By Regina Jiang
Synopsis: Thangkas are religious paintings that fetch some of the highest prices in Nepal, depending on the quality and amount of work involved.

Thangkas are Buddhist scroll paintings on special satin or canvas which are hung for devotees to worship or used extensively for rituals by Buddhist monks. It is a unique art form of painting that originated from the Indian subcontinent after the Buddha had passed on. Thangka painting in Nepal has reached great heights and appreciated around the world.Thangkas have deep religious meaning and have been much sought after ever since extensive research was conducted by Italian researcher, Proffesor Tucci, who made them popular in the west. He not only studied thanga making, but also took a lot of samples home with him. Thangka paintings are sold mostly in the tourist areas in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, especially in Thamel. They come in the form of scrolls as they have to be carried from place to place where it is needed for prayer. In the early days, they were put inside containers and the person carrying it would ride a horse to deliver it where the monks wanted them.

We visited some thangka painters in Boudha and were impressed by one special artist. Wangchhu Moktan Lama, a thangka artist comes from a family of thangka artists and hails from Sindhupalchok.Wangchhu’s family has roots in Tibet, and by family tradition, thangkas are very important, especially when a family member dies. They need to paint a specific thangka made specially for the deceased. Monks who pray for the departed soul ask the famiy to provide them with a number of thangkas. “I learned painting skills from my uncle as well as my father when I was still very young. I’ve been painting them for over forty years, so now I can paint one directly on the canvas or satin without making a draft in advance,” informs Wangchhu.

What makes thangkas so extraordinary? One of the features of the thangka is the material used.Thangka painting materials are generally divided into two categories: one is plant pigments, while the other is mineral pigments. Before painting thangkas, the colorful pigments are fused with minerals. According to Wangchhu, the pigments he uses are imported from Japan and Tibet. In the final stage of painting, gold is used to give that wonderful affect of shiny gold over certain areas. Noticeably, the gold Wangchhu used was not gold powder, but flakes of gold, which melts in water and then used to paint like any other paint. The canvas he uses for painting is also very special, which he makes himself. He turns ordinary cloth into a canvas by rubbing a special material onto it. It’s a long tedious process but in the end it’s a unique canvas to paint on. “The different materials used to paint thangkas directly determines the price of a thangka besides the amount of work that is put in,” says Lama. Painting a thangka can take many months to a year or more. Wangchhu paints on his own and completes a thangka all by himself, but there are others who paint only a specific part of the painting and one thangka painting involves a number of different painters.

Apart from the materials, another special feature of thangkas lies in the finishing process. After the canvas is finished, the artist fixes the canvas on a wooden frame and ties the canvas tightly.Then, Wangchhu will apply glue to the surface of the canvas to make the paint more durable and stable.Before painting the major deity, he will draw sketches of the diety and then color them according to the kind of thangka he is making. Thangka painting has its own unique set of rules that artists must abide by. However artists can enrich the details of thangkas according to their own design and imagination as long as they follow the guidelines. It requires a good amount of study to learn the rules which are taught in the numerous thangka painting schools around Kathmandu valley. “Thangka's principles are the same, but each artist's techniques is different,” says Wangchhu.

The subject matter of thangkas are diverse and artists these days are coming up with unique designs. One of the popular kind of thangkas is what is known as “The Wheel of Life”. It has intricate designs that show the different stages of life and are time consuming to make, with countless figures represented. There are others that have the Buddha as the central figure and may be just the Buddha alone.There are others with many Buddhist deities. The colors used are also diverse as some are predominantly gold while others have strong green, red, yellow and blue. What’s amazing about a really good thangka is the minute details painted in, which can only be seen clearly through a magnifying glass.

Although Wangchhu has focused on thangka painting for around forty years, he hasn’t lost any of his passion for thangka making. His nephews who showed us his house commented, “He is only interested in painting and very passionate about it. He doesn’t care about the money. Someone else in his place would have made a lot of money and would have led a luxurious life, riding a fancy car, but he leads a simple life.” On average, it takes about three months to complete a thangka if he keeps working every day. Made for religious purposes, the thangkas painted by Whangchhu are mainly sold to local people, or monks, specifically for prayers. His thangkas fetch anywhere from Rs.100,000 to 900,000 depending on how special it is and the amount of work put into it.

Compared with Wangchhu's individual drawing of thangkas, there are also thangka studios in Nepal specializing in bulk painting of thangkas. Their main target is Thamel's thangka shops where they are mostly bought by tourists. After a period of training, the studio's painting apprentices will be responsible for a certain step in the painting process. Usually, thangkas in these studios are done by multiple people. The studio we visit has about twenty painters both men and women, sitting on the floor. According to the studio owner, the second drawing process for a thangka takes two to three months to complete.The minimum size of thangkas made by the studio is merely 8cm×12cm. But they mostly make larger ones and some are very large taking a long time to paint.

Thangkas are auctioned at exhorbitant prices in the west, some priced at a whopping US $150,000. But these are antiques that were taken from Nepal and Tibet long before restrictions came into place. Today, one cannot take an antique piece out of Nepal.