A thangka is a complicated, three-dimensional object that consists of three basic elements: a panel containing an image that is painted or embroidered, a textured mounting, and decorative elements on the mounting. The decorative elements can be leather corners, wooden or metal dowels across the top and bottom, or even a silken cover.
Thangkas are highly individualized objects, because they are created by painters and tailors with different skills, training, and intent. Each is unique, due to regional and doctrinal differences in style, damage from neglect or harsh treatment, and mountings that have been altered over time.
The traditional depiction of thangkas in Tibetan Buddhism began to be prevalent in the 10th century when tantric Buddhism was being developed in the area where Buddhism first spread. Most thangka owners believe them to be the art of Buddhist scholars, and hold them in highest reverence. In accordance with the religious culture of Buddhism, a thangka is kept in rooms of worship. The devotee bows his or her head before the thangka at the time of worship, particularly in the morning.
Most people never consider the thangka to be an object of decoration. Thangkas are intended to serve as a record of iconographic information to use as a guide for contemplative experience. Many thangkas spell out identification of scenes and figures in delicately rendered formal scripts. Some ancient thangkas have been damaged over time to the point that layers of paint are missing, so there is often no way to know whether the colors and details are what the original artist intended.
For example, a particular shade of green indicates effective activity, while white usually refers to peacefulness and compassion. Therefore, the same form of a woman could have different meanings when rendered in green or white.
Thangkas have evolved over time through handling, environmental changes, and deterioration of materials. Damage to thangkas was particularly likely centuries ago because Tibetans often traveled long distances in harsh conditions. Groups of scholars, yogis, and priests would usually travel by yak to remote regions, set up tents, unroll the thangkas, and teach the stories to local people before moving on to another location. Although this teaching was beneficial and vital to people, the constant rolling and unrolling served to damage the thangkas over time.
In past times, the aristocracy kept thangkas as precious and revered heirlooms, although ordinary people sometimes invited artists to create thangkas for religious celebrations or to commemorate certain events. Today, thangkas are considered to be works of stateliness and aristocracy, and therefore they can be found in the living quarters and halls of all Buddhist temples and monasteries. They are used by priests for worship and meditation, and the practice of specific Buddhism.
The concept of "original artistic intent" is often difficult to apply to thangkas, because there are often multiple artists involved in their creation. Only in rare circumstances do thangkas express the personal vision or creativity of the original painter, who usually remains anonymous. This anonymity starkly differentiates thangkas from most artistic creations, but it may actually be this attribute that enhances the use of thangkas in meditation.
For example, a student of meditation may be instructed to imagine himself as a specific figure shown in a specific setting within a thangka. You could use the scene in a thangka as a reference for the details of color, attitude, posture, clothing, and behavior of a figure located in a field, or in a palace, surrounded by other figures including your family, teachers, meditation scholars, and others. In this way, thangkas can serve as an important aid for studying the religion, history, culture, painting, art, and scientific achievements of Tibet and the Buddhist scholars of ages past, while applying those studies to living in the world today.