Thanka Painting — How Fascinating!

Today morning, I joined a new friend, Houk from the Netherlands, on a visit to a Thanka Painting Showroom.  What a neat experience!

Houk is a member of an expat group that together visits various art studios, invites interesting speakers for lectures and ventures out on small walks around the town.  I joined the group for today’s studio visit.


The Thanka Painting Showroom is located within Swayambhu – a very famous KTM site, often referred to as “the monkey temple”.  Dozens of monkeys entertain and annoy visitors as they enjoy their life on the Swayambhu mountain top.  We were greeted with warm “Namastes” from Rajesh (dad) and Surya (son) along with several staff members.  Surya gave a 1 hour presentation to us and covered the history, significance, basic techniques and modern day adaptation of Thanka Painting:

* often the paintings are depictions of some aspect of the Buddhist religion20140516_103917

* the word “Thanka” is derived from than (cotton) and ka (art), so it is art done on a piece of cotton

* traditionally, the artist while painting will live like a monk ; he will not smoke, drink alcohol and will be celibate ; he will sit facing east

* all the painting is done while sitting on the floor, crossed-legged

* this art form requires utmost patience and almost a meditative state of mind

* one piece can take 2 weeks to 7 years to complete

* the painter attaches a thin sheet of cotton to a bamboo frame, then applies several coats of “glue” (made from yak skin and water) and powder to make the surface smooth to apply the paint

* traditionally rock colors were used, however nowadays, vegetable and acrylic colors are used

* extremely fine brushes are used where one brush has 1-5 hairs (from a cat)

* as the paintings are usually of a spiritual nature, reminding us to be detached and eliminate ego, the painter usually maintains a certain level of anonymity (signatures are often not present, or signed very generally, ie Arun Shrestha which in Nepal is as common as Joe Smith in the USA)

* a painter is considered a “student” for at least the first 9 years of training and slowly achieves titles such as master and grand master (reminded me of chess!)

* traditionally, paintings were done only by men, but in the past few decades, Rajesh has fought to introduce women into the trade

After the presentation, I approached Surya and complimented him on his English-speaking ability.  The vast majority of Nepalis, young and old, do not speak English at all, let alone have the ability to carry a 1-hour long presentation with Q/As.  Surya is rare, a product of government school and government college (Nepali-medium) but able to communicate brilliantly about his culture and family traditions in English.  He told me that his father would tell him as a child, “Never be shy about 2 things in life – talking and eating!”  Wise words here in Nepal 🙂

It was a lovely morning!  Learning about ancient Nepalese art and visiting a famous KTM landmark…

3 thoughts on “Thanka Painting — How Fascinating!

  1. >________________________________ > From: five in the foothills >To: >Sent: Friday, May 16, 2014 8:18 PM >Subject: [New post] Thanka Painting — How Fascinating! > > > > >nitabhave posted: “Today morning, I joined a new friend, Houk from the Netherlands, on a visit to a Thanka Painting Showroom.  What a neat experience! Houk is a member of an expat group that together visits various art studios, invites interesting speakers for lectures a” >

    • Hi Vidya,

      I should post a close up of the images… (don’t have great shots though) There were 3 paintings that he described in great detail… (1) The Story of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s life. Shows images from several monumental stages in his life and ends at the center with him reaching Nirvana. (2) Wheel of Life. Mao is holding the wheel symbolizing the fear living inside all of us. There is also symbolism of “impermanence”. The goal is to get rid of the fear of suffering – to achieve this, we need to give up three things: a. ignorance represented by PIG b. pride or ego represented by SNAKE c. greed or negative desires represented by BIRD. One of the tools to accomplish this is meditation. We must train ourselves and our mind to evaluate right verses wrong. We must awaken and truely understand ourselves. (3) Mandela. This one doesn’t really have any story or symbolism, but is used as a tool to assist in concentration during mediation. If you look closely in the images I posted, you can kind of make out these 3 paintings. For a one-hour lecture, we got only a small glimpse into this art form. It would be fascinating to study a bit deeper. This really motivated me to learn more about Buddhism (for me and for the children).

      I will soon post about religion in Nepal. Although Nepal is mostly Hindu (80%), the religious practices differ quite bit to the Hinduism that I know from India / USA. The next most prominent religion in Nepal is Buddhism (12%).

      So a long answer to your question – no, the paintings are not very abstract… THANK YOU for your question!

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