilliant shine. If this step is applied, it can increase the painting’s sale price by thousands of rupees.

The next definite step in creating the thangka’s or paubha’s image requires a wooden frame to which the fabric is tied with string to support the painting. The addition of color and shading to produce sensations of contrast and depth is a lengthy step and demands the painting to remain in place. In the past, natural dyes were the most popular for creating the thangka and paubha paintings’ colors. The two present different colors depending on where they were made as certain dyes were more or less available in Tibet and others in Nepal. Now, labor and material costs run the prices of this style higher and often out of reach for the average artist. Recently, poster colors and watercolor paints are being used to save time and money rather than using natural dyes.

These paints yield a wide range of color to fill the paintings’ settings, which include natural elements such as mountains, rivers, plants and wildlife. The paints are mixed with the same soil ingredients that are used for stiffening the paintings cloth. When mixed, the paints create different shades to create contrast and variety. The background color is added first. The artist then fills in the sketch with a wide array of colors and shades, slowly moving towards the foreground where brightly portrayed religious icons are found. After the painting is complete, a matching border color is added. If it has been ordered, the painting may be matted or framed.

The result is a dramatically colorful display of life as it applies to religion, nature and culture. To the untrained eye a thangka may simply appear as a piece of decorative art. To the spiritually inclined, it represents mysticism that spawns renewed awe, wonder and faith in the supernatural and its relationship with Earth. Newars still worship the paubha’s deity and the colors used through what they call saunu. No matter what the reasons are for displaying a thangka or paubha, be it for religious or decorative purposes, they can be found hanging on walls across the globe, provoking an admiration for the genius that was at work in its creation and the feelings that they inspire.

Tamangs and Thangkas

Many from the Tamang community are believed to have immigrated to Nepal from Tibet as soldiers and political refugees. In return for their services, they received land on the hill flanks to the North and, unfortunately, much of the land they were given does not have high yield. Their lack of quality farmland, their virtual absence in local trade and commerce, along with, as Nepal later developed, their virtual absence in the nation’s bureaucracy, educational and professional institutions has left a majority of them facing a hard life in the hills.

For extra income, both women and men migrated to earn a decent living during off-seasons on the farm and worked as laborers and also as rug weavers during the heyday of the Tibetan rug industry. Traditional painting was a practice that had developed in Nepal had been little known to the Tamang hill communities. Given their situation, they turned to the production of thangka paintings as a means of income. As tourism increased and art admirers came to Nepal’s doorstep, thangka painting inevitably became commercialized. Tamangs now form the majority of thangka painters working inside Nepal. Their work provides what used to be one of Nepal’s most sacred religious arts to gawking foreigners and the few that still revere it for its true purpose as a religious icon influencing their moral way of life.

The Tibetan thangka differs from that of the Newari paubha, which represents images of Buddhist and Hindu gods and goddesses like Ganesh, while the Tibetan style traditionally represents solely Buddhist deities. There are cases where each style has used icons from each religion but different colors, facial and bodily features are used usually depending on whether they were made for a Tibetan or Nepalese buyer. Tibetan thangkas are the most desired style on the Nepalese and world markets, partially due to their affordability cause by the underprivileged Tamangs; it is said that an paubha should be gold layered, whereas, many thangkas are not. They can fetch prices ranging from a few hundred rupees into the tens of thousands.’ Despite the actual sale price, the artist will receive little in the form of payment for his or her work. A Tamang artist shares his story:

His deep, piercing eyes guide a steady hand, the trademarks of this artist. These trademarks, in turn, stand for the skill he has practiced and mastered. He has long held dear the tradition of thangka painting for its religious significance and as a means of sustaining the lives of his loved ones. His workers turn to him for knowledge of thangkas as a step towards their eventually mastery of the art. To him, time has yielded an understanding of the methods and the lifestyle required for the painting of thangkas. He must turn to his belief in his work and what it means to him for the inspiration to continue the creation of his art.

In search of a better life, he descended from his mountain village to the Kathmandu Valley. His hope was to paint thangkas, his sole mean of income, in order to provide his family with food and his children with a good education. He now lives in a rented home from where he works with employees six. The average artist can produce around four thangkas a month. His workers are paid in a pooling of the earnings from their completed work.

