What is Thangka? Why Use It to Support Your Spiritual Practice

The art of painting on Thangka (or Tshogs-pa) is a unique form of art, and one of the great reasons to visit or live in Tibet. Thangka is one of the oldest forms of Tibetan painting, dating back to the 5th century.

Thangka is usually painted on cotton or silk and features Buddhist images representing different manifestations of enlightenment. In this guide, we'll cover everything you need to know to pick your next piece to frame and hang on your wall at home. 

What Is Thangka?

A thangka is a Tibetan religious painting. It is also known as a Tangka or Tanka (the Sanskrit word for "scroll") and is pronounced "tang ka." Thangkas are usually found in monasteries, temples, and private homes. They can be rolled or folded when not on display and come in various sizes. 

Thangkas are typically made using cotton or silk cloth. The artist paints the picture on the cloth with natural mineral pigments from the Himalayas. The artwork is then mounted on a wooden frame and coated with lacquer for protection.

Recorded Message

Thangka painting is a traditional art form of Tibet that has been passed down for generations. Thangka paintings were originally made for monasteries, temples, and Buddhist shrines. They were used as tools for meditation and education through recorded messages, as well as a prominent source of income for the people who made them.

Scroll Paintings

Traditionally, scroll painting is done on cotton canvas with mineral paints made from semi-precious ground stones. The resulting pigments are extremely vivid and long-lasting when compared to modern watercolors or acrylics. Because of the natural materials used in their creation, these paintings have an incredible depth of color that cannot be found in modern artwork.

Visual Expression

Tibetan art is a visual expression of Tibetan Buddhism. It is influenced by the art of India, Nepal, and China. These influences create a unique style that is unmistakably Tibetan. The earliest paintings in Tibet date back to the 7th century CE. At that time, Indian artists were invited to Tibet to help create murals on monastery walls. Murals are large works of art on the walls of buildings or caves. 

Tibetan painters traditionally work with tempera paint, or paint made from egg yolks mixed with natural dyes. This type of paint ages well and can be stored for long periods without drying out.

Ceremonial Use

Tibetan art is used in ceremonial ways. The most common use is to accompany religious ceremonies. The main purpose of a Tibetan thangka can be divided into two categories: teaching and meditation. Usually, the Buddhist deities are depicted, but also Buddhist stories or scenes describing the life of Buddha or the historical background of Tibet with the typical Tibetan landscape. It is in following these practices that the Tibetan Buddhist art of thangka gains divine power. Thus, you can use it to support your spiritual practice.

History of Thangka Painting

The history of Thangka painting begins in the eighth century with Tibet, Nepal, and India. It spread to the Mongolian Empire in the thirteenth century and to China in the fourteenth century. The practice was not forgotten after its introduction by Buddhist missionaries in Russia. 

There is a great variety of images, but they all show Buddha in different moods: meditating, preaching, teaching, or being supported by other deities. He also appears in scenes with humans and animals. In some cases, he is surrounded by his disciples, so that we find a link between Buddhism and the art of Russian iconography. 

The most common depictions are those of Buddhas of the previous life (see attached image). There are also representations of Buddha's healing miracles or of his miracles at the time of enlightenment. The main genres are:

· images from daily life

· images from Buddhist mythology

· images from everyday life

· moving images

· scenes from the life of Buddha

· scenes from Buddhist legends 

Significance of Thangka Paintings

The Thangka Paintings are highly significant in the Tibetan Buddhist culture, where it is used to spread teachings and practices of the religion through art. It is also used as an aid to meditation. The subject matter of the painting is different and depends on how it is to be used. 

A thangka has three parts - The painting, a cloth, and a wooden stick. The wooden stick forms the backing of the scroll, which allows the painting to be rolled up for easy handling and transportation. Thangka paintings are traditionally made by monks and nuns who live in monasteries that are located in remote areas of Tibet, Nepal, and India.


They are painted with great care, taking many days to complete one piece. Only natural colors from plants, flowers, and insects are used in these paintings. That is why they are so brilliant and durable even after hundreds of years later. Such paintings have been found in caves in Tibet that date back to at least 1000 years ago.

