Tibetan Religious Art

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A common bodhisattva depicted in Tibetan art is the deity Chenrezig Avalokitesvara , often portrayed as a thousand-armed saint with an eye in the middle of each hand, representing the all-seeing compassionate one who hears our requests. This deity can also be understood as a Yidam, or 'meditation Buddha' for Vajrayana practice.

Characteristics of Tibetan Art – a psychological and meditational practice – Mandalas Life

Tibetan Buddhism encompasses Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana Buddhism for its common symbolism of the vajra, the diamond thunderbolt known in Tibetan as the dorje. Most of the typical Tibetan Buddhist art can be seen as part of the practice of tantra. A surprising aspect of Tantric Buddhism is the common representation of wrathful deities, often depicted with angry faces, circles of flame, or with the skulls of the dead.

These images represent the Protectors Skt. Their wrath represents their dedication to the protection of the dharma teaching, as well as the protection of specific tantric practices from corruption or disruption. They symbolize wrathful psychological energy that can be directed to conquer the negative attitudes of the practitioner. In Tibetan temples known as lhakhang , statues of the Buddha or Padmasambhava are often paired with statues of the tutelary deity of the district who often appears angry or dark.

These gods once inflicted harm and sickness on the local citizens, but after the arrival of the tantric mystic Padmasambhava during the reign of Tibetan King Khri srong lde btsan — these negative forces were subdued and now must serve Buddha. Over rock paintings in the cliffs and caves in the middle and upper reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo River remained undiscovered until the latter part of the twentieth century.

The paintings depict humans, plants, trees, weapons, vessels, symbols, and animals including yaks, ox, sheep, horses, dogs, wolves, deer, leopards, and camels.

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The subject matter includes herding, hunting, fighting, dancing and religious activities related to Tibet's indigenous religion, Bon. Later rock paintings also include Buddhist themes and symbols, like the adamantine pestle, prayer flags, umbrellas, stupas, swastikas, fire, lotuses and scenes of worship and other religious activities. Sculptures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are among the more recent rock paintings. The earliest rock paintings, created around years ago, are symbols sculpted in single thick lines.

Rock paintings dating from the first century C. These paintings are mostly sculpted lines, but colored pigments began to be applied. Late rock paintings show religious symbols and sacrifices as well as aspects of the Buddhist culture. Murals illustrating religious teachings, historical events, legends, myths and the social life of Tibetans ornament the walls, ceilings and passages of Tibetan temples and palaces. Some early murals are devoted to Bon, but most are of religious figures, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Guardians of Buddhist Doctrines, Taras in the sutras, or Buddhist masters.

Each can be identified by particular characteristics such as posture, hand gestures, color and accessories that were traditionally associated with it.

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Typically, a prominent central figure is surrounded by other deities or humans, or by extravagantly detailed settings. The murals of certain temples illustrate Tibetan legends or follow the lives of important figures like Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. Murals painted between and C. Some murals feature the social life of Tibetans. A group of murals in Jokhang Temple shows people singing, dancing, playing musical instruments and engaging in sporting matches. Murals of folk sport activities and acrobatics are painted on the walls of Potala Palace and Samye Monastery. Many large palaces or temples have murals that describe their entire architectural design and construction process.

It can be rolled up when not required for display, and is sometimes called a scroll-painting. Thangka painting was popular among traveling monks because the scroll paintings were easily rolled and transported from monastery to monastery.

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Tibetan art

These thangka served as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, various influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas. One popular subject is the Wheel of Life, a visual representation of the Abhidharma teachings Art of Enlightenment. The devotional images acted as centerpieces during rituals or ceremonies and were often used as mediums through which to offer prayers or make requests. The visually and mentally stimulating images were used as a focus meditation practice, to bring the practitioner closer to enlightenment.

Painted thangkas are done on treated cotton canvas or silk with water soluble pigments, both mineral and organic, tempered with a herb and glue solution. The entire process demands great mastery over the drawing and a profound understanding of iconometric principles. Final touches may be added using carat gold. The composition of a thangka is highly geometric. Arms, legs, eyes, nostrils, ears, and various ritual implements are all laid out on a systematic grid of angles and intersecting lines. A skilled thangka artist generally includes a variety of standardized items ranging from alms bowls and animals, to the shape, size, and angle of a figure's eyes, nose, and lips, in the composition.

The background consists of multiple images of the Five Dhyani Buddhas. Bhutanese painted thanka of Milarepa , late 19th-early 20th century, Dhodeydrag Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan. A kyil khor Tibetan for mandala in Vajrayana Buddhism usually depicts a landscape of the Buddha-land or the enlightened vision of a Buddha.

