For over a thousand years, Tibetan society steadily absorbed the artistic and cultural influences of neighboring lands, developing a unique artistic tradition that flourished until the Chinese invasion in 1959. Between the eighth and twelfth centuries, Tibet became the direct inheritor of the various Vajrayana traditions of India, which represented the ultimate flowering of Indian Buddhist culture. From its southern neighbors, Tibet took on the ancient artistic traditions of the Pala dynasty of eastern India and the ingenious skills of the Newar craftsmen of Nepal’s Kathmandu valley. From the west and north Tibet was exposed to the styles of Kashmir, Khotan, and central Asia, while from the east came the stylistic influences of Chinese art. Over the centuries the impact of this encircling ring of artistic diversity, with the enduring influences of the ornate Newar and spacious Chinese styles, gradually gave rise to the unique mode of expression that we now identify as “Tibetan art,” the most recognizable form of which is the thangka, or scroll painting.

A modern Newar painting of Chandramaharoshana (Acala) by the artist Raj Prakah Tladhar. It presently hangs in the Rubin Museum of Art in New York; courtesy of Robert Beer.
A modern Newar painting of Chandramaharoshana (Acala) by the artist Raj Prakah Tladhar. It presently hangs in the Rubin Museum of Art in New York; courtesy of Robert Beer.

One erroneous view commonly held in the West is that Tibetan thangkas are the work of copyists, who display little creative imagination or talent in their meticulous replication of previous works. This is not the case, for the continuity of such an old and highly esoteric artistic tradition inevitably gave rise to sparks of artistic genius in each generation, and there have been countless anonymous “divine artists” whose innovation and creative stature equal that of Raphael or Michelangelo. Another mistaken idea is that thangkas were traditionally painted by monks; in fact, they were usually painted by highly skilled and devout laymen whose knowledge of the iconography and symbolism of the vast pantheon of deities would stagger the mind of any Tibetan monk. Attaining the status of a master thangka painter takes many years of study, dedication, and practice under an accomplished master. With this attainment comes the confidence of one’s own unique creative vision within the vibrant context of a “lineage of transmission.”

Chairman Mao’s Red Guards understood nothing of this as they smashed and plundered their way through the devastating years of the Cultural Revolution. The ensuing decades of harsh religious and cultural suppression resulted in the abrupt severing of many of Tibet’s ancient lineages of transmission, with an entire generation of lamas, monks, scholars, and craftsmen being either persecuted and imprisoned or forced into exile on the Indian side of the Himalayas. With the first glimmer of liberalization and the opening of Tibet to foreign tourist groups during the mid-1980s, the Tibetans began to rebuild and restore some of the six thousand monasteries that had been either destroyed or desecrated. Sadly, only a small number of elderly thangka painters had survived to begin this work of restoration, and although their enthusiastic younger apprentices rapidly developed their own hereditary skills in the techniques of painting, the ability to accurately draw and understand the highly esoteric symbolism of the deities and their mandalas was not so easy to assimilate.

Details of Surrendra Man Sakya's Vishvarupa Lokeshvara, the most complex deity in the Newar Buddhist pantheon. The deity and consort each have a thousand heads and arms, with each hand holding a different deity or attribute; courtesy of Robert Beer
Details of Surrendra Man Sakya’s Vishvarupa Lokeshvara, the most complex deity in the Newar Buddhist pantheon. The deity and consort each have a thousand heads and arms, with each hand holding a different deity or attribute; courtesy of Robert Beer

Most of the Tibetans who fled their homeland were resettled in the refugee camps of India and Nepal, but their impoverished conditions made the propagation of their artistic traditions difficult at best. The few thangka painters who managed to reestablish themselves in exile were dispersed thinly throughout the refugee settlements, and—with an increasing demand for commissions and insufficient financial patronage—these artists often had to produce works very quickly, thwarting their full artistic potential. The traditional standard—devoting a year or more to produce a single exquisite painting—was now rarely adhered to, and with the depletion of their stock of native mineral pigments and dyes, the artists often had to resort to synthetic Indian poster paints.

During the early 1970s the overland “hippie trail” from Europe to Asia culminated in the ancient temple city of Kathmandu; and, to meet a growing demand for esoteric souvenirs, the Nepali entrepreneurs of what was then called the “Freak Street” tourist area began to produce cheap artifacts such as ritual implements, erotic woodcarvings, and Tibetan thangkas. Although these thangkas were often touted as genuine articles painted in “stone color,” they were really the works of young Nepali painters who cunningly darkened the thangkas’ painted surfaces and brocade borders to make them look old. The iconography was egregiously inaccurate. These Buddha-filled compositions and mandalas are still available in Nepal at the cheap end of the market, where they can almost be bought by weight, but the sophistication of the market has improved.

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