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The production and meanings of thangka

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A good thangka is the product of hundreds – or even thousands – of hours of painstaking work. A cotton canvas is first stretched across a frame and burnished to a smooth surface that will take the finest detail. The design is next drawn or traced in pencil; there is little room for deviation from accepted styles, for a thangka is an expression of religious truths, not an opportunity for artistic licence. Large areas of colour are then blocked in, often by an apprentice, and finally the master painter will take over, breathing life into the figure with lining, stippling, facial features, shading and, finally, the eyes of the main figure. Thangka can be grouped into four main genres. The Wheel of Life, perhaps the most common, places life and all its delusions inside a circle held firmly in the clutches of red-faced Yama, god of death. A second standard image is the Buddha’s life story. Many thangka feature tantric deities, either benign or menacing; such images serve as meditation tools in visualization techniques. Mandala (mystical diagrams) are also used in meditation. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. A full exposition of thangka iconography would fill volumes – ask a dealer or artist to lead you through a few images step by step, or visit somewhere like the Tsering Art School in Boudha to find out more.

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