Thangka are paintings on cloth that depict the sku rten, the bodily forms of enlightened beings; or the diagrammatic mandala, the ‘sacred circle’ symbolizing the spiritual embodiment of the Buddha and the stages of spiritual realization.
The figurative paintings either place the deities within a narrative by depicting episodes from their lives (for instance, portraying the 12 great deeds of the Sakyamuni Buddha or events from the past lives of the Buddha as described in the Jataka tales), or by portraying aspects of the Buddha’s nature as a sentient being. Pema Dorji, a monk, and Thangka painter, elaborates this difference with the example of the deity Avalokiteshvara. “Avalokiteshvara is the embodiment of wisdom, and compassion. In the Thangkas that depict aspects of Buddha’s nature, the selection of a particular deity for portrayal is usually linked with the effects desired by the person commissioning the Thangka. Thus, a Thangka of the goddess Tara is in demand for her ability to remove obstacles, and grant protection while a Thangka of Amitayus is commissioned by those hoping that he will bestow them with long life.”
Hung in monasteries, shops and homes, Thangkas may be commissioned to bring well-being and health, to ward off the evil eye, to ensure a happy rebirth, or for use as a meditational aid. The paintings are usually executed on coarse cotton cloth using mineral colours, while silk is reserved for the painting of important subjects.