High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written in November 2014 for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on November 28, 2014.
This unusually long blogpost is about the traditional Tibetan Buddhist artwork, the thangka.
“When the Ancient Thangka meets Today’s Restless Modernity”
1. Thangka Workshops Around the Barkhor
People who have visited Lhasa will have gone to the famous area towards the east of the city. Yet, mentioning this area is full of misunderstandings and ambiguity. What Tibetans call the “Barkhor” is often referred to as the “eight-cornered street” (ba jiao jie) by Chinese; it is indeed puzzling how a circular street can have eight corners. Where does this misunderstanding in terms of pronunciation come from? It is said that many Chinese soldiers that forcefully entered Tibet in the 1950s were Sichuanese. In Sichuan dialect, the word “jiao” is pronounced as “guo” and so “Barkhor” was transliterated into “ba jiao street” (eight-cornered street).
In any case, whether Barkhor or Bajiao, it is an area of great importance in which Buddhists incessantly circle around the Jokhang temple like an hour hand; it is also an area where foreign tourists are lured by countless shops selling peculiar ethnic handiwork whose authenticity can be questioned. Today, even true locals sometimes use standard Mandarin to call this street “Ba Jiao Street”. The profound impacts of a flourishing tourist industry become all too obvious.
Tourism is indeed a business endeavour that guarantees immediate results; the “thangka” is a unique traditional Tibetan painting that in the past was never painted in public. In 1996, a young Tibetan artist, Tseten Namgyal, was the first to publicly paint a thangka on the Barkhor; he can thus be regarded as the pioneer of today’s countless thangka workshops that line this street. He enjoys a great reputation among the people and was previously invited to Tibetan monasteries in Nepal and Mongolia; he witnessed for himself how tourists from all over the world flooded the streets of Kathmandu and started painting and selling the thangka. Seeing this big business opportunity certainly inspired him to take the first step. In 1999, he moved from the Barkhor to Barkhor East Street to extend his thangka workshop. The sign in front of his shop reading “Thangka Mandala Gallery and Workshop” in four different languages (Tibetan, Mandarin, English and Japanese) has appeared in a number of tourist brochures, and people from all across the globe come to his shop to buy thangkas.
Today’s Barkhor is unimaginable without the many thangka workshops; they have already become an inherent part of it. But on the other hand, has this not lowered the intrinsic artistic quality of the thangka?
2. Carrying Along a Small Shrine or the Slow but Continuous Commercialisation of Religion
“Thangka” is Tibetan. “Thang” has a spatial connotation and means vast and unbounded. Tseten Namgyal gives an example: on one canvas one can paint hundreds, even thousands of Buddhas, but one can only paint just one. “Ka” is a little bit like magic, it refers to turning emptiness into something, like a painting appearing on a plain white canvas. Today, one often comes across the following definition: thangka are Tibetan scroll paintings.
The history of Buddhist paintings can be traced back to the times of Siddhartha Gautama. It is a time when a “flower sermon” led to enlightenment*. Every Tibetan who has gone through traditional training would be familiar with the beautiful legends revolving around thangkas, including the one of Tibet’s very first thangka being painted by the Tibetan monarch Songtsen Gampo, using blood from his nose at the command of the goddess Pal Lhamo. And yet, legends cannot be taken as evidence. Some people say that the thangka has a history of over 1400 years, first being used by monks when teaching and making announcements. Some also firmly believe that the thangka dates back to the ancient Shang Shung kingdom when they were used to disseminate highly-esteemed local beliefs.
Whether this is true or not, in the end, it is important to understand that the appearance and form of the thangka is intrinsically interlinked with the life and experiences of nomadic people. Tibetans lived with their livestock on the vast and desolate highlands, migrating to wherever there was life and water; a rolled-up thangka became a shrine that they carried with them on their long journeys. Thangkas are much lighter than Buddhist statues; they are also different from murals; hanging a thangka off a tent or suspending it from a branch meant that religious radiance could brighten up nomads’ daily hardships at any moment. Thangkas are also intrinsically interlinked with Tibetan people’s destiny. For people today, the thangka is used for praying, worshipping, and meditation. When someone passes away, Tibetans would pick a thangka with a special meaning according to the divinatory diagram; the painting contains a deity that will protect the deceased during the bardo stage. Some very poor families cannot afford any thangkas, but this does not mean that they are not still familiar with them. Every monastery is full of thangkas that comfort and guide people throughout their lives. The smallest thangka is just as big as the palm of a hand, painted on paper, canvas or sheepskin. The larger thangka can be up to 100 square metres in size and would include embossed embroidery, brocade, or appliqué; these large thangkas are commonly collected and preserved in important monasteries and then, on a propitious day, displayed to the public. Unfolded, these large thangkas can cover an entire mountain side.