It consists of an outer circular mandala and an inner square or sometimes circular mandala with an ornately decorated mandala palace [9] placed at the center. Any part of the inner mandala can be occupied by Buddhist glyphs and symbols [10] as well as images of its associated deities, to represent different stages in the process of the realization of the truth. Every intricate detail is fixed by tradition and has specific symbolic meanings, often on more than one level.


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Mandalas are commonly used by tantric Buddhists as an aid to meditation. More specifically, a Buddhist mandala is envisaged as a "sacred space," a Pure Buddha Realm [11] and also as an abode of fully realized beings or deities. A mandala can also represent the entire Universe, which is traditionally depicted with Mount Meru as the axis mundi in the center, surrounded by the continents.

Art of Tangka Tibetan Buddhist painting - Nepal and Bhutan

A 'mandala offering' [12] in Tibetan Buddhism is a symbolic offering of the entire Universe. Painted nineteenth century Tibetan mandala of the Naropa tradition, Vajrayogini stands in the center of two crossed red triangles, Rubin Museum of Art. Bhutanese painted complete mandala , nineteenth century, Seula Gonpa, Punakha, Bhutan. The sand Mandala is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from colored sand.

Traditionally the sand mandala was created with granules of crushed colored stone. In modern times, plain white stones are ground down and dyed with opaque inks to achieve the same effect.


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Monks carefully draw the geometric measurements associated with the mandala, then painstakingly apply the sand granules using small tubes, funnels, and scrapers, working from the center outward until the desired pattern over-top is achieved. Most sand mandalas take several weeks to build, due to the large amount of work involved in laying down the sand in such intricate detail.

The Kalachakra Mandala contains deities portrayed within the complex structure and geometry of the mandala itself. Smaller mandalas, like the one attributed to Vajrabhairava contain fewer deities and require less geometry. A sand mandala is ritualistically destroyed once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished, to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.

The deity syllables are removed in a specific order, and the sand is collected in a jar which is then wrapped in silk and transported to a river, where it is gradually released into the moving water. Surviving Pre-Buddhist carved stone pillars from the seventh to ninth centuries are decorated with Chinese, Central Asian, and Indian motifs and also a stone lion showing traces of Persian influence. The technique of casting figures in bronze and other metals entered Tibet from Nepal and India.

Tibetan Arts

Tibetan artists gradually developed their own styles and began to depict their own lamas and teachers as well as the vast pantheon of Buddhas, gods, and goddesses inherited from India. The iconic postures, hand gestures, and accessories specified by Buddhist scriptures identify each sculpture as a specific deity or type of saint.

Thang-ka s are not free creations of art, in the Western sense, but are painted according to exact canonical rules. In their subject matter they provide a wealth of understanding of the Tibetan religion. Its painting draws inspiration from Central Asian, Nepali, and Kashmiri schools and, in the treatment of landscape, from the Chinese.


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  8. Thang-ka s are never signed and seldom dated but begin to appear about the 10th century. A precise chronology is made difficult by their close adherence to tradition in subject matter, gestures, and symbols. Thang-ka s are generally rectangular, though the earlier ones tend to be square. The fabric is prepared by stretching muslin or linen on a frame and treating it with lime slaked in water and mixed with animal glue. The thickened and dried surface is then rubbed with a shell to make it smooth and shiny. The outlines of the figures are first drawn in charcoal in recent times they are often printed and then filled in with colour, usually mineral, mixed with lime and gluten.

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    The predominant colours are lime white, red, arsenic yellow, vitriol green, carmine vermilion, lapis lazuli blue, indigo, and gold used for backgrounds and ornaments. Description In Tibet, the creation and celebration of art is integrated with Buddhism. Butter sculpture is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist art. Although it is not as well known as another Tibetan ritual art, the sand mandala, it is still an important aspect of Tibetan Buddhism. Butter sculptures symbolize impermanence a main tenet of Buddhism and are usually destroyed anywhere from a day to a few years.

    Sand painting is an ancient Tibetan art form. The Sacred Sand Mandala is carefully constructed from dyed sand particles to represent a tradition of Buddhism. It is a transient art form thought to have originated in India and transferred in the middle ages to Tibet. The sand mandala is constructed as a vehicle to generate compassion, realize the impermanence of reality, and to heal the environment. The stones are usually painted with the prayer "Om mani padme hum," a prayer asking for the qualities of wisdom, compassion, and a good heart.

    The monks will teach you how to create images on flat stones and decorate them with sacred mantras. Read more Read less.