What are Thangkas?
Thangkas are perhaps the most interesting textiles given their religious context, iconography, and significance. Thangka paintings are a unique art form that belong to Tibet demographically. It is a Buddhist scroll- painting hung in home shrines, temples and monasteries and used for ceremonial processions. In Tibetan the word ‘than’ means flat and the suffix ‘ka’ stands for painting. The thangka is a kind of scroll painting done on flat surface, that can be rolled up when moving or stores/not required for display. The most common shape of a Thangka is the upright rectangular form but there are few that are square (mostly those depicting mandalas).
Let us understand this religious textile painting in detail!
Why were Thangkas created?
Thangkas depicting sacred art (Buddha surrounded by deities or lamas, scenes from His life, cosmic tree, the wheel of life, mandalas, etc.) and spiritual thoughts were widely used in monastery schools as teaching and meditation aids. As they could be easily rolled up and transported, they were used by nomadic monks who travelled between village communities and monasteries to provide religious instructions. They were commissioned both for spiritual purposes (ceremonial thangkas) as well as for homes as religious depictions to ward off evil spirits or bring prosperity.
The thangka, which was worshipped in the past, often contains signs of ritual offerings or inscriptions on the back of the central painting.
What are the different parts of the Thangka?
Thangka is a complex textile construction that is meant to be hung as a scroll painting. The Buddha is surrounded by deities or lamas and scenes from His life; divinities assembled along the branches of a cosmic tree; the wheel of life (Sanskrit bhavachakra), horoscopes, etc. There are four main parts of a thangka:
The image (central painting, tempera on cloth)
A textile frame/mantle, comprised of hand-stitched pieces of silk brocade textiles including a “door” at the bottom (a piece of textile) through which the viewer symbolically enters the image.
A fabric overlay (silk cover/veil and ribbons)
A dowel used to roll up the painting, at the base
The four-part construction allows thangkas to be easily rolled up, transported, and stored, as not all thangkas are meant to be continuously displayed. Some thangkas are displayed only during special festivals or to help with specific teachings.
Image courtesy: https://cool.culturalheritage.org/byauth/shaftel/intent.html
What are the materials used in creating a Thangka? Are Thangkas created for longevity?
Thangkas are created using many materials such as cotton, silk, glues, threads, natural pigments, wooden rods, and metal knobs. A traditional thangka is a three-dimensional construction that includes a central iconographic panel (painted on textile), within a textile mounting. Traditionally natural earth pigments are used with gum/glue as the binding medium to create the central painting. The textile support of this painting has starch paste or yak glue for sizing. The traditional textile mounting surrounding the painting may contain a brocaded textile in front section and possibly includes a back lining cloth. There are silk ribbons, a thin dyed and painted textile cover or veil, a cord to hold up the veil and a cord to hang the thangka. There are wooden dowels on top and bottom and decorative metallic finials on the lower dowel.
The thangka, as a form scroll paintings, used by travelling monks for teaching, are vulnerable and damaged easily, then as now, due to the constant rolling and unrolling, wear and tear, and exposure to natural elements.
While those within monasteries, are hung above shrines and often damaged by the religious activities within the shrine and by being in direct contact with the mostly damp walls and leaking roofs. The burning of butter lamps and incense offerings, traditional in Buddhist worship rituals, results in darkening soot and grease that then permeates deeply into the thangkas. During ceremonies, offerings may be flicked toward the thangkas, and these get deposited on the thangkas.
Therefore, made strictly according to religious scriptures, thangkas are considered a visual representation of a spiritual reality. These religious scrolls are not essentially created for longevity but for religious purposes and worship and are constantly replaced by new ones in shrines. Once the thangka textile has deteriorated or the central painting has darkened and the iconography is no longer visible, then the thangkas are replaced with a copy of the painting’s iconography painted by a thangka painter and set in a new and appropriate textile mounting. The originals are stored or hung behind other thangkas in a shrine hall or included inside stupas as blessed objects/relics.
What can go wrong with my Thangka and why?
Thangkas are created using many materials such as cotton, silk, glues, threads, natural pigments, wooden rods, and metal knobs. These materials, both organic and inorganic, respond differently to changes in temperature and humidity and create internal stress within the object. Thangkas are rolled and unrolled for storage and display, and this leads to creases in the textile fabric and abrasions and cracks in the central painting. While thangkas are hung for display, the pressure due to the weight of thangka and the gravity causes loosening of the various parts as well as losses in the central painting. Also, if the thangka was a ceremonial thangka, it may have stains due to the religious offerings, the soot of the monasteries and other depositions and water stains.
