The Intricate Process of Thangka Painting

Bewitching beauty, enchanting allure and colours so magnificent that your soul can melt into gold dust; the Thangka painting scrolls are highly-prized possessions that hold religious significance in addition to their visual appeal.

Known by various names such as thanka, tangka or tanka depending on the region, people believe that commissioning a thangka painting brings them spiritual merit and luck.


The origins of Thangka paintings transport you back in time to the Mogao Caves along the Silk Road during the Neolithic Age. This art form is seen in all the areas where Buddhism is prevalent such as Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia.

Often seen in monasteries and homes, these paintings depict Buddhist gods and goddesses. This intricate style of painting is one of the oldest surviving forms of Tibetan Buddhist art. 

Thangka Depicting Vajrabhairava, ca. 1740

Thangka Depicting Vajrabhairava, ca. 1740

Thangka paintings have been a part of Tibetan culture since the 11th century. It is believed that the tradition of creating Thangka paintings was started by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, who commissioned several artists to create images of Buddhist deities. Over time, the art form evolved and became an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism.

In India, it is widely practised in the state of Sikkim where Buddhism is practised by the majority. Preserving the traditional style of Thangka paintings has provided livelihood, sense of pride and self-reliance to a lot of artists in Sikkim. For them, it is also a form of staying connected to their ancient culture and religious teachings.


While some Thangka paintings are created for the sole purpose of selling them or using them as decorative pieces, most of them are meant to aid in meditation, visualisation, and as objects of veneration to practise Buddhism. 

They are also used in rituals, such as the offering of water, incense, and flowers. In addition, they are often given as gifts to express gratitude or to honour someone's achievements.

Thangka paintings are a revered medium to transform religious ideas and events of Sikkimese Buddhism into visual reality that is historically accurate and culturally sacred.

Did you know that Thangka paintings were originally created to help people visualise the teachings of the Buddha and understand complex religious concepts? They were also used as portable altars and carried by monks as they travelled to teach in remote areas.

The Process of Creating a Thangka 

Creating something so eccentric and detail oriented like a Thangka painting is no mean feat and can take months to complete. Thangka artists require rigorous training under the guidance of lama or a Buddhist teacher in order to perfect all the complicated steps of making these paintings. 

1) Preparing The Canvas

First step involves stretching and smoothening the canvas which requires attention to detail, expertise and concentration. The canvas is strung to a bamboo frame which is then stretched onto a wooden frame. This is done to achieve uniform and optimal tension on the canvas.

After washing and scrubbing multiple times, the traditional method involves coating the surface with chalk, gesso (animal glue) and base pigment to create a smooth surface and prevent the paint from bleeding through the fabric.

Nowadays, a coat of glue and distemper is applied on the washed surface instead. After that, glass or porcelain is used to smoothen the surface. 

2) Sketching The Design

Sketching A Thangka

Once the surface is prepared, the artist sketches the design on the canvas using charcoal or pencil. This is where the real magic begins, as the intricate and symbolic designs begin to take shape. The deities are sketched exactly as per iconographic grids to ensure that the basic proportions of Buddha’s head and body are precise. 

Thangka sketched exactly as per iconographic grids

Every composition in a Thangka painting follows a very strict set of guidelines with highly sophisticated standards of predefined elements ranging from the stance and the mood to the gestures and colours. 

While many art forms are all about channelling your inner creativity and going with the flow to play with new ideas and try different techniques, Thangka paintings are all about the accurate visual representation of Buddhism’s spiritual reality. Therefore, the artist only serves as a medium, and not an inspiration to connect the bridge between the existing reality and its tangible representation on a canvas.

3) Outlining The Design

After the initial sketch is complete, the artist outlines the design using ink or paint. This creates a guide for the painting process and lays the foundation for the breathtaking artwork that will soon come to life. 

The outlines are traditionally done in black ink made from soot mixed with water. The ink is applied using a fine brush and is often done in a single stroke to create a clean and precise line.

4) Choosing The Right Colours

The colours used in Thangka paintings are highly symbolic and hold deeper meaning in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. For example, blue represents wisdom, yellow represents enlightenment, and red represents energy and passion. Gold paint is also used extensively to add a shimmering effect and to symbolise purity.The colours are traditionally made from natural pigments, such as crushed minerals and plants.

5) Painting 

As the artist begins to fill in the details, they must work from the background towards the foreground, carefully applying each colour in a specific order to achieve the desired effect. Each brush stroke is deliberate and precise, adding depth and dimension to the painting with carefully constructed hues and blends.


Interestingly enough, the artist simultaneously uses numerous brushes dipped in different colours and sometimes the colour blends are created directly on the canvas when the paint is wet. 

6) Adding A Gold Leaf

Temptation Of Shakyamuni Buddha By Mara

Temptation Of Shakyamuni Buddha By Mara

The use of gold leaf is a hallmark of Thangka paintings and adds a touch of shimmering vibrance and exquisite elegance to the painting. The artist applies gold leaf to specific areas of the painting, such as the halo surrounding a deity, to create a stunning visual effect. 

The gold is pounded into thin sheets and applied using a special adhesive made from tree sap. The process is highly delicate and requires a steady hand.This process requires immense care and attention to detail, as the gold leaf must be applied with the perfect amount of pressure to ensure that it adheres properly to the surface of the painting.

7) Applying The Finishing Touches

After the main painting is complete, the artist adds the finishing touches, such as pearls and semi-precious stones, to create a three-dimensional effect that makes the painting truly come to life. 

This process requires a deep understanding of the materials being used and how they interact with the paint and canvas. These materials are carefully chosen for their colour and texture and are often arranged in intricate patterns.

8) Framing The Thangka

The painting is then carefully framed and covered with a traditional Tibetan cloth, ready to be used in religious practices. This adds an extra layer of protection and respect for the painting. The framing process requires precision and skill to ensure that the painting is perfectly centred and displayed in the best possible way.

9) Consecrating The Thangka

Thangka paintings are not just works of art but also hold deep religious significance. The blessing of the painting is an important part of the process and is done to infuse the painting with spiritual power.

Each painting is blessed by a lama or other Buddhist teacher before it is used in religious practices.The lama or other Buddhist teacher will often recite prayers and mantras over the painting to imbue it with positive energy.

All images via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Sparsh Paul

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