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The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Culture - A Guide to Collecting Thangka Art

By OGP Reporters / Members Contribute File Photos

Oh Good Party

Although thangka has a long history, it has not really entered the collection market for a very long time. The thangka collection market slowly grew in the 1990s after beginning in the early 1980s. It wasn't until 2006 that thangka was added to the national list of intangible cultural heritage, which caused the price of thangka in the collection market to significantly increase.

The foundation of Tibetan painting dates back to before the 7th century, and it later incorporated styles and techniques from China, Nepal, and Kashmir. Over time, this art form evolved into a school of fine arts with a sound theoretical framework and distinctive national characteristics.


Religious scroll paintings that are framed with coloured satin and hung for worship are referred to as tangka, also known as Thang-ga. Thang-ga, a popular and distinctive art form in Tibetan painting, is referred to as "the encyclopaedia of Tibetan culture." Its topics are primarily religious and touch on history, politics, the economy, culture, folklore, secular life, architecture, medicine, astronomy, calendars, and other subjects.


Bright colours are used to represent the sacred world of Buddha, which has distinct national characteristics, strong religious colours, and a distinctive artistic style. Traditionally, the pigments were made of gold, silver, pearl, agate, coral, turquoise, malachite, vermilion, and other precious mineral gems, as well as plants like saffron, rhubarb, and indigo to demonstrate their sacredness. The colours and dazzling splendour of the painted thangkas are ensured by these natural raw materials, and they last for centuries. As a result, it is referred to as the "encyclopaedia" of the Tibetan people, a priceless intangible cultural heritage of Chinese folk art, and the treasure of national painting art in China. The majority of thangkas that are considered heirlooms are creations of Tibetan Buddhism and its original faith.


However, opinions regarding how thangka came into existence vary widely. Some claim that its origins are closely related to Chinese scroll painting, while others assert that it was created on the basis of a type of scroll painting carried by early pilgrims in India and Nepal. Still others assert that when early Buddhist art was introduced to the Tibetan region, the Tibetans were nomads, and in order to better reconcile the conflict between the place of worship and religious beliefs, the art form of thangka, which is simple to understand, was developed. The portable art form of thangka, a scroll painting, which does not conflict with the production lifestyle, emerged as a better way to address the conflict between the place of worship and religious beliefs. In other words, it is impossible to determine the origin of thangkas due to historical and natural factors.


The Neolithic rock paintings are the earliest examples of Tibetan painting, though painting has advanced to some degree by the Tubo dynasty period. It is difficult to see the fabled thangka that existed during the Tubo period because the thangka is constrained by historical circumstances and materials. We can verify that the Tibetan painting art has advanced to a certain level by looking at the murals in the Potala Palace, Jokhang and Ramoche Temple in Lhasa. As a result, it can be concluded that thangka was a type of painting that originated from or was closely related to frescoes, at the latest before the middle of the 7th century AD.


Early thangkas were destroyed by Rangdharma's eradication campaign and are no longer recoverable. Except for a few from the Sakya dynasty and the period of division, the majority of the thangkas that are still in existence date from the 15th century and later. The earliest thangka that we can currently see is a "dbu-yon-ma" (slant-headed portrait of Atisha) that was created in the 11th century by a Nepalese artist at the request of Geshe Namtso, one of Atisha's famous disciples, and features 30 verses of Atisha's hymns on the back. Namtso was commissioned to create the thangka by Geshe Namtso. As a historical treasure of Reting Monaster, this thangka has been kept in the temple.


The Reting Monastery also houses a thangka from the Zhong-Jawa Qiong Nai period of the Kadam sect, which is said to be fire-resistant. The thangka is depicted with a four-armed goddess of mercy who is surrounded by eight attendants. The thangka's predominant style dates to the 11th through 13th centuries, a time when Tibetan painting art was very well-liked. The painting style absorbed elements of Nepalese painting as well.


The topic of the style of Tibetan painting art created before the 15th century is still up for debate in academic circles. Prior to that, it is currently accepted in the academic community that Indian Buddhist art and its antecedent, Nepalese art, had a significant influence on the painting art of the Tibetan region. The Nepalese-ri, Men-ri, Khyen-ri, Jeyu-ri, Gar-ri, and other Great Tibetan Styles.