The production costs of a standard sized thangka run up to four thousand to four thousand five hundred rupees, amounting to more than half of what he can sell it for to a middleman. Once a painting has been produced he then goes to Thamel in downtown Kathmandu, where clients may be found in the business districts. After labor and material costs are subtracted from the money received from selling his paintings, there is little profit that remains for him to support a healthy lifestyle. The local market for Thangkas is practically non-existent as their prices run too high.

A middleman is necessary for a sale as he does not have the proper sale contacts inside or outside Nepal, nor does he have the means to acquire any. He cannot afford a telephone, nonetheless, a shop location. Seven thousand to seven thousand five hundred rupees is the usual wholesale price which the middleman pays him for a piece of his work. Those artists descending from their hill communities are often forced to sell their paintings for a mere four hundred rupees so the middleman frequently comes out of a sale with a profit in the thousands. Labor and material expenses can produce higher prices but the profit is none the greater.

His life is a constant struggle to support his family and his workers. It is easy to lose sight of the thangka’s identity as a spiritual entity rather than a financial one in such a situation. At one time, the family had a sponsor for one of their daughter’s schooling but that is no longer available as the sponsor withdrew from aiding the young girl’s situation. Both their daughters study at a local missionary school named St. Mary’s where their son has now joined them after being sent to India to receive a monk’s education. Having decided after two months that their son would receive a better education back home, they then determined he should return to Nepal and so disguised him as a Tibetan monk complete with identity card to cross the border.

He makes trips back to his hill community in order to provide friends and family back home with support. The people that he left behind when he came to Kathmandu to earn a better living still live the even more impoverished life that he once lived. For the time being, life is a struggle but one that he can manage unlike the many who remained in the hills.

There are joys to his life. His family brings him much happiness and yearly festivals unite the Tamang community in food and drink. The Tibetan New Year, Lhosar is the most highly celebrated festival of the year. It is a time for new beginnings and traditional food like Tibetan corn or millet pudding and roti,a crispy wheat bread to be eaten with chilies. Of course, festive drinks flow to warm the spirits of those who have worked so hard. Drinks like jaar, rice beer, and tchang, rice wine, supply much entertainment and vital traditions to the festival itself. Thanks to the enormous diversity of people found in Nepal, they can also take advantage of many other religious and national festivals throughout the year.

In a perfect world, money would not be an issue and he could be proud in knowing that the thangkas he has painted are exported to China, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Europe and many other regions all over the world. He could find spiritual peace in producing the images that relate the stories and figures of the Buddhist religion. His family and workers would be happy that he could provide them with a focus and could create such wonders as thangka paintings that flow from his mind, down his arm and through his fingers, to find their way in amazing life back to the ancient tradition of the thangka.

Status of Paubhas and Thangkas

Traditional paintings have developed over the years into popular products of Nepal. These paintings have created an important industry that employs thousands of people. The earliest scripture paintings from which Nepal’s traditional paintings developed were found painted on palm leaves and wood. Now more practical surfaces such as cotton and silk are used. The Newari or Chitrakar paubha and the Tamang thangka form Nepal’s two types of traditional paintings. They display the same Buddhist and Hindu deities but include different elements such as facial features, bodily positions and surroundings that place them in specific settings.

The Newars are considered to be the indigenous people of the country and to have practiced religious painting since as early as the eleventh century AD. They take pride in their belief that they were the first to paint the paintings that eventually led to the development of today’s paubhas. Newari paubhas are still not fully commercialized. Due to the general higher standard of living of the Newari people, they can afford to sell their products at a more leisurely pace. Some own their shops through which their paubhas are made to traditionally portray Buddhist and Hindu gods in their respective settings of temples or in the heavens. Around the thirteenth century, the art of religious paintings found its way to Tibet. There, the paintings were subjected to the Tibetan influence that led to their version of the paubha, named the thangka. They included a broader scope of the deities’ environments and the sole representation of Buddhist icons in them. Today’s thangka paintings portray Buddhist deities surrounded by rivers, mountains and wildlife.

