Beneath the Sacred

A reconstruction of a seated Buddha Thangka

Beneath the Sacred
by Tenzin Lhamo

[Para#1] Beneath the layers of pigment was an intricate assembly of geometric measurement.[1] Eight major lines of orientation determined the central vertical axis that anchored the rest of the composition. Then, the artist would start his sketch. He drew 2 diagonal lines each stretching   from one corner of the canvas to the other. These lines established the vertical and horizontal axis. Their intersection marked the center of the image. Around this center 4 borders would eventually frame the final figure. These major lines oriented more lines. Specifically, 9 vertical and 14 horizontal lines that produced 12 units known as “sor” or “sormo.” These gave rise to the main subject, the buddha to be surrounded by strange hues of green and blue. He sat on the cushion of lotus flowers with eyes focused, legs folded, draped in dark maroon robes. This technique of thangka known as iconometry or iconography, measured fixed proportions. The lines underneath made a kind of infrastructure, a kind of mathematical and technological assembly.

[Para#2]  (voice) “Sor is a measurement of 12 units, For example, the measurement of a figures’ face is 12 sor, it is divided into 4 sor from the crest jewel to forehead, 2 sor for the forehead, 2 sor for eyes, 4 sor from nose to chin. Likewise the whole body is divided into units of 12 sor,” explained Sonam Wangdak, a Queens based thanka expert, in New York. He was adamant that the technique of iconometry is an invention of Tibetan thangka masters. Mastering iconography –drawing this infrastructure of lines –requires rigorous training for at least 3 years. All to be buried under the thick layers of pigments.

[Para#3] Overtime and across borders the practice of thangka painting changed. In 7th century between Tang dynasty and Magadha kingdom, the Tibetan Empire struggled to innovate thangkas that spoke to their people and also exude a separate identity from its neighboring countries. Surviving