Thangkas are sensitive to light, water, pests, and poor handling. The pigments and dyes used in colourful vibrant thangkas are light sensitive and may fade and deteriorate when exposed to strong light for a long time. The glues, binders and fabrics may all swell up, shrink, or expand, on exposure to moisture and damage the thangka. These also attract insects and encourage mould growth. Dust and air pollution may also harm the thangkas. So, keep thangkas in clean, dry places with stable environment and away from strong light. Keep inspecting them regularly for signs of deterioration or infestation.
How can I restore old Thangka? Is the mounting in a Thangka as important as the central painting? Should I just get keep the central painting and discard the old, tattered mounting?
Restoration of Thangkas is a long and tedius process that takes few months on average. Unfortunately, the central painting of a thangka is more valued than the mounting. However, the significance and value of a thangka lies in its entirety, that is with the mounting, borders, veil as well as the wooden dowels. Each thangka created is unique and created for a specific purpose. The iconography of the central painting, the choice of the silk borders and mounting, the colours used have their own significance and symbolism. Hence, all parts of the thangkas should be preserved.
What should be done when Thangka has black sooty depositions?
Most of the sooth and oil stains penetrate deep into the silk/cotton mounting and the paintings and it is very difficult to remove these stains without damaging the original thangka/painting. It is therefore advised not to clean these at home and to consult a conservator.
What should I do if my Thangka / silk wall hanging has tears?
The most common reason for tears is age, loss of strength in the fabric and stress/pressure. If thangkas are on display, it means that it is not able to support its weight. It should be removed and placed on a flat surface. This will relax the textile. It is important to consult a conservator who will re-strengthen the various components of the thangka or give additional support.
What action should be taken if Thangka / silk wall hanging is exposed directly to water/ gets wet?
Remove the thangka to a safe, clean, dry place. Unroll it if rolled. Lay it face up on absorbent material – muslin/cotton towels or paper towels (not dyed or coloured). Lift the veil to let the thangka dry.
Gently press the mounting or borders and keep changing the towels. Do not touch the painted surface. Handle the thangka gently as it the fabric is fragile in wet conditions. Allow air circulation to facilitate drying and prevent mould growth.
It may take days for the thangka to dry completely. If the paint is not flaking, the thangka can be put back in storage or on display. If the paint layer is damaged, consult a conservator immediately.
What should be done when there are spots or fuzzy mould growth on my Thangka / silk wall hanging?
Mould growth occurs in damp environments with poor ventilation and air circulation. So, remove the thangka from the place and shift to a drier, warmer place with good air circulation. Wear a mask while handling the thangka.
Let the thangka dry completely and then gently brush off the mould with a soft brush in an open, ventilated area (while wearing a mask). Do not disturb the brocade or painting. Wash your hands properly after cleaning.
After cleaning, keep thangka in a clean, dry place and observe it for a few days.
If the paint is flaking, do not attempt to clean and consult a conservator. If the mould growth re-occurs or there is staining, consult a conservator.
How to roll a Thangka / silk wall hanging for storage?
Place the thangka on a flat surface with the central painting facing upwards. Smoothen down the fabric mounting (no creases) and remove loose dust/debris if any with a soft brush. Bring the veil down and cover the thangka and flatten out the ribbons on top of the veil.
Measure a conservation grade separator sheet (silicon release paper or Tyvek) about 4 inches more than the actual length and breadth of the thangka. Place the sheet on the table with the shinier side facing down.
Gently bring and place the thangka on the sheet (facing up and preferably with two people holding it). Start rolling gently from the bottom (around the rod) and proceed upwards, smoothing the separator sheet, the veil, and the thangka. Do not roll too tightly and do not stretch or crush the fabric while rolling. Once the thangka is covered, seal the excess sheet on the sides with a cotton ribbon or adhesive tape. Cotton muslin cloth can also be used in place of Tyvek sheet. Store the thangka in an acid-free box or shelves lined with separators in a clean, dry place away from light and free of pests.
Should I frame my Thangka / silk wall hanging?
Framing a thangka may be a good solution. But it is advisable to box frame the entire thangka rather than just the central painting. The framing should be done by a professional.