A popular belief is that the thangka’s iconography is a kind of encyclopedia, including history, science, social issues and other contents of which religion is merely one part. However, rather than saying that thangka are not an encyclopedia of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, it is more accurate to say that the entire Tibetan world is a Buddhist world. The thangka in all its facets is a blend of Buddhist spiritualism, worldly art, religious vows and personal creation.
3. The Marvellous Eternal Secrets
Tibetans call thangka masters “Lhabripa”, which refers to the person who paints a Buddha or a deity. They are selected and assigned the eternal task of producing a thangka usually by important persons from within monasteries or aristocratic families. Drawing a thangka is like a reproduction of Buddha, and in the process, the models and templates that have been passed down from generation to generation must be followed. These templates are usually recorded in hidden and secretly kept scriptures and include at least eight different models; whether a Buddha assuming a solemn posture or one assuming a posture of anger and fury, all models have fixed proportions and measurements that have to be adhered to.
The greatest secret revolving around the art of thangka is found precisely in this adherence to old traditions. Conservatism is usually considered as something negative, but in this case it symbolises the honourable and glorious tradition of the thangka; every thangka master engages in the reproduction of religious memories by adhering to old wisdom and traditions. Indeed, religion also has its very own memory; for example, the eternal words of truth in our long classic scriptures are guidelines for meaningful never-changing rituals and ceremonies; the ancient scales and proportions of thangka are one important part of this. So there is a saying that if a thangka’s proportions are correct, a completed thangka needs no consecration; if the proportions are incorrect, the master himself will ask for retribution. This conformism does not render any artistic talent of the master unnecessary; even though painters never leave their signature on a completed thangka, they still invest all their inspiration and enthusiasm into the painting process. Let us take a look at the thangka displaying wrathful protector deities. The postures reflect the deity’s vigor and resoluteness, as described in the legends. The expressions are always sharp and fierce. The ornaments and Buddhist accessories all possess profound, yet subtle meanings. In silent meditation, one feels as if the protector deity is coming into sight again or is already present. A person from the West who has been researching the thangka once expressed in awe: “The root of the indisputable charm of Tibetan art lies in its ability to materialise the multifaceted strengths of Tibetan belief.”
The pigments used to produce and continue this extraordinary charm are yet another secret behind thangkas. All pigments come from nature and are either precious minerals or rare plants, sometimes even special clay. Pigments are entirely hand-made, involving a long and complex process, requiring different skills. Yellow and white pigments are usually ground by strong young men, whereas blue and green need to be pulverised very slowly and is usually done by weaker persons. Using these specially-prepared pigments creates spectacular effects and prevents the colour from fading. The golden thangka with its cinnabar lines or the vermilion thangka with its pure golden lines are of outstanding beauty. Among all colours, the application of gold is a most important technique in the painting of thangka. To produce such glistening golden lines, a special, sharpened brush with a “dzi stone” needs to be used to polish the lines over and over again. In this way, even if a thangka may look worn-out after many years, its gold lines will always have an incredible glint.
4. Former Glory, Former Calamity
The traditionalism revolving around the thangka may indeed seem like extreme conservatism, but at the same time, this tradition is a combination of nomadic customs and religious sentiments, a combination of migration and pilgrimage that represent the elements of our ethnic group. Thangkas are a manifestation of the rich interaction between different schools of thought and different styles; many religious and secular masters have passed on this tradition from generation to generation, displaying an aesthetic beauty that moves beyond the confines of space and time. Research reveals that in the 15th century, during the times of the great Tsongkhapa, when Tibetan Buddhism underwent reformation, Tibetan art achieved some outstanding accomplishments. During the time of the fifth Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace stood as a symbol that “Tibetan religion will never be erased by the profane materialism of the secular world”; and wonderful murals and thangka possessed “enchanting transcendental qualities”. A thangka expert once commented: “During the 17th and 18th centuries, thangkas were possibly the most outstanding Buddhist art in the whole of Asia.”
But the long tradition was broken off. This happened, as everyone knows, during the “10 years of calamity”, the Cultural Revolution. Countless religious and artistic artefacts were eliminated as part of the “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign. In fact, even before that, various political movements had already threatened this tradition, for instance, the disaster that was descending upon Tibet in 1959. The Tibetan thangka master and teacher Tenpa Rabten recalls: “There were continuous movements. Too many! It was impossible to keep producing thangkas, it was regarded as feudal superstition. No one dared to paint. All masters took up other professions, some became carpenters, others stonemasons. And slowly, the knowledge of how to produce thangka pigments was lost.”
