Zoom In to the Wheel of Life

This delicately painted iconographic mural, or Thangka, has guided Buddhists through the centuries

By Google Arts & Culture

Thangka Painting of Sikkim: Tsuklakhang Chapel and Monastery (2018-03)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Thangkas are an artform traditional to Tibetan Buddhism, with a history dating back to the 9th Century CE. Thangkas usually depict Buddhist deities, scenes from the Buddha's life, or mandalas - geometric patterns and spiritually significant symbols.

This Thangka, found at the entrance to the Tsuklakhang Royal Chapel and Monastery in Gangtok, India, depicts the Bhavachakra, or Wheel of Life, which represents the cyclical movement of life, known as saṃsāra.

The layout of the Bhavachakra is designed to explain the mysteries of existence to Buddhist followers. The centre of the wheel shows the pig, rooster, and snake: the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion.

The second ring represents karma, the actions of good and bad that lead to future consequences. The holy men and women, marked by their orange robes, are being led upwards into the light by a noble deity.

Meanwhile, the dark right-hand side depicts the consequences of evil and negative karma. People are stripped naked, roped together, and dragged downwards by fearsome red and green devils.

The next circle of the bhavachakra depicts the six realms of saṃsāra. Buddhists believe that the karma accrued by souls determines which realm they are reincarnated to. Good karma might place you in the god realm, the demi-god realm, or the human realm…

The god realm is filled with pleasure and abundance. The gods, or Deva, eventually pass away. Their pleasurable existence consumes a large amount of good karma, so many Deva are reborn into lower realms. Some may be reborn into unknowable forms.

Souls in the demi-god realm, called Asura, enjoy many of the pleasures of the god realm, but their envy of the gods forces them into constant battles.

Manuṣya, the human realm in which we live, is cherished by Buddhists because, while humans are subject to hunger, sadness, and ageing, we can also improve ourselves through acts of kindness and following the dharma, or teachings of the Buddha.

The lower realms are the result of bad karma, through living an evil life, or through forgetting the teachings of the Buddha.

Tiryagyoni is the realm of animals. Wild animals suffer from fear and predators, while domestic animals are overworked by cruel owners or slaughtered for their meat and skins.

Preta is the realm of hungry ghosts. They wander a barren land, searching for food and water, yet only finding rocks and mirages. If they do eat, they will only feel pain.

Naraka, the hell realm, is one of relentless suffering for thousands of years. There are 18 degrees of hell, each of which is worse than the last. Souls found here are in constant fights, afflicted with disease, and tortured with fire and ice.

Thanks for joining this tour through the Tsuklakhang Chapel Bhavachakra Thangka. Hopefully, you now know what to expect as the wheel of life turns. While you're here, why not learn more about the process of Thangka making and Buddhist art in Sikkim.

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.
Google apps