NOTES ON THE TECHNIQUE OF TIBETAN THANGKAS
1 INTRODUCTION AND DESCRIPTIVE HISTORY
THANGKAS PRESENT conservators with unique problems because of their traditional methods of construction and usage.
A thangka is a Tibetan religious object in the form of a scroll, which is generally used as a teaching device or as an aid to various religious practices. Thangkas depict Buddhist deities and/or mandalas. A thangka is a complex construction including a painting, a textile mounting (sometimes with leather corners), pendant ribbons, a textile cover, a cord to hold up the cover, a cord or ribbons from which to hang the thangka from top and bottom dowels, and decorative knobs on the bottom dowels. An iconographically complete and useable thangka consists of a painting and a mounting: a painting without a mounting is incomplete.
The word thangka is thought by some to have derived from the Tibetan thang yig1 meaning “annal” or “written record.”2 Thangkas originated in India and evolved, in Tibet, from the nomadic lifestyle of early Buddhist monastics. These monks traveled extensively to outlying areas to spread the teachings of Buddha. Everything they needed and used traveled on the backs of yaks, including tents, furniture, and paintings. Consequently, thangkas were damaged, then as now, by rolling and unrolling. Later, when monasteries were built, thangkas hung over shrines and were often damaged by direct contact with the walls behind them. The burning of butter lamps and incense, traditional in Tibetan Buddhist worship, deposited thick layers of darkening soot and grease on the thangkas.
Thangkas also present conservators with a unique challenge in choice of treatment. These objects must be treated from the start as composite materials. Sometimes, a thangka must be dismantled and each medium treated separately before being reassembled. In order to preserve the original religious and aesthetic values, many treatments standard to Western painting conservation cannot be utilized; nor should thangkas be given conservation treatment appropriate for Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings on silk and paper. Finally, care must be taken so that inappropriate exhibition and storage techniques do not stimulate deterioration.
For a conservator to be able to offer complete and appropriate conservation treatment to a thangka, it is crucial to have some background in the techniques of their manufacture. The author has been documenting thangka painting techniques for sixteen years: first, by working with Tibetan master thangka painters in exile in Nepal, India and the United States; and second, through the examination and conservation treatment of numerous thangkas. This documentation has been valuable not only as a source of information to the conservator but also as a way of preserving information that might otherwise die with the master painters in exile.