Navin Kumar Gallery



Tibetan paintings
Table of Contents:
Front matter
0 Preface
1 Introduction
2 Visions and Visualizations
3 Kadampa Style
4 Sakyapa Style
5 Thankas from Western Tibet
6 Landscape Tradition
7 Age of the Dalai Lama
8 Appendix
Color Plates
Monochrome Figures

Religious paintings in Tibet are of three kinds - murals on the walls of temples and monasteries, manuscript illuminations and thankas. The primary concern of this book is with thankas. A thanka is a painting on cloth which can be rolled up; thus a thanka is a rolled up image or a painted scroll. However, it is a vertically oriented scroll rather than the long, horizontal hand scroll, preferred by the Chinese. Moreover, while Chinese scrolls usually consist of silk, the support of a thanka is invariably cotton or linen. In this the Tibetans followed the Indian rather than the Chinese model; in India such paintings, known as were always painted on cotton.

The rough piece of cotton is stretched on a frame and is made smooth by sizing it with a mixture of chalk and glue. For a detailed study of the technique of thankas, see Jackson. An excellent discussion may also be seen in Pallis 1974. After it is dried, it is polished with a shell and then the outline is drawn either in black or red. The pigments are derived from vegetables and minerals and the binding medium is gum resin. The technique, as in India and Nepal, is essentially that of an opaque watercolour which makes thankas highly vulnerable to both atmospheric conditions and water damage. One or more persons may work on a thanka; while a master draws the outline, the colouring may be done by assistants. Certainly the enormous size and iconographic complexity of many of the thankas would require the joint efforts of several artists. During the last two centuries, it became quite common to delineate the design of a thanka by ‘transfer’ where the outline was printed. This practice was especially popular in important monasteries such as Tashilhunpo in order to meet a growing demand. The design was carved on wooden blocks and was then transferred to the cloth. In recent years such transfers have been made on handmade Nepali paper for a ready tourist market.

After the thanka was painted it was mounted on silks. In older thankas, the mounts were of simple, dark blue silk or cotton, as is evident from many fifteenth and sixteenth century thankas that have retained their original mounts. However, sometime around that time, it became customary in the larger monasteries to mount the thankas on elaborate Chinese brocades. The practice may have begun with the Mongol emperors of China who presented enormous quantities of silks to important Tibetan monks and monasteries. The richly embroidered designs of such silks often compete with the even richer world of form and colour of the thanka itself. Frequently also, the thanka is provided with a frame of narrow strips of yellow and red silk that act as a buffer zone between the mount and the painted surface as well as with a light covering of soft material to protect it from dust. Some of these elements appear to have been invented in Tibet, for they are found neither in Nepal nor in China. For instance, I have never come across a pata from Nepal with the red and yellow silk borders, brocade mounts or the covering. Finally, two thin dowels or rods are attached to the top and bottom of the thanka so that it can be rolled up easily.

Generally thankas are hung in monastic shrines or on domestic altars. On one of his visits to the well-known Ganden monastery in Central Tibet, Tucci witnessed ‘hundreds of painted scrolls hanging on the ceiling between the columns.’ Large thankas are also unfurled during special annual ceremonies along the external walls of monasteries. Such periodic exposures to the elements may be one reason why so few monumental examples have survived. Pilgrims and merchants carried rolled up thankas of their tutelary deities on their journeys. This was one way in which styles disseminated across the vast land of Tibet. In a general sense, the thanka served the same purpose as did an icon in medieval Europe. An ostensible symbol of the deity worshipped by the devotee, it provided a focal point for meditation. Sometimes a thanka was dedicated in a monastery ex voto or to commemorate an important occasion. For instance, an inscription at the bottom of one of the largest and earliest thankas (Pl. 7) Buddha Amitayus and Acolytes
Central Tibet (Kadampa monastery)
1185 - 1189 (?)
245.1 x 149.8 cm
The Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
known to exist informs us that it was commissioned on the occasion when the donor performed the ‘longevity rite.’ Other thankas, containing idealized images of monks and teachers - known generally as ‘lineage thankas’ - were kept in monasteries probably as historical documents. Still others depicting narrative subjects served as visual aids for itinerant storytellers, who went around recounting the lives of Buddha Śākyamuni (known as jātaka or avadāna), or of important Tibetan saints and monks as they travelled from village to town.

