Interplay of Thangka Art with the Nepalese Culture

This image is borrowed from the Museum of Nepali art, Kathmandu’s collection on their website. The painting is named “Amoghapasa Lokesvara with 108 Manifestation”.

The first element of Samsara: Existence

Table 1: List of interviewees

The second element of Samsara: Matter

  1. Method and Evolution (Tradition/Modernity)
  2. The conflict between the two facets: Religion and Commerce
  3. Interplay between the Art, Nepalese Culture, and Religion
  4. Difference between Thangka and Paubha art

1. Method and Evolution (Tradition/Modernity)

With the skills and techniques along with their religious significance passed down from generation to generation and from masters to their students, Thangka and Paubha (an art form similar to Thangka painting having a different origin) are important parts of the traditional Nepali culture. When conducting our research, we found that there was a high degree of variance in how people understood the origins of the art form. Thangka is said to be first painted in Tibet and is based on Buddhist philosophy whereas Paubha emerged from the Newar community of Nepal and is influenced by both Buddhism as well as Hinduism. But lack of documented evidence has made it difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of these art styles leading to an increased dependency on oral history, especially in Thangka painting.

2. The conflict between the two facets: Religion and Commerce

Another major theme we found in our discourse analysis was the conflict between commercial and religious circuits of art consumption. Thangka paintings, which were once used as an essential piece of sacred art in the Buddhist community, are now used in a variety of other ways: as a meditative aid, a didactic tool, or as a conventional piece of art. Changes in the more tourist-oriented pieces have been evident in everything from formal elements like style and colors, to iconography and artistic approaches.

Our society has been consuming art for aesthetic and cultural purposes rather than simply for religion.

Our interviewees’ statements have highlighted the obvious tide of commercialization of Thangka painting in Nepalese society.

3. Interplay between the Art, Nepalese Culture, and Religion

Thangkas often serve as the symbols of Nepali Culture, as evidenced by Romio Shrestha’s statements:

Seeing the evident lack of recognition and respect for Nepalese Art and Culture, I embarked on a venture of bringing Nepalese Art into the highlight of the world [through the promotion of Thangka].

Furthermore, we derive an interesting perspective from Mrs. Kavita Karki, a buyer and Nepali diaspora in the United States of America, when she says that she bought Thangka in order

to be reminded of her home, Nepal

These statements strongly indicate that Thangkas go beyond a particular culture or religion and serve as a representative of an imagined “unified Nepalese culture.” Thangka primarily served as a Buddhist cultural centerpiece that passed down the teachings of Buddhism from generation to generation. This passing down has now made Thangkas a major part of the Nepalese identity.

4. Difference between Thangka and Paubha art

Starting with the intention of depth discourse analysis on Thangka painting, our project found a deviated path when historians and museums in Nepal were found to be more inclined towards Paubha painting compared to Thangka painting. While these two forms of paintings look ostensibly the same, they have important differences in their histories, style and discourses. While we did not succeed in finding historians or professors in Nepal who had specialized in Thangka, we came across senior figures such as Lok Chitrakar whose insights on Paubha helped us see the difference.

Tibetan Thangka are influenced by Newari Paubha, as many Newari artists used to work in Tibetan monasteries.

The third element of Samsara: Cyclicality of Life which means birth and death.

The fourth and the final element of Samsara: Rebirth

We discovered that there is a renewed interest in Thangkas lately. Artists are trying to preserve the original essence of the art and its value to Nepali society while being able to sustain themselves economically by commercializing it.

Drawbacks in our Methods

Our methods, however, do not come without drawbacks. Since all of our interviews were carried out in Nepali and transcriptions in English had to be translated, it could have brought some inaccuracies in our paper. However, we have tried our best to eliminate this by doing multiple re-readings of our translations. Secondly, although we interviewed 19 people in the discourse of Thangka, our paper could have had better findings with a larger number of interviewees. Furthermore, due to human biases we couldn’t ascertain the objectiveness of our interviewees’ statements.

Conclusion

Our road ahead shall encompass a bunch of tasks. First, we are going to publish the interviews. Then, besides discourse analysis, we are also going to explore more quantitative methods of analyzing texts, such as sentiment analysis and topic modeling. And finally, we want to add value to a wider audience through our work.

Team members(from left to right): Yashashwee Shrestha, Yojana Gurung, Oshin Panta, Shreeansh Agrawal, Aastha Ghimire, and Suprabh Joshi.

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Incubate Nepal

Incubate Nepal

Incubate Nepal is a virtual program that connects the brightest students across Nepal to collaborate on open-ended projects.