Beijing’s Local Shops Have Excellent Tibetan Thangkas

by Andy Lao

Thangkas are one of Tibet’s most famous art forms, and they have fascinated generations of art fans around the world. Developed during the Songtsan Gampo era of Tibet, they incorporate elements from both Nepalese art and traditional Chinese paintings. Valued for their exquisite craftsmanship, they are also admired for their unique beauty and practical function. When traveling to other places, Tibetan monks will often carry a thangka to communicate with their gods. On a good tour in Beijing, you can find exquisite thangkas made by great Tibetan artists.

Like a scroll painting, thangkas can be easily stored and moved around. For this reason, traveling monks in Tibet prefer to carry them instead of heavy, bulky statues. Because they can be put on a wall, Tibetans also like to use them at home for worship and meditation.

Serving as an object for worship and meditation, thangkas often have images that depict prominent figures of Buddism, like the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and other gods. These figures, along with the depictions of their life stories that usually appear in the background, are intended to educate, enlighten, or enhance the contemplative experience of the people who study them.

The profound symbolism of a finely made thangka may have thousands of bits of information contained in the color, clothing, and positions of the figures that enable a Buddhist to learn the teachings of Buddhism by examining the overall image. A commonly item you’ll see is the Wheel of Life, a form of the universe in Buddhism.

One of the tasks traveling monks are assigned is teaching Buddhism to the people in the places they travel to. Even today there are monks who go from region to region and use thangkas to spread the teachings of Buddhism. Tibetans monks living in monasteries will display their thangkas to the public on important dates.

Most thangkas are painted by hand on a cotton canvas or silk, but a few of them are embroidered or made of precious materials like pearls and gold. Making a thangka is usually an extremely complex process that employs a variety of techniques and paints. Paint made of natural minerals is often used, giving the pictures a bright and unique color that can last hundreds of years. Such paintings require a mastery of different drawing skills and a deep understanding of Buddhism and Tibetan culture. Since every detail on a thangka contributes to the overall symbolism through subtle hints, only a properly trained artist can make a thangka.

Depending on the materials used and the way it was made, thangkas can be divided into two main categories: “Bris-Tang” and “Go-Tang.”

“Bris-Tang”: Thangkas that are painted are called “Bris-Tang.” The five specific types belonging to this category are: Multi-Colored, Gold Background, Vermilion Background, Black Background, and Block Printing “Bris-Tang.”

“Go-Tang”: Thangkas that are made of silk or decorated with embroidery are called “Go-Tang.” This category includes: Embroidery, Applique, Glued Applique, Hand-Woven, and Block Printing “Go-Tang.”

All thangkas are made to conform to a strict standard concerning the use of colors. Different colors are used to show different themes or different characters. Red is the main color for thangkas that depict the life stories of the Buddha. Black is the main color for thangkas depicting gods who fight against evils. Blue is used to represent joy. Green is used to represent activity. And white is the symbol for peace and compassion.

When in Beijing, check out the beautiful, authentic thangkas in many of the city’s shops. For shoppers unfamiliar with the local business, it’s best to find a Beijing tour guide to help with the shopping.