The majority of Tamang thangka artists in Nepal today are believed to have originated from Tibet and to have settled into hill communities in the North on poor agricultural, mountainous land. Many of the Tamangs who struggled through life in this region have now found their way to Kathmandu in search of better lives. When possible, these artists return to their villages to give support to their friends and family. In Kathmandu, the shopkeepers who fear that a scene will arise over payment issues keep them in the shadows. Religious worshippers, art collectors, and tourists buy thangkas and paubhas inside Nepal and from abroad. Traditional methods that were strictly enforced by lamas used to dominate the paintings’ dimensions, colors, and subjects. Now, they make way for increasing foreign consumer demands to have Nepalese traditional paintings hanging in their homes. Paintings, particularly thangkas, have a good local market and many jobs have been created through this field. In a successful turn of events the printing of traditional paintings on postcards and posters has increased their popularity and the demands for authentic products.

The increased production of these pictures takes away from the paintings’ original intentions that led to a powerful provocation of feeling in those that possessed and beheld it. Newars worshipped the paubha’s representation of their protector god and the colors used through saunu and continue this practice today. The Tamangs’ artistic community is more pressured into the commercialization of their products than that of the Newar. This fuels the diversions from traditional rules that are seen today. This need to boost production is now applied to the many of Nepal’s artists and attracts former traditionalists in search of higher sales.

Traditionally, Lamas and Brahmins used meditation in order to achieve inspiration for the creation of religious paintings. Once an image had been formed in their mind, they would abide to strict rules in creating the painting’s image while applying mixtures of colors that mirrored their feelings towards the gods. Exact measurements of divine subjects were applied to the painting as well as colors to provoke feelings that would greatly influence the owner’s life and all those who looked upon it. Natural dyes were used to generate an earthy realism that is all but lost in major production today. Poster colors and watercolors are the norm for present paintings that may be catchy but leave the colors void of any religious significance. The tools of old have been discarded for those of modern design to speed up the painting’s completion and reduce costs.

Cheaper methods of production are being applied by many, abandoning natural dyes that are expensive and hard to find. Workshop owners are also cutting labor expenses making it difficult for laborers to find work. The price of these paintings has fallen in relation to their production costs and can now be bought for about two dollars. Shopkeepers buy the paintings from workers for a portion of what they are sold. The short handing of the working artist forces him or her to increase production further, pushing them to make more cuts. Furthermore, the artist is not allowed in the store while customers are about, making it impossible to establish personal accounts with buyers to earn a greater income. These issues progressed towards the breaking of traditional rules and the increased production of traditional paintings.

Producing a traditional painting without the proper meditative steps and measurements defined by the original creators robs the painting of any religious validity. However far these paintings’ present state may be from their past, they are still greatly appreciated as a whole by local people for their significance and for the market they support. The exportation of thangkas rose 32% to $US 176,998 according to HAN from the middle of 2001 to the middle of 2002.

Commercialization of Nepal’s traditional arts has had its negative effects but it has also supplied many unskilled laborers with professions. In more recent turn for the worse, recent political instability has spun Nepal’s tourist industry into a nosedive. The local market for thangkas and paubhas inside Nepal depends heavily upon tourism. Artistic centers for traditional paintings such as Swayambhu and Boudha are now struggling and jobs are being lost. The more established artists and art stores may have overseas connections but the average painter has no way to acquire these types of contacts. Some artists who used to be able to return to their hill communities to offer financial support there have to make fewer trips or stop going altogether, generating a snowball effect in which further people are being effected other than the artists themselves.

For the religiously inclined and for art collectors, more decidedly those with money, from around the world, there remains a strong international market for traditional paintings. To own and worship the value of a traditional painting is to create a partnership, a marriage of sorts, with the feelings it emits through its subject and colors in order to influence the observer’s life. Love, happiness, despair, fear, comfort and confidence are among the major feelings that traditional paintings produce. For the average artist, the loss of many paintings’ values to increase production and meet demands is a trade off that provides little assurance that there will be enough profit to support a decent lifestyle. For now, understanding the traditional art form remains the sole reliable preserver of its roots. Given time, it may again grow to form a great canopy of traditional paintings due to the appreciation of this Himalayan art style.


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