The Thangka and Its Significance in Tibetan Buddhism

Thangka of Lowo Khenchen Sonam Lhundrub Thangka of Lowo Khenchen Sonam Lhundrub, image via Flickr.

Thangka, roughly translating to “recorded message” in Tibetan, is an ancient form of Buddhist art that originated within Tibet around the 11th century. Thought to serve as a teaching and meditation tool for religious scholars, thangka paintings are usually vertically oriented scrolls crafted on silk or cotton fabric. These works often depict great Buddhist teachers and deities surrounded by other important religious icons. Brightly colored using mineral and organic pigments mixed with animal glue, densely illustrative, and painstakingly detailed, the thangka serves as a striking centerpiece that can be appreciated by all admirers of Asian art.

What is a Thangka?

A thangka painting was traditionally a portable fabric scroll, kept unframed, and intended to be used either for personal meditation or in order to instruct other individuals in Buddhist teachings. Thangkas use a combination of depictions of deities or influential leaders, alongside symbols and very precise geometry in order to help aid the viewer on his or her path to enlightenment. Thangkas can also serve to retell a historical event involving a well-known lama, or depict a myth of a deity like a Buddha or bodhisattva. It is believed that if painted correctly and beautifully, these works could house the spirits of their deities, and so a very strict set of rules and patterns is taught and enforced. The deities must always be depicted with the exact same proportions, the color palette is restricted, and the stances of the figures are heavily curated. The monks who produce these works must spend at least six years studying the art form before the painting can be deemed acceptable to Buddhist standards.


Lot 846, An Embroidered Silk Thangka of the Buddha of Healing, Qing Dynasty, Late 18th/Early 19th Century, Bonham’s (July, 2020).

Key Symbols of the Thangka

Some of the key religious symbols that can be seen in thangka paintings are lotus flowers, banners, knots, fish, umbrellas, vases, conch shells, and the dharma wheel. These motifs are referred to as the 8 auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism:

  • The lotus flower, which is usually pink or light red, symbolizes enlightenment and spiritual purity as the flower emerges from the mud. The lotus flower usually is seen with 8 or 16 petals, and can have different colors to represent different motifs. For example, the white lotus is specific to Buddha Sikhin, but lotuses can also appear in yellow or gold.
  • The victory banner, which usually appears as a four-colored cylindrical design with a central pole, represents the triumph of Buddha over ignorance.
  • Similarly, a white parasol or umbrella represents the ability of Buddha to triumph over everything, and a conch shell also represents victory over enemies.
  • The knot, also known as the “endless knot” or “glorious knot”, represents longevity and harmony.
  • When fish appear in thangka paintings, thy are usually seen in pairs, symbolizing the harmony and peace that arrives as a person approaches enlightenment.
  • The treasure vase, which is usually gold and never runs dry, represents abundance.
  • The final symbol of the thangka is the dharma wheel. The dharma wheel always has three components: rim, hub, and spokes. These three pieces represent integrity, wisdom, and attentiveness. The dharma wheel also always features eight spokes representing the eightfold Noble Path towards enlightenment. The wheel can also often be embellished with jewels, ribbons, and sometimes a lotus base.

Thangka Depicting Vajrabhairava, ca. 1740, image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Thangka and Meditation

Thangka paintings intended for meditation practice usually take the form of a mandala. A mandala is a circular, symbolic diagram, usually consisting of many concentric circles containing depictions of deities. With a thangka, the onlooker enters this visual space mentally from the lines and outer circles of fire, diamonds, graveyards, and lotus leaves before entering the mandala itself. Those circles represent the burning of ignorance, illumination, cognition, and rebirth respectively. By meditating on this imagery, the viewer is said to be able to enter a state of calm and relaxation while becoming more aware of his or her spiritual connection.

Imperial Embroidered Silk Thangka

A Highly Important Imperial Embroidered Silk Thangka, est HK 80,000,000 via Christies (2014).

Collecting Thangka Paintings

When collecting thangka paintings, one should know that works by higher lamas and spiritual leaders are generally considered more valuable. However, as thangka painters very rarely used the medium for personal expression, the scrolls were rarely attributed or signed, except in very rare cases. Many old thangka paintings feature inscriptions on the back with a mantra about the deity depicted, but it is rarely a personal note from the artist. That said, signatures can often be found on thangkas produced for personal meditation. Additionally, because thangkas were often frequently unraveled and re-raveled and transported from place to place through harsh environments, thangka scrolls tend to experience significant wear and tear.


Thangka depecting the Medicine Buddha (Bhaishajyaguru), c. 1200, image via Wikimedia Commons.

Displaying and Preserving a Thangka

Another factor to consider when collecting thangkas is the textile mounting. While the original textile mounting of a thangka is often intact, remounting is often a necessity due to damage endured by the piece. Sometimes, the mounting covers a large portion of the artwork, and important details can be lost.

Typically, thangka paintings are not framed when they are on display. Instead, larger thangkas are displayed as hanging scrolls. Because of the materials, the thangka should be stored in a cool, dry place to prevent damage to the silk. The colors of the thangka are also subject to fading over time should it be exposed to direct sunlight. Ideally, the best way to take care of your thangka is to ensure the painting is not exposed to too much light or moisture. If possible, keep it on display only for short periods of time, otherwise keeping the painting rolled up in a solid uncrushable container and stowed in a dry, dark place to prevent the intensity of the colors from fading.

Thangkas are not only integral to the understanding of Tibetan Buddhism and for Buddhist instruction, but they are beautifully intricate works of art that anyone can appreciate. With all the detail, symbolism, and precision that goes into creating these paintings, there is always something new to be learned from observing a thangka painting. However, as beautiful as they are to look at, they also are very fragile pieces of work and are prone to damage and fading. That said, thangkas are breathtaking artworks to own, despite their upkeep, and can certainly be rewarding to collect.

 Additional Sources:         

International Journal of Indian Psychology | | Asia Society | Sacred Arts Research Foundation | Buddha Net | Encyclopedia Britannica