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Exploring the Rich Heritage of Nepali Thangka Painting: Art, History, and Symbolism in Tibetan Buddhism

A Thangka painting is a type of Tibetan Buddhist artwork made on cotton or silk applique, usually involving scenes from mythology or a Buddhist deity.

With their depictions of the lives of the Buddha, influential lamas, and other gods and bodhisattvas, thangkas are valuable educational resources.

History of Thangka

Nepal was first introduced to thangka painting history in the early eleventh century AD. Traditionally, Thangka painting took place in Tibet between the seventh and the twelfth centuries. The life of Buddha and his principal patron, Anathapindika, are initially linked to Thangka paintings. The history began when Buddhists and Hindus introduced illustrations of the gods and landscapes. The Tibetan word “thangka” is derived from “thang yig,” which means written record. Tibetan thangka is a type of Buddhist artifact. This holy painting is called Paubas in Nepali and Newari.

Tibetan tradition has an unique evolution in the history of thangka painting, especially between the 7th and the 12th centuries. Complex thangka paintings were produced as a result of the high demand for Buddhist manuscripts and religious icons for recently constructed monasteries in Tibet. In the Kathmandu Valley, numerous Prajnaparamita texts and manuscripts were carefully copied in order to provide these monasteries with holy relics. As the thirteenth century came closer, Nepalese art’s influence on the history of thangka painting began to spread methodically outside of China. Interestingly, Chinese emperors sent Nepalese artisans to the imperial court after realizing their talent and wanting to use their expert knowledge and deft craftsmanship to further elevate the artistic legacy of thangka painting.

As thangkas are distinctly Tibetan art styles, they originated in India with the influence of China and Nepal. In Nepal, a small subgroup of the Newar first created the Thangkas and was responsible for creating masks and paintings.

Preparation of Thangka

The practice of painting can be done in a methodical and structured manner. To create a thangka scroll painting, follow these six simple steps.

The first step in the procedure is to prepare the painting surface.

Using a sketch to establish the design on that surface 

Step 4 comes after Step 3, which involves applying the first coats of paint.

The Outlining and Shading portion is covered in the fifth step.

A few final touches make up the sixth and final step.

Types of Thangka Painting

Thangkas are grouped according to technique, size, and materials. Generally, thangka paintings are categorized into many groups. Some of them are given below

Wheel of life

The wheel of life, also known as  the theory of rebirth, is an in-depth representation of the central ideas of Buddhism. The wheel, which is held in the embrace of Shenje, the ruler of the dead, illustrates how all beings must ultimately pass away.  The majority of the wheel depicts the Buddha, who is thought to be free of all morality and mental barriers and to stand in the way of all living things achieving enlightenment. The existence outside the wheel is implied by his escape life cycle. The axle, spokes, and rim make up the three main components of the wheel. 


In general, a mandala is a circle that is used as a meditation technique. A mandala depicts the universe or gods in different heavenly worlds. This geometric pattern has a lot of meaning in Buddhism and Hinduism. Usually, they are made of stone, bronze, cloth, or paper, or they are drawn by threads. Usually, it consists of circles that are arranged inside the square’s sections around a single center point. One useful tool for making the process a reality is the graphical representation of Mandalas. The kind of mandala that is chosen depends on the nature of the divinity major.

Life of Buddha

The Buddha’s life symbolizes the circle of Lord Buddha’s existence from conception to death. It tells the story of his life from the beginning, from the impressionable young prince of Kapilvastu in Lumbini to the man who was unhappy with his life and realized that human suffering was a given. It also depicts his time spent as an ascetic and, at the end, his quest for enlightenment to teach other people under a Bodhi tree.

Key symbols used in thangka

There are various religious symbols that are presented in thangka paintings. Mainly there are eight symbols used in thangka painting. Symbols seen in thangka paintings are banners, lotus flowers, knots, fish, umbrellas, conch shells, vases, and dharma wheel.

The lotus flowers symbolize enlightenment and spiritual purity as they are usually pink or light red in color. Different colors represent various motifs as they are seen with 8 to 16 petals. 

Banners usually come along with four cylindrical designs with a central pole and represent the trump of Buddha. Similarly, the Umbrella is the ability of Buddha to triumph over everything.

Conch Shell simply clarifies the victory over enemies. The Knot which is also known as the “endless Knot” or “glorious knot”, shows longevity and harmony. 

Fishes in thangka paintings are usually seen in pairs, which symbolizes the harmony and peace that arrives in a person. The treasure vase represents abundance, this vase never runs dry and is usually gold.

The Dharma Wheel is the final symbol of the thangka. It represents the eightfold noble path towards enlightenment and also features eight spokes. There are three main components on a Dharma wheel are rim, hub, and spokes. These three pieces have their own significance and value which represents integrity, wisdom, and attentiveness. Sometimes wheels are embellished with a lotus base, jewels, and ribbons.

How much does a thangka painting cost in Nepal?

The price of a thangka painting depends by both size and detail count. An artist must put in a great deal of time and effort to create a Thangka painting. A painting requires seven hours a day for approximately five months. A $1,000 to $15,000 (U.S. dollars) original painting by a skilled painter.

It is easy to find copies of other paintings that have been completed by multiple artists in markets like Thamel. The same pictures are made thousands upon thousands of times. The price range for this kind of painting is typically $30 to $200 (U.S. dollars). 

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