This loss was fatal. When thangka production was revived, the traditional pigments were exhausted and artists had to rely on ordinary Chinese or commercial paint as a substitute that was highly inferior. Ngawang Jigme, a Professor at the Art Institute of the Tibetan University stresses: “Traditional Tibetan pigments allow the best works of the best artists to be preserved”, as for other pigments, their colour fades too quickly, just like the large thangka custom-made for the Tibetan Medical School, its colour started fading only after a few years. This is why Tenpa Rabten, Ngawang Jigme and other experts consulted traditional documents and spent three whole years searching the vast Tibetan areas for minerals, visiting old thangka masters, trying to dig out the old secret recipes, and carrying out many experiments. Finally, the old artistic traditions that had been lost for nearly 40 years were reborn in 1998. Thangka masters were overjoyed, as they realised the difference in painting with the traditional pigments.
Today, Lhasa is home to two pigment factories, one is the mineral pigment factory established by the Art Institute of Tibet University; the quality of their products is high and they have trouble meeting the demand; another one is pigment factory of the “old construction work unit” who are, however, said to sell products containing chemical substances.
5. Will the Thangka Disappear From our Lives?
It seems that thangkas have never been as popular and widely-known as today. Contemporary artists have created some so-called “new thangkas” that still show all of the old features, but in terms of their iconography, no longer adhere to traditions, daringly incorporating more and more contemporary elements, such as tractors, cars, or airplanes as symbols of material development. Sometimes authorities also use thangkas to convey political messages. Most “new thangkas” deploy a mix of Chinese and western artistry, hoping to create an independent art form. But aren’t these “new thangkas” too far away from the genuine original thangka? Even if traditional techniques continue to be applied, if they are no longer religious, can we still call them thangka?
On the touristy Barkhor, thangka workshops are gradually increasing, but traditional requirements and taboos that have been passed on from former times are slowly disappearing. Thangka master Tseten Namgyal recalls the time when he studied painting: “Every night, I had to recite scriptures and proportions; I had to remember the proportions of all these different deities. Today, people no longer do this because we have photos and albums.” Indeed, today’s masters simply paint according to models found in photo albums, some young artists do not even understand Tibetan. Whereas in the past, thangka masters would paint while chanting Buddhist scriptures, today’s young masters paint while singing pop songs, even Chinese pop songs. Pure traditional Tibetan pigments are also becoming increasingly rare, most artists use the much cheaper Chinese and commercial paint. Moreover, many thangkas found hanging in the streets today are mass-produced; of course, they are much cheaper than the hand-made ones, but also of devastating quality. Professor Tenpa Rabten comments: “These printed thangkas are simply not thangkas”.
He further explains why thangkas were so much better in the past. “In terms of techniques, they were a lot more detailed. To paint one single thangka could take up more than one year. It was a slow, almost motionless process; some of the parts can only be discerned with the help of a magnifying glass. Today, people simply do not have the patience for this; the faster the better. Of course, if an artist spent a year on a single thangka today, he would not be able to earn a living.” Making a living is indeed an important problem, but can we turn a religion into a commodity just to make a living? In a book titled “Preserving Craftsmanship” I once came across the following sentence: “Passing on skills requires time, it is a process of remembering through one’s hands.” Painting thangka is a process that requires remembering through one’s hand and also through one’s belief. A thangka painted with respect is fundamentally different from a thangka painted for material or other reasons. The former creates a feeling of Buddhism’s love for all living things, whereas the latter has no religious beauty, the expression of Avalokitesvara, for example, may look vulgar. These kinds of thangka are frauds, selling copper-nickel as “Tibetan silver”, calling the ordinary red and yellow stone pigments corals or gemstone, and all this only to be able to attach the tag “Souvenir from Tibet”.
It is worth considering that one of the traditional mineral pigments is currently facing an extreme shortage, is even on the verge of being completely lost. Green-blue pigments have been described as the “King” of all pigments, they are essential elements of any thangka; yet, the minerals needed to produce this pigment are limited. Most of them can be found in the two mines of Nyemo and Chamdo counties near Lhasa. Especially for the minerals in the Nyemo county mine it would now be a good time for processing. But a few years ago, the local authorities sold the mine to some Chinese mining company that uses it to melt copper. Thangka masters from Tibet University were frustrated: “We signed a contract with the village to use the minerals, but now that the county decided to sell the mine, the village no longer has any rights. Copper mines are everywhere, but there are only very few mines that offer the elements to process green-blue pigments. The fate of traditional Tibetan pigments is the same as that of thangka: too difficult to rediscover and even more difficult to preserve; is it perhaps necessary to protect them by law?”
Or perhaps we need to simply confront the following question: Will the ancient thangka disappear just as much other traditional culture has disappeared from our lives?
* In the story of the flower sermon, Siddhartha Gautama gives a wordless sermon to his disciples by holding up a white flower.
This post is also available in: English