A thangka painting is traditionally a portable scroll painting, painted on cotton or silk, framed in brocade, intended to be used either for personal meditation or in order to instruct others in Buddhist teachings. Thangkas use a combination of depictions of deities or influential spiritual figures, symbols and precise geometry in order to convey spiritual messages and experiences. Thangkas can also serve to retell a historical event involving a well-known spiritual historical figure such as Milarepa, or to depict a Buddha, bodhisattva or yidam. It is said that if painted correctly and with proper motivation, these works could be a home to the spirit-essence of the deities they represent.
Each thangka is rich in symbolism and understanding the symbols can help in memorization of a practice, in visualization or in the meaning of a Buddhist teaching. In the case of some of the best thangkas, the colors are natural, extracted from plants and minerals, and adorned with 24k gold. Each piece is an artifact of a unique tradition that survives intact to this day–but that is also rapidly disappearing.
But how to ‘decode’ a thangka? What are the categories of thangkas and how do you tell a good one from ‘tourist quality’ work? Spend an enjoyable couple of hours learning the basics of appreciating thangkas and enjoy years of seeing them with a more informed eye. Later at Dekleing, we’ll offer classes on specific thangkas wherein we’ll decode the symbolism in thangkas of specific yidams, such as Chenrezig and Green Tara.