Very little information is available about the artists responsible for the thankas, although some names have survived. Apart from the Tibetans, artists from India, Nepal and China also worked in Tibet throughout the ages. Tradition claims that Indian artists were present in Tibet during the period of the Yarlung dynasty (seventh through the ninth century), but we do not know who they were or what they really created. We do know that in the first half of the eleventh century thirty-two artists were brought from Kashmir by the great monk-translator Rinchen Sangpo (d. 1055). These artists were responsible for decorating many of the temples and monasteries built in Ladakh and Guge. There is no evidence, however, of the presence of artists from other parts of India although it is possible that some came to Tibet along with Atīśa, the Indian monk-scholar, in 1042 A.D.

Newari artists from Nepal worked continuously in central Tibet from the earliest days of Tibet’s history. They were particularly active from the thirteenth century when the Sakyapas became the most powerful religious order in the country. Between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century, Newari artists, along with their Tibetan colleagues and sometimes with the Chinese, were involved in painting the major Sakyapa monuments throughout Tsang. To a lesser extent, they also made important contributions in western Tibet and in the central province of Ü.

Like the Newars, Chinese artists too were active in Tibet during the period of the Yarlung dynasty. We next hear of their presence in central Tibet in the fourteenth century when Buton Rinpoche invited painters from China to work on his construction projects. They also worked side by side with their Newari colleagues in the Kumbum of Gyantse. In eastern Tibet Chinese painters, especially from Sichuan, must have been present from the earliest times. As we will have occasion to discuss, most major styles of painting in eastern Tibet reveal strong influences of the Chinese pictorial tradition.

By and large, most Tibetan painters were professionals, and very likely, the profession was hereditary. However, except for their names almost nothing is known about them. The very fact that their names were recorded in the monasteries and in some of the histories, such as the biography of the Fifth Dalai Lama, indicates that they did receive some recognition for their work. Apart from professional painters, many of the monks too were well versed in the theories of art and some in fact were good artists. The contribution of Butön Rinpoche in designing the monasteries of Shalu and the Kumbum of Gyantse are well known. The seventeenth century polymath Tārānātha (b. 1575) and the historian Sumpa Khenpo (1709-1786) are also renowned for their artistic knowledge and activities. At least three of the Karmapa hierarchs were accomplished artists, and, one of them, Mikyo Dorje (1507-1554), is credited with having inspired a new style of painting known as Karma Gadri. Another, Karmapa Choying Dorje (1604-1674), spent much of his later life painting while lying low in the Sino-Tibetan border region due to political troubles with the Fifth Dalai Lama. See Thinley. The Kagyupa Sangsrgyas gLing pe was also an artist. See Dargay, p. 138

More than for their individual artistic talents, the monks are important for us for their role as the principal patrons of art in Tibet. Although thankas and images were commissioned by the lay devotees as well, by far the most ardent patrons were the monks.

With the resurgence of Buddhism in Tibet after the eleventh century, and because of the absence of any central political authority, much of the country’s economic and political power became concentrated in the monasteries. Often also these religious establishments worked hand-in-glove with the local princes and feudal lords, whose families supplied the monasteries with prelates and abbots. Thus, the prince of the church was frequently the prince of the realm as well. Virtually all the land and trade were shared between the monasteries and the feudal lords, and hence, the monks wielded considerable economic power. And because their faith demanded the constant consecration of religious images as acts of piety, the arrangement ushered in a great period of artistic activity for Tibet.