Major Symbols of the Thangka

There are many symbols that appear in the Thangkas, and these include:

· Aum: This is an ancient symbol that appears in many religions that originated in India, and it represents the sound of creation by representing different parts of the brain. The symbol has three letters - A U M - representing three states of consciousness.

· The Parasol: This symbol is often depicted as a dome-shaped structure with a decorated handle that's held over someone's head. It represents royalty or religious authority and is often paired with the victory banner (a flag with a long streamer attached to it).

· The Conch Shell: The conch shell is often seen as a trumpet or wind instrument, but it's really just a symbol of power and authority in Buddhist culture. It's usually shown being blown by one of the four guardian kings who are responsible for protecting Mount Meru, which is believed to be the center of all physical, metaphysical, and spiritual universes in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

· Wheel of Dharma: The Wheel of Dharma (or Wheel of Law) is usually painted behind the Buddha in a thangka painting. It represents his teachings and his enlightenment-the turning point when he first came to understand that suffering was caused by desire, and that desire can be overcome through meditation.

· Mandala: A mandala will often be found in the center of a thangka painting. It's an important symbol that represents the universe and everything in it. They can take many forms, but they're usually circular. 

4 Key Symbols to Represent the Buddha

There are four major symbols used in a thangka to represent the Buddha:

1. The Lotus Flower

The lotus flower is a symbol of purity and enlightenment. It symbolizes the Buddha's purity and detachment from worldly affairs, as well as his awakening.

2. The Wheel of Law

The wheel symbolizes the Buddha's first sermon in Sarnath, where he taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The eight spokes of the wheel represent these paths. 

3. Deer (Dharmachakra)

The deer are used to represent the moment when the Buddha was tempted by Mara, but resisted temptation by touching the earth with his right hand and summoning it as a witness to his good deeds. 

4. The Stupa

The stupa represents Buddha's enlightenment. It can also be used to show that the figure in the painting has reached Nirvana, or is an enlightened being. 

Explanation on Thangka Deity Painting

The Thangka Deity Painting, a work created around the end of the 14th century in China, is a beautiful example of Buddhist iconography.

A thangka remains a popular Tibetan Buddhist painting, typically painted on silk or cotton. Thangkas are used as tools of meditation and education, and they depict religious figures or mandalas. This thangka depicts Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, surrounded by his retinue of Bodhisattvas and followers. 

Thangka of Buddha Shakyamuni

This thangka of Buddha Shakyamuni is a traditional painting from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Thangkas are used as meditation tools and teaching aids, and this one depicts Shakyamuni with his hands in the dharmachakra mudra, or "wheel of dharma" gesture. In this stance, his hands are open, palms facing out, with his left hand resting on a stool at waist height and the right hand raised to shoulder height.

Thangka of Meditating Medicine Buddha

A classic rendition of the Medicine Buddha, this thangka is set in a traditional blue background and rendered in a warm, gold palette. The Medicine Buddha is shown seated, cross-legged on an ottoman, with his right hand resting on his right knee and his left hand holding a glass bowl filled with nectar. A third eye rests in the center of his forehead. This thangka is framed with brocade and comes ready for hanging.

Thangka of Manjushri

The Thangka of Manjushri, or Thangka of Wisdom, the perfect manifestation and personification of Manjushri, has his body depicted in a posture with his face, four arms, and an expression full of wisdom. This emanation is also known as Chenrezig in all the countries that follow Tibetan Buddhism.

Thangka of 21 Tara

The Thangka of 21 Tara is an oft-repeated painting in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This particular image holds special significance, with it being the archetypal feminine deity that embodies enlightened education and action. It also embodies deep compassion for all beings in the universe.

Thangka of Amitabha Buddha

The Amitabha Buddha Thangka is entirely hand-painted by Tibetan artisans in Nepal. The vivid and delicate attention to detail of this Thangka will show you a very glorified image of the Amitabha Buddha in a composition of four large figures, two on each side of the composition. 

Thangka of Chenrezig

Yogi Chenrezig, the embodiment of loving-kindness and compassion, is one of the most iconic figures in Tibetan Buddhism. This framed thangka painting depicts a peaceful representation of the Lord of Love and Compassion above a floral background.