The requirements for creating a traditional thangka painting are stringent, and the procedures are extremely complicated. They include a pre-painting ceremony, canvas production, draught composition, colouring and dyeing, outlining and shaping, laying gold and tracing silver, Kai-yan (focus), sewing and mountngg, Kai-guang (blessing), and a whole host of craft procedures. A thangka can take anywhere from six months to ten years to complete.According to the characteristics of the painting style, Tibetan thangka can be divided into various styles and schools. It can also be divided into different processes, such as Kesi (tapestry), barbola, embroidery, and so forth. It can also be divided into different forms of colour, such as red tang (red base colour), gold tang (gold base colour), black tang (black base colour), and so forth.


The primary reason why thangka first appeared as scroll paintings is because Tibetan Buddhism played a significant role in the thangka's rise and fall. In many regions of Tibet at the time, nomadic life still served as the primary means of subsistence, making it impossible to satisfy the religious needs of numerous migrant believers by solely relying on fixed monasteries. As a result, the scroll thangka evolved into a worship object that believers could conveniently carry with them in order to satisfy their needs for religious life. As a result, thangka painting became a thriving art form. Because of its portability, the thangka has also been referred to as a "flowing frescoes." It finally came to be that "Tibetan monastery is the temple of Buddhist painting art."


Although thangka has a long history, it has not really entered the collection market for a very long time. The thangka collection market slowly grew in the 1990s after beginning in the early 1980s. It wasn't until 2006 that thangka was added to the national list of intangible cultural heritage, which caused the price of thangka in the collection market to significantly increase.


Thangkas from the Ming and Qing dynasties started to show up in the Chinese auction market around the year 2000. A well-known instance is the "A HIGHLY IMPORTANT IMPERIAL EMBROIDERED SILK THANGKA: YONGLE SIX-CHARACTER PRESENTATION MARK AND OF THE PERIOD (1402-1424)," which was sold to an Indian collector for £7,000 at Christie's London in 1977 and then sold for $1 million at Christie's New York in 1994. After more than doubling in value over the course of eight years, the thangka was presented at Christie's Hong Kong in 2002 and ultimately sold for HK$30.67 million, setting a record for the highest price ever paid for a thangka. This priceless thangka, also referred to as the "King of Thangkas," was purchased at auction on November 26, 2014, by collector Liu Yiqian, proprietor of the Long Museum in Shanghai, for HK$348,440,000 million.


We still have some collecting recommendations for you to take into account, even though thangka is a niche collection.


1. Thangkas made or collected by the Qing imperial court


In the Qing Dynasty, Panchen and the Dalai Lama were enthroned by Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong, who also established their dominance over Tibet. The Yongzheng Emperor, who highly valued Tibetan Buddhism, was particularly powerful during this time. The Buddhist lamas in the Central Palace, who painted the majority of the thangkas produced by the Qing court, were joined by Han Chinese and Western painters, who gave the thangkas a variety of styles and a Sino-Tibetan aesthetic. Furthermore, the treasures that were hidden among the thangkas in the Qing dynasty palace were all gifts to the emperor from the hierarchy of Tibetan religion; the Panchen and Dalai dedicated the majority of these thangkas, which made them extremely valuable as a collection.


2. Thangka with unique themes from the era


Thangkas cover a wide range of topics, some of which have rare contents. For instance, the Tibetan medicine thangka, which not only captures the essence of various Tibetan medicines but also acts as a teaching aid, expresses the Tibetan people's understanding of the human body, life, and death. It also reflects their understanding of the cosmos and their understanding of the relationship between humans and the cosmos, and it has various meanings in the fields of medicine, philosophy, and science. As examples of this kind of artwork, consider the thangkas "Story of Master Tsongkhapa" from the Qianlong period of the Qing Dynasty, "Ancestor of the Sakya School" from the 15th century, and "Picture of the Medicine Buddha" from the Zhengde period of the Ming Dynasty.


3. Thangka of embroidery and kesi


The Qing court produced embroidered and kesi thangkas in Suzhou in addition to painted thangkas. These thangkas that were handed down in the Qing Dynasty were very rare and extremely rare among the palace thangkas because they were not only made of precious materials but also extremely difficult to produce and preserve. As a result, collectors frequently purchased them as soon as they were made available. You can think of the Ming Dynasty's "Embroidered Red Night Demon Thangka" and "Embroidered Sakyamuni Thangka."


4. Make careful purchases


You need luck and patience because old thangkas with collector's value are extremely hard to come by, and it can be difficult and expensive to find thangkas that are well-preserved and satisfy the three criteria listed above. As much as possible, avoid selecting thangkas that lack any characteristics and are old and damaged because there is no chance at all that their value will rise. Knowing the genre, style, qualities, and collecting priorities of thangkas will help you avoid buying fakes or restorations and to be cautious when making purchases if you come across any dubious items.

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