The two most active centuries for the foundation of Tibetan monasteries were the eleventh and the fifteenth. Most of the early monasteries were either Kadampa or Kagyupa foundations, concentrating in western and central Tibet. Although the order of the Sakyapas was established in the eleventh century, it became a political and economic force only in the mid-thirteenth century after the Mongols assumed the overlordship of China and appointed Sakya Pandita as the viceroy of Tibet in 1249. However, the Sakyapas were not the only order to gain from the patronage of the Chinese; after the fall of the Mongol dynasty, the Ming emperors patronized several other orders, particularly the Karmapas and the Gelukpas, the reformed Kadampa order founded by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). The Gelukpas were responsible for establishing some of the largest Tibetan monasteries during the fifteenth century.

Since the monasteries were in a large measure responsible for patronizing the arts, one can draw the following conclusions from the above discussion. Although established in the eleventh century, the monasteries could not have become as powerful and as wealthy as they were until the thirteenth century. In fact, the period of real affluence perhaps did not begin until the lamas established an economically rewarding relationship with the Chinese emperors in the mid-thirteenth century. Although there are earlier thankas, as we shall discuss, there seems little doubt that the tremendous surge of artistic creativity began in the thirteenth century. Certainly the majority of thankas that can be attributed to Sakyapa establishments appear to date no earlier than the thirteenth century. The few examples that can be dated earlier were probably rendered either for the Kadam-pas or the Kagyupas.

The history of Tibetan painting after the fifteenth century becomes extremely complex. This was the period of rapid Gelukpa expansion all across Tibet. In 1578 Sonam Gyatsho was given the title of Dalai Lama by the Mongol ruler Altan Khan. The authority of the Gelukpas was now unquestionable in religious matters and during the seventeenth century the Fifth Dalai Lama further assumed all political power with the help of the Mongols. All this seems to have had some effect on the art of painting for, beginning in the sixteenth century, the thankas were painted in a much more uniform style all across the country. It seems as if barriers were removed suddenly, and the same style was employed with equal facility in monasteries as far apart as Lamayuru in western Tibet and Lithang, on the Chinese border, in the east. In any attempt to be too precise about localizing styles of Tibetan painting, it will be worthwhile to remember the following observations of Marco Pallis: Pallis 1974

A singular consistency of style is observable throughout the vast territories where the Tibetan Buddhist tradition holds sway, in spite of wide climatic and racial diversity. It calls for a trained eye to distinguish whether a certain painting was executed in Lhasa or Mongolia, and whether the photograph of a building refers to Ladakh or Kham, with over a thousand miles to divide them. ... Change has taken place, as can be proved by comparing works separated by several centuries, but development has been by steps so gradual that they merge into one another imperceptibly.

It is generally recognized that there are two artistic traditions that served as the principal sources of Tibetan art: the Indian and the Chinese. A third source was Central Asia but the exact definition of this region or its tradition is difficult to determine. While one can distinguish the contributions of the Indian and the Chinese traditions with relative ease, Central Asian stylistic rather than iconographic traits are extremely difficult to discern. This is surprising considering Tibet’s long association with Central Asia, between the seventh and the ninth century. For example, there was a direct trade route linking the ancient Central Asian kingdom of Khotan and the Ladakh region (now part of India) over the mighty Karakorum. But among the early murals of Alchi in Ladakh (Pls. 1-2) or at other western Tibetan sites, there is precious little direct evidence of influences from Khotan, which had a lively artistic tradition. Or again, Tibetan painters were active in the Dunhuang region in the ninth century, but very few traces of the Dunhuang style can be discerned in later Tibetan paintings. It would appear that between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries the Indie tradition exerted the strongest influence on Tibetan paintings, and whatever Central Asian traits had arrived, either with art or with artists and monks from the region, were fully assimilated by the eleventh century. According to Tārānātha, the two schools of India that were especially influential in Tibet were those of ancient Magadha and Kashmir. Magadha was the ancient name of the modern state of Bihar in eastern India and included the most important ‘power spot’ of Buddhism, Bodhgaya, as well as the internationally known monasteries of Nalanda and Vikramaśīlā. The period between the eighth and the eleventh century was particularly felicitous for Buddhism in Magadha as the region was ruled by the Pāla kings who were particularly partial to the faith. It was from the Vikramaśīlā monastery that Atīśa went to Tibet in 1042 to reestablish the religion in that country. Pl. 1 Mandala of Manjusri
Ladakh (Alchi, Dukhang), 11th century
Pl. 2 Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara
Ladakh (Alchi, Sumtsek), 11th century

