Sikkimese Thangkas: Religious Art

Explore the world of Sikkimese thangkas where Buddisht deities reside

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Thangka Painting of Sikkim: Religious Art (Early 20th century)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The culmination of Tibetan Buddhist art, thangkas are pictorial religious scrolls. Most often hand painted with mineral colours and gold dust, traditional thangkas were also embroidered or appliqued. Seen in monasteries and also homes, they are not merely decorative in function but are highly revered objects with religious significance. The art form originated in Nepal in the 7th century, developing into several schools of painting. 

Thangka Painting of Sikkim (Early 20th century)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Historically, thangkas were used as teaching aids.  A lama or teacher would travel giving talks on Buddha’s life and teachings. He would carry with him painted scrolls to convey spiritually significant events, aspects of different deities, or Buddhist concepts. Made strictly according to the scriptures, thangkas are considered a visual representation of a spiritual reality. 

Thangka Painting of Sikkim: Shakyamuni Buddha (1910) by Rinzing LharipaDastkari Haat Samiti

Thangka of Buddha Shakyamuni with his two principal disciples.

A thangka is often a visual representation of a particular deity. The central figure in the composition, the deity is shown strictly according to the guidelines of religious texts.

The secondary figures or surrounding areas also have symbolic relevance.

The painting is mounted in brocade usually of red (the colour of the lamas), yellow (for the Buddha), and blue (symbolizing eternity).

Born Prince Siddhartha Gautama of Lumbini, Nepal, the Buddha Shakyamuni renounced his princely life.

After rigorous ascetic practice, he gained insight into the nature of existence. At this moment he invoked the earth as witness, as indicated by the gesture of his right hand.

Buddhist art celebrates this supreme moment.

Thangka Painting of Sikkim: Thangka of White Tara (1992) by Lharipa Nima TsheringDastkari Haat Samiti

Thangka of White Tara, known as Dolma in Tibetan.

Tara is one of the most popular female deities in Tibetan Buddhism and is worshipped in a majority of the Buddhist world.

This thangka was painted by Lharipa Nima Tshering Bhutia of Sikkim, for which he received the National Award in 1994.

Considered the embodiment of compassion, Tara bestows blessings of health, happiness and longevity.

Here she is shown with a third eye in the middle of her forehead, as also eyes in the soles of her feet and palms of her hand.

These are symbols of her wisdom and her ability to see all beings in the realms of existence.

Thangka Painting of Sikkim (2018-03)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A thangka of Green Tara.

Of the many different representations of Tara, White and Green Tara are the most worshipped.

A symbol of universal compassion, the Green Tara is worshipped for her ability to overcome difficult situations, giving protection against dangers and obstacles.

Like White Tara, her right hand is extended in a gesture of generosity. Her extended right leg signifies her readiness for swift action.

She is the dynamic manifestation of Tara, the embodiment of enlightened action.

The colours used in this thangka are mineral colours. The gold in the ornaments and detailing is made from real gold dust.

Thangka Painting of Sikkim (2018-03)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Thangka paintings are also worshipped as part of religious festivals. Commissioning a thangka is considered a means of generating spiritual merit. In times of particular hardship, an individual can consult a lama to recommend the creation of a thangka to a particular deity. In Sikkim - a significant centre of Buddhism in north eastern India - birth and especially death, are occasions when a special thangka is commissioned. 

Thangka Painting of Sikkim: Thangka of the Buddha's first sermon (Early 20th century)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Thangka of Buddha’s first sermon.

Thangkas such as this one, are also made to convey important events from the life of the Buddha or the masters.

The prince Siddhartha had been travelling with five ascetic companions. Together they had sought the truth through extreme deprivation.

When Gautama realized that enlightenment would come from mental cultivation rather than depriving the body, his companions scorned him and left him.

Upon attaining enlightenment, the Buddha sought out his former companions to share his realization. They went on to become his first disciples.

A thangka is a product of painstaking work and detailing. A thangka like this one from the early 20th century would have taken the artist a few months in order to paint details as fine as the motifs on the fabrics worn, or individual strands of hair.

Thangka Painting of Sikkim (2018-03)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Thangkas perform various functions. Most importantly, they are used to enhance meditative practice. They act as a visual aid to focus concentration and forge a link between the practitioner and the depicted deity.

Thangka Painting of Sikkim: Wisdom Mandala Thangka (1910) by Rinzing LharipaDastkari Haat Samiti

Thangka of Buddha Vajradhara and Wisdom Mandala

A mandala is a device for Tantric meditation. A visual aid for concentration, it is also a graphic representation of the process.

The blue Buddha and the Mandala are both symbolic of the nature of the mind.

This thangka was painted in 1919 by Rinzing Lharipa using gemstone powder and gold dust.

Thangka Painting of Sikkim: Wheel of Life Thangka (Late 20th century)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Thangka of The Wheel of Life

An example of a thangka illustrating a Buddhist concept, this thangka is often considered the essence of Buddhist teaching.

Holding or turning the wheel is Yama, the god of death with his crown of skulls.

At the centre of the Mandala are the connected images of a pig, a rooster, and a snake. Symbolizing ignorance, greed, and aggression, these are at the centre of the worlds of suffering and dissatisfaction.

The cycle of birth and death is split into six segments or realms. At the top right of the thangka, the Buddha points to show a way out of this unending cycle.

Thangka Painting of Sikkim (2018-03)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Every Buddhist home has its own family shrine, where thangkas are an essential component. The style of painting is in the Tibetan tradition, and the themes are similar. Additionally, there are some thangkas that reflect the syncretic character of local Buddhist practice, depicting deities and events that are particular to Sikkim.

Thangka Painting of Sikkim: "Sikkim Thangka" (2018-03) by Reproduction of original by Ringzen LaripaDastkari Haat Samiti

Sikkim Thangka

Depicting the creation of the kingdom of Sikkim, the original of this thangka is said to have been commissioned by the last Chogyal or priest-king of Sikkim.

The thangka uses Buddhist imagery common to religious thangkas, to tell of the founding of Sikkim, which was prophesied by Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rimpoche, the patron saint of Sikkim.

The four central figures are the three venerated lamas, along with the first Chogyal (second from Right). In 1642, the founder of the Nyingmapa sect in Sikkim along with two other learned lamas, consecrated Phuntsog Namgyal as the first Chogyal. The monarchy continued till 1975.

The thangka is replete with Tibetan and Sikkimese symbolism. The fiery red-countenanced deity riding the mythical snow lion and holding aloft the banner of victory is Kanchendzonga, the protector deity of Sikkim.

Below him is Mahakala, the black deity atop the black horse, considered in Tibetan Buddhism as the protector of monasteries.

The white figure in the centre is the deity of the Nagas, held sacred in local belief systems of Sikkim.

The thangka captures the syncretic spirit of Buddhism as it is practiced in Sikkim.

Thangka Painting of Sikkim: Thangka of White Tara (1992) by Lharipa Nima TsheringDastkari Haat Samiti

Credits: Story

Text: Aloka Hiremath
Photography: Subinoy Das
Artisans: Lharipa Nima Tshering, associates and students at Directorate of Handicrafts and Handloom, Nim Rinchen, Sangye
Ground Facilitation: Sonam Gyaltsen, Aloka Hiremath
Curation: Ruchira Verma

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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