Thangka of Buddha Vajradhara and Wisdom Mandala

The thangka of Buddha Vajradhara and Wisdom Mandala depicts the process of creation, destruction, and the influence of karma upon sentient beings. At an early age in Tibet, this painting was done by the Nepalese artist Kanchha Nandal. Due to its artistic and religious value, this thangka is also called Peon Thangka because it was owned by phagmo lama Rinpoche who had blessed it. 

Thangka of Green Tara

The Thangka of Green Tara or the image at the top can be considered as one of the most beloved and worshipped Buddhist thangkas of all time. In fact, it is considered by many as the most popular thangka that is hung on walls by almost every household in the Buddhist community.

Thangka of White Tara

"Thangka of White Tara" painting is a good example of power and imagination in Tibetan art. Prepared on cotton wool, the painting was created by Airap Rinchen in the first half of the 20th century. It depicts the White Tara (Locana) - a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. 

Thangka of Buddha's First Sermon

The Thangka of Buddha's first sermon is a painting on silk depicting the legendary thirteenth-century sermon at Deer Park, Sarnath, which marked the beginning of Buddhist history. The painting was done during the early 18th century, as evidenced by the artist's style and use of Chinese influence in clothing and architecture. 

Thangka of the Wheel of Life

Perched on the eastern shore of the 11th-century Lingyin Temple in the Chinese province of Hangzhou, the Thangka of The Wheel of Life is a massive and beautiful work depicting the teachings of Buddhism. The painting consists of 49 panels, each with a demonstrative art style that's both chaotic and contemplative. 

Sikkim Thangka

The Sikkim Thangka represents the culture and traditions of the Sikkimese people. It captures the essence of its people, their patience and perseverance; their courage, wisdom, and physical strength. It illustrates scenes from everyday life - from celebrations to work in fields, weaving at looms, shepherding flocks of sheep, cooking vegetables, and toddy tapping. A special activity is the Bumpa Dance' with its symbolical representation of hard work being rewarded with abundance. 

Thangka and Meditation

Thangka art is a kind of Buddhist artwork that has its origin in Tibet. It is a painting that depicts Buddha, deities, or mandalas. They are traditionally painted on cotton or silk canvas and mounted on a textile backing. The term thangka means "thing that can be rolled up" in Tibetan, as the paintings were displayed temporarily and then rolled up when not in use. 

The purpose of thangka paintings was both religious and spiritual. The images in the painting served as a focal point for meditation, which helped Buddhists visualize the deity depicted or imagine themselves as the deity. Studies show that meditation can improve one's physical health, mental health, and well-being. In fact, it has been shown to reduce stress, decrease blood pressure, and decrease inflammation in the body. 


Thangka classification is based on the subject it represents. There are four main classifications: deity, mandala, lineage, and protector. Deities include Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and important deities associated with a particular Buddha or bodhisattva. Mandalas are used to aid in meditation practices.  

A mandala is a square that contains an image of a deity in its center. Lineage thangkas generally depict one's spiritual lineage, including teachers and founders of different sects and schools of Buddhism. Protector thangkas are intended to protect the practitioner from evil forces and misfortunes. 

How to Display and Preserve a Thangka

A thangka should be treated with the same care and respect that is given to a Buddhist statue. Thangkas are intricate pieces of art, often made from silk and made by hand. Because of this, it is important to take care of your thangka properly to preserve it for future generations. 

The first step in protecting your thangka is to place it in a place that is free from harmful chemicals. The most effective way to accomplish this is by placing your thangka in an airtight sealable box or cabinet. This will help protect the thangka from exposure to harmful chemicals such as smoke, cooking fumes and dust mites.  

When displaying a thangka, avoid direct sunlight, because it will cause the colors of the painting to fade over time. It is best to display your thangka in a dark area where there is little light coming through windows or doors. If you choose to display your thangka in a room that has a lot of light coming through windows or doors, then you should make sure that you have adequate lighting inside the room so that the colors do not fade over time. When storing your thangka, you should store it upright on its side rather than flat on its back. 

Final Words

Thangka is one of the most complex forms of Tibetan Buddhism, which makes it the ideal topic for a piece of this length. By now, you have learned about the fundamental elements and principles that Thangka is composed of.

Hopefully, you have also taken to heart the important lessons about quality and integrity given throughout this piece, as well as with all of our articles. With that in mind, please feel free to explore your newfound knowledge and create some great art!