The other Indie school of art that played a pivotal role in the history of Tibetan art and religion during the period of revival was Kashmir in the northwestern region of the subcontinent. While there is no evidence whether artists from Magadha ever set foot on Tibetan soil, we do know that Kashmiri artists were physically present in western Tibet and painted some of the finest examples of Buddhist murals that exist anywhere in Asia today.

Another region within the Indie tradition that has continuously contributed to the Tibetan artistic heritage is that of Nepal. Although Nepal was a distinct source for Tibetan styles, it should be pointed out that in broad cultural terms Nepal must be included in the rubric ‘Indie.’ As it has already been mentioned the Newar artists from Nepal have maintained perhaps the most prolonged and creative partnership with the lamas of Tibet.

The second major source of Tibetan aesthetic, as it has already been stated, was China. Although there is a tendency at times to minimize China’s contribution to Tibetan culture in general, there can be little doubt that certainly in painting China exerted a profound influence on Tibetan aesthetic, especially after the thirteenth century. Indeed, it would not be too much of generalization to state that while the figural tradition of Tibetan art was inspired by the Indie aesthetic, the Chinese taught the Tibetans how to view and visualize nature.

Like the medieval Christian icon, few thankas are signed or dated. The paintings illustrated here date roughly from the twelfth through the eighteenth centuries. In fact, no known examples of painting, whether thanka, mural or manuscript illuminations, can be dated much before the eleventh century. Nevertheless, evidence from Central Asia indicates that Tibetan artists were already painting on silk and paper in an accomplished manner long before the eleventh century.

During the second half of the seventh and much of the eighth, the Tibetans occupied a vast region of Central Asia from Khotan in the west to Gansu in the east. It was in the oasis kingdoms of Central Asia that the Tibetans had their first schooling in the art of painting. The art of Central Asia during this period (seventh through tenth century) was essentially eclectic, absorbing influences from three major aesthetic traditions - those of India, China and Persia. While the works of the Tibetan artists in Central Asia are not recognizable as specifically Tibetan, the prolonged exposure to the eclectic milieu of Central Asian Buddhist art prepared the artistic situation. As it will be discussed in this book, throughout history, the Tibetan artists were exposed to various external influences; and how they absorbed such influences and created their remarkably original and expressive styles, forms the essential story of Tibetan thankas.

That Tibetan artists were painting in Central Asia as early as the eight-century is clearly evident from inscriptional evidence. However, it would be wrong to consider their works as examples of Tibetan painting, any more than one can regard paintings by the sixteenth century Persian masters in India as examples of Persian painting. Some of those Tibetan artists may well have returned to their country after a stint in Central Asia and continued to paint in the adopted styles. It must also be assumed that both the artists and the generals who returned to Tibet from their Central Asian sojourn, whether in Khotan or in Dunhuang, must have brought back some examples of paintings as pious souvenirs to be deposited in local monasteries. Unfortunately, not a single canvas nor even a fragment of a mural has survived in Tibet that can be said to reflect the Central Asian style even vestigially.

