The Buddhist sacred paintings, the thangkas, that originated in Tibet, are renowned the world over; the Nepalese paubhas influenced by ancient Hindu sacred paintings and texts are relatively lesser known. Both thangkas and paubhas are valued not only as objects of meditation and worship but also as works of art.
Painting has occupied a special position among the arts and crafts of Nepal and has served as a medium for expressing religious beliefs in worship. The art of painting grew along with metal iconography as an important form through which the highest ideals of Buddhism and Hinduism were brought alive and evoked. Sacred paintings, such as the paubha or thangka, were commissioned, worshipped, and cherished. These sacred paintings illuminating a deity or event, usually of a religious nature, are depicted on a scroll of cotton or silk cloth that is beautifully mounted on a brocade fabric. On completion of a sacred painting the ritual for merit dedication is followed, inspired by a desire to attain enlightenment. Prayers are made which place a final seal on the meritorious act, which accrued to the ultimate attainment of enlightenment. This, it is believed guarantees that the meritorious deed will bear the highest and most lasting fruit.
The painting of thangkas in Nepal is an ancient tradition. The Tibetan exodus further led to their proliferation, with a number of shops in Katmandu Valley beginning to sell them. As sacred paintings they were not supposed to be sold; however, as there was a great demand for them they were painted for sale and were available in the market. The thangkas no longer need to be commissioned and can be bought off the shelf – however thangkas bought of the shelf have to be consecrated to a deity before they can be worshipped.
The thangka acted as a focus and support for the practice of the Buddhist faith. It also served, like all sacred pictures, as a symbol of the believer’s commitment to travel the path set by the Buddha, and thus functioned as an object of worship and offerings.
Sacred paintings which depict the physical form of deities are called ska rten or body support – this school of painting makes up the majority of thangkas and are therefore more common. There are also rten paintings, which depict inanimate, sacred objects, such as stupas or important temples and monasteries.
Some sku rten thangkas are called narrative paintings because they portray events in the life of an enlightened saint. These paintings are also described as biographical paintings. The narrative paintings either comprise a single thangkas or a series of thangkas – they narrate accounts of one or many events in the life of a personage.
The other type of rten paintings are those that portray sacred figures within a pure realm, and not as personages in a particular situation. The most common – and the simplest – consists merely of a single figure in the middle of a background. Those with multiple figures form another type, while the thangkas painted according to the requirements of the patron commissioning them form another category.
A mandala painted on fabric is considered a thangka, but on the whole it comprises a distinct work of sacred art with a relatively limited subject; the scope of the thangka is wider and more varied. The composition or design of a mandala is fixed, and never altered: a fixed number of deities are represented by symbols. Thangkas are easier to understand for a lay person than a mandala is, because a mandala depicts abstruse concepts, beyond the language of lay people, and is often understood only by monks and scholars. The painted mandala, which can be regarded as a thangka, is an example of a fixed composition with a central figure portrayed with a retinue of minor deities – this is repeated over and over again, the subject remaining virtually fixed.
Thangkas, on the other hand, have no fixed designs, and can portray varying numbers of deities; the deities are not represented as symbols. It is felt that there is greater merit in having more deities, for this multiplies the force of the power of the deities to counteract threatening obstacles or problems.
There is little scope for originality in thangka painting: the subject matter of these religious paintings are continually repeated and it is very probable that the artist has painted the same subject many times in the past. Even the layout and composition of designs are generally the same. Most artists painting thangkas simply followed canonical authority or the fixed set of rules and traditions. The area of creativity lies mainly in the decorative parts, such as the landscape ornamentation. The great masters, of course, always have their distinctive signatures – a flair for colour schemes, extremely fine portrayal of facial features, or the ability to render an ordinary background or landscape into something vibrant and extraordinarily beautiful. However, adherence to tradition, while limiting the scope for creativity in representation, has guaranteed the continuity and authenticity of thangka religious art.
When a thangka commissioned the patron usually instructed the painter as to precisely which deities were to be depicted. Very often the patron furnished a diagram on a sketch prepared by a lama showing the manner and relative positions of each figure in the painting. This diagram, by laying out the elements of the composition, simplified the artist’s work: the artist simply had to allocate space to each figure and lay out the background landscape.
Sometime it was left to the artist to design a suitable layout. If the painting had many figures, the artist determined from the patron the deities that were to be prominent and those that were to be regarded as subordinate or minor. This happened usually if the composition was a new one. Otherwise there were fixed patterns to be followed – set up by Buddhist iconography, canonical authority, and artistic tradition – which thangka painters were familiar with. The painters, in such cases, painted from memory or according to set examples.
Thangka painters were compensated handsomely. There was generally an agreement between the painter and the person giving the commission on the minimum fee to be paid. The payment that the patron made to the artist was regarded not as payment but as a pious offering which allowed the patron then to invite the sacred image to his home.
Traditionally, while creating sacred renderings of deities, the artists often went into seclusion for a period of time. They had to purify themselves physically and spiritually and meditate on the design and purpose of the artwork they were to make. Over the years, this requirement has been given up, and the work of painting sacred scrolls of deities had been passed on to professional artists – at first, perhaps, only to those who had been initiated in the Vajrayana (tantric) discipline, but in the course of time, even to painters, who did decorative paintings. Thangka painters usually have apprentices who assist them in their work, and in this manner whatever special techniques they have are passed on to their disciples.
The best-known genre of pictorial art in Nepal is the painting on cotton cloth called pata in Sanskirt, paubha in Newari and thanka in Tibetan. A large number of temple banners of this kind appear abruptly in the 14th century an the fact that their style and format is comparatively sophisticated and uniform suggests that they represent the continuation of an earlier tradition that is not represented by any surviving examples.
The Newar paubha tended to use rather coarser cloth than the Tibetan thanka, but in both cases the cloth was prepared to receive the paint with a mixture of chalk and glue. Colours, mostly derived from mineral sources, were also mixed with glue, and the finished painting was varnished with a mixture of egg-white and water. The work of Nepali artists is dominated by a deep rich red, supplemented and enlivened by bright blues, greens and golds. Only primary colours were used. The earliest dated example, in Los Angeles Country Museum, is from 1367, but Buddhist monasteries throughout the kingdom invariably posses a stock of such paintings of varying antiquity but remarkable stylistic conformity. For a few days each summer, usually between mid-July and mid-August, several viharas in Lalitpur and Kathmandu display their paubhas for community worship.
The 14th century paubhas are stylistically close to the earlier manuscript illuminations. Rules of symmetry and frontality – figures always face out of the painting – were inviolable, and the basic scheme of iconic paubhas remained entirely valid thereafter, at least for the representation of benign deities: a central large figure occupies an ornate frame, surrounded by much smaller subsidiary figures. Mandalas and depictions of wrathful deities required some amendment to these rules, though symmetry and frontality were always maintained. The composition of a paubha that depicts a mandala is inevitably dictated by the geometric pattern of the mandala itself, and the principal, central figure of a mandala is usually much the same size as the acolytes and subsidiary figures. In paintings of wrathful deities, the background is often dominated by a flaming red aureole (prabha). Most paubhas contain a register of ancillary deities at the top, and many include portraits of the artist’s patrons at the bottom, though painters always remained anonymous. When natural objects appear in these paintings, they are used as symbols and are not depicted naturalistically. For example, the shapes and colours of the lotus flower vary enormously, though artists must have been familiar with its natural appearance.
PAINTING A THANGKA
There are six defined steps followed in thangka painting, to be executed in an orderly and systematic manner.
Preparing the Base
The textile that is painted upon is a canvas or a cotton of a very fine weave, which has to be washed and dried. Other fabrics used include linen and silk; leather and paper are also used ocassionally. Cotton and linen fabrics have become rare as the base for thangka paintings; canvas has become the most commonly used fabric.
Wooden frames known as stretchers are used. There is also an inner frame made of sticks – usually smaller than the main frame. The length of the sticks vary according to the size of the canvas: the sticks are usually just a little longer than the canvas attached to it and stretched loosely. This inner frame is only used on a larger canvas; with smaller canvas it is often not necessary. The sides of the canvas are folded and stretched with cards to make them stronger. The inner frame of a larger canvas is looped with non-stretching cord to the main wooden frame. For the small canvas the cord is looped on the edges at regular intervals to the main wooden frame. The frame is then inspected, and any slack tightened. The inner frame or canvas is generally at least two inches smaller than the main wooden stretcher.
A glue made from the skin of the water buffalo that has been boiled and dissolved is turned into gelatine. The size or binder / gesso /dam is the base material This is a mix of white chalk /kaolin with the size. It is stirred when mixed with the size to the consistency of buttermilk.
In spreading the gesso on the canvas, some artists use a brush, others a cloth, and still others a knife. The gesso is applied on both sides of the canvas. When it is dry the painter checks the canvas for pinholes; if pinholes are discovered, another coating of gesso is usually applied. Excessive gesso makes a layer that is too thick, leading to cracking or flaking; thus, it is important that the correct amount of gesso be used. Too little gesso is also detrimental. The painter must see to it that the gesso is just enough to make the canvas pliant to be rolled up into a scroll and unrolled.
After the gesso on the canvas has dried, it is polished. The canvas has to be slightly moistened for polishing. Some painters apply both the damp and dry process of polishing until the canvas has acquired the desired surface quality.
With the canvas surface now properly polished the painter lays down the main lines of orientation. He does this with a ‘marking string’ or thig rkud, which is made to go through a leather bag containing marking powder, usually a mixture of ochre and charcoal. The string is properly positioned and then snapped, leaving a straight line on the canvas. The most important lines are the diagonals, which establish the vertical and horizontal axes. These lines determine the exact centre of the canvas around which the artist plans the composition. It is used to mark the centre of the main figure, in relation to which all other figures are positioned.
From the religious point of view, the correct establishment of the vertical and horizontal axes is important. The physical forms of deities to be painted have to be perfectly oriented in relation to the central axis. A mistake in this context is believed to affect the accuracy, and hence the religious value, of the thangka.
The four borders are then marked; the artist leaves enough space at the edge for the brocade frame that is stitched on when the thangka painting is completed.
A single central figure is simple and easy. The artist has only to draw the figure so that it fills most of the foreground. If the painting involves many figures there is a need to allocate greater or smaller spaces for the various figures – the space allocated depends again on the ‘importance’ of each figure. Usually the artist determines the size of the main figure in the centre, and proceeds to allocate smaller areas in the form of ovals or circles for minor figures.
Charcoal crayons are used in making the preliminary sketches. Nowadays, painters have abandoned home-made charcoals, and use graphite pencils instead. After the central figure is sketched in, the remaining sketching is usually done from the top down. Thangka painters are familiar with Buddhist iconometry and traditional artistic practices, and are regarded as being acquainted with the proportions, configurations, and characteristics of deities.
The sketching of the main figure begins with the construction of a linear grid that conforms with the physical dimensions of the central deity. For goddesses or wrathful deities, the angles of the chest and head have to be fixed at an early stage. The forms can be delineated: the head with a rectangle, the face with an oval form. The abdomen follows, then the arms and legs. The robes, together with other garments or ornaments, conclude the initial drawing. This basic procedure is followed also in sketching minor figures. Finally the artist draws the halo, the nimbus of the body and the seat for each figure.
After the initial sketch has been completed, the proportions of each figure are checked through comparing certain key measures of the height and breadth of each figure. If these are satisfactory, the figures are then surrounded with sketches of landscapes and ornamentation – clouds, mountains, greenery, lakes, and waterfalls. At the end details such as flowers, jewels, and auspicious animals are added in as offerings.
Critical inspection follows: corrections and minor changes are made and the sketches done with charcoal are linked to make them clearer in the subsequent painting. When the ink has dried the canvas is dusted off to remove any remaining charcoal dust. Artists who use graphite pencils omit inking altogether.
Occasionally, the artist does not sketch the picture; rather the design, complete in every respect is transferred, a process known as pouncing. This usually involves compositions that are famous, as well as those that are commissioned frequently. These designs, with the usual motifs, are often carved on xylograph blocks for later use, and are simply printed on to the canvas. Simple and common images, such as the single figure of the Buddha or Tara, are drawn on paper for future use as stencils. They are usually traced on the canvas using carbon paper. Another technique that is used involves perforating the stencil, placing it properly on the canvas, and dusting it with charcoal. What appears on the canvas is similar to the effects of the pointillism technique. Usually the artist improves upon the printed or stencilled designs. The artist finally either uses a graphite pencil or ink to darken the outline of the design.
The canvas is now ready for introducing colours. This involves two main steps:
There are two essentially different types of paint in the palette: mineral pigments and organic dyes. These paints are in the main prepared by the artists themselves, chiefly by mixing pigments with the sizes binder, or by combining pigments to produce another colour.
The process is complicated and time-consuming. The artist puts ground pigment into a paint pot and adds a little warm size, enough to make it somewhat damp. The mixture is crushed, and kneaded to remove lumps, and stirred into a dough-like consistency. More warm size is mixed in with the ‘dough’ until the mixture becomes a thick homogenous liquid. Again the artist pours just enough size into mixture to bring the paint to the right thickness for painting.
The mixture is tested; if it is satisfactory it is immediately applied on the canvas so as to avoid the possibility of the mixture getting dry. If the mixture does become dry, it can be reconstituted to the right consistency with the gradual stirring in of additional size solution. To prevent the paints from congealing, the process of mixing and heating has to be followed by the artist. It is important that the correct quantity of size is mixed in with the paint: too little size causes the mixture to dry too quickly, and too much size means that the mixture will take an inordinately long time to dry.
The above-delineated traditional method of preparing paints for thangkas is not only complicated and time-consuming, but also tedious. However, even though a variety of oil paints are now available in the market, traditional methods of preparing the canvas and also of preparing particular colours are still followed.
The oil paints available in the market are generally used in the context of efficiency. In the same context, the preparation of a canvas, its design, and the painting process is carried out by a team consisting of the main artist, and two or three other assistant painters who take turns working on the canvas, which may be small or large. They all work together and complete the job. The painting, when complete, undergoes a process of ‘dry polishing’ on its back to make it soft or pliant and resistant to cracking.
Consecrating the Painting
This is followed by symbols of the essence of the enlightened body, speech, and mind, with which the figures are to be imbued during the ritual consecration.
It is also usual to inscribe some text at the back indicating the reasons why the painting was commissioned, along with the date of completion and consecration. Some also have text stating the personal mantra of the owner, followed by some prayers, usually for wealth or long life.