Fig. 1 Boddhisattva Avalokitesvara
China (Dunhuang), 9th century
50 x 14 cm
The National Museum, New Delhi
illustrates one example of a group of paintings from Dunhuang, some of which bear cryptic inscriptions in Tibetan. Their discoverer, Sir Aurel Stein, considered them to relate to Nepal, while a recent theory is that they were rendered in Khotan.4 Whitfield, p. 334 and references cited therein In that case we must assume that those examples which bear Tibetan inscriptions were commissioned by Tibetans

Fig. 1 in Khotan and deposited in Dunhuang. Likewise, other examples may have been brought back to Tibet. Be that as it may, these paintings, as well as others rendered by Tibetan artists, clearly indicate that already by the eighth century the Tibetan painter had become accomplished in his craft and that professional artists were being recognized in Central Asia where the artistic standards had indeed become high. See Karmay 1975 for a discussion of some Central Asian paintings by Tibetan artists.

Although no thanka discovered so far in Tibet can be dated earlier than the twelfth century, undoubtedly, the dark interiors of Tibetan monasteries will one day yield their ‘hidden treasures’ which will take us by surprise. Certainly literary tradition does indicate that thankas were painted in Tibet well before the eleventh century. The tenth century Tibetan monk Lume, as we will have occasion to discuss later, is said to have brought the iconographic tradition of Arhat painting from China. When the Indian pundit Atīśa arrived in Tibet in 1042, he was greeted with various gifts which included a woven thanka of the Eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara. This is mentioned by Das (1965, p. 81) but we do not know his source. Another tradition informs us that the Kagyupa monk Nyima Ozer (1124-1192), one of the discoverers of ‘concealed treasures’ of the Buddhist doctrine, once ‘let become visible one hundred-and-eight pointed scrolls (thang- kha). They were as tall as several stories and looked like paintings produced in Nepal.’ Dargay, p. 102 This event seems to have occurred in the Jokhang in Lhasa which is a seventh century foundation. Perhaps, these thankas were hidden during the persecution of Buddhism in the ninth century and were discovered by Nyima Ozer, as he and others retrieved important texts that were also concealed. In any event, even though no thanka has so far been brought to light that can be dated earlier than the eleventh century with any degree of certainty, there seems no reason to presume that the tradition was not much older.

The Tibetans themselves have always been aware of the many foreign sources that have contributed to their artistic heritage. As early as the eighth century when King Trisongdetsen (b.742) faced the dilemma of whether to paint his temple with images according to the Chinese or the Indo-Nepali tradition, he is said to have suggested that they should be rendered in the Tibetan style. Karmay 1975, p. 4 Accordingly, the figures of the deities in the temple were modeled after beautiful Tibetans from various regions of the country. What does seem to be true is that from the beginning of their history Tibetans attracted artists and craftsmen from different countries who contributed towards developing an obviously eclectic taste among Tibetans.

The earliest surviving examples of Tibetan painting are murals which adorn temples now in the Indian Himalayas, primarily in Ladakh, Zanskar and Himachal Pradesh. The most important monuments for the study of these early Tibetan murals are the temples at Alchi, Tabo, Mangnag and Sumda. See Snellgrove and Skorupski and Pal 1982B. Another monument where murals in this style may be seen is Mang gyu gompa, about 82 km. west of Leh. The style of these murals, two examples of which from Alchi are illustrated here (Pls. 1-2), is derived essentially from Kashmir and hence it may well be designated as Kashmiri-Tibetan or Khache-Tibetan style. Strongly figural, the style can be easily distinguished from all other schools of Tibetan painting both by its resplendent colours and distinctive forms. The extraordinary range and brilliance of the colours are unmatched by any other style of Tibetan painting and are reminiscent of the glowing and luminous murals of the Central Asian site of Kyzil. The figural forms with slim, elegant figures and graceful, well-modelled bodies, are simply the painted versions of Kashmir sculptures.

It is a style of high imagination, whether in terms of the sensuous figural types or the seductive designs of the vines and scrolls that play on the surface with the graceful fluidity of arabesques. Indeed, sumptuous is the word that first comes to mind when we look at these murals, or even the tiny manuscript illuminations (Pls. 3-4).Although limited mostly to the primary hues, the colours have a glowing lustrous quality. The overall effect is of a resplendent paradisical world, filled with animated sinuous forms and bright lush hues that vie with the rainbow. What is perhaps the most distinctive feature of this style is the unabashed interest in depicting rich garments and textiles, which are even more diversified and luxuriant than those encountered, for instance, in the Magao grottoes at Dunhuang. Not-withstanding the solemn dignity of the subject matter, the Khache-Tibetan style is an art of voluptuous forms and seductive charm that seems reluctant to deny the world of senses. It is a style that is as much concerned with sensual beauty as it is with metaphysical truth.

Pl. 3 Goddess Dana Paramita (Virtue of Charity)
Illumination from a Prajnaparamita manuscript
Western Tibet (Toling), 11th century
Gold and Colours on paper
9.5 x 7.8 cm
Pl. 4 Vairocana Buddha
Illumination from a Prajnaparamita manuscript
Western Tibet (Toling), 11th Century
9.8 x 8.9 cm
Both from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Purchased with Funds from the Jane and Justin Dart Foundation

There can be little doubt that most of these murals at Alchi, Tabo and other early temples of the western Himalayas were rendered by Kashmiri artists brought over by Rinchen Sangpo at the request of King Yeshe Ö of Guge (ca. 1000 A.D.) whose zeal was principally responsible for reviving Buddhism in Tibet. The life of the style, however, appears to have been short-lived and confined mostly to the western Himalayas. Some of Rinchen Sangpo's disciples did move east, and, as one finds Kashmiri style bronzes in central Tibet, it is also possible that some early temples contain murals in the Khache-Tibetan style. Obviously the Kashmiri artists or their descendants did not move into central Tibet, where the predominant inspiration in the eleventh century came from eastern India.

What is even more curious is that not a single thanka painted in the Khache-Tibetan style has yet come to light. This is particularly surprising in view of the fact, as will be demonstrated later in this book, that most thankas can be stylistically related to surviving murals in the monasteries. The thanka of Eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara presented to Atīśa upon his arrival in 1042 A.D. must have looked very much like the splendid representation of this deity at Alchi (Pl. 2). Incidentally, it may be noted that the iconography of this form of Avalokiteśvara, as depicted at Alchi, was very likely derived from Central Asia.

Although there are no thankas in this style, the brilliant illuminations of a few surviving folios of a Prajñāparamitā manuscript were painted in the Khache- Tibetan style (Pls. 3-4). These folios were fortunately recovered by Professor Tucci from the Toling monastery and are now preserved in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Even a cursory comparison will reveal their close stylistic relationship with the Alchi murals. There seems little doubt that the same artists who were responsible for the murals also painted these vivacious paintings with their luminous colours and elegant figures. They convincingly demonstrate that the same style was employed with equal felicity for murals as well as manuscript illuminations, and, as we will see in subsequent chapters, for thankas too.

While the contribution of Kashmiri artists to the history of Tibetan painting was limited both in time and space, far more pervasive were the influences of both the Chinese and Nepali traditions. Often it is difficult to determine whether thankas were executed in China or Nepal for Tibetan patrons, or were painted by Chinese and Nepali artists in Tibet.

The principal problem in the study of Tibetan painting is the extreme conservatism of the tradition. Since the art was primarily concerned with a religious tradition in which iconographic veracity and consistency were more admired than aesthetic adventurism, stylistic changes were slow to occur. Nevertheless, even though the study of styles in thankas is fraught with many difficulties, one can distinguish the major styles of thankas much more easily than those of sculpture. However, before attempting to analyze the styles, it will be useful to briefly discuss the religious and cultural milieu which produced the thankas that are so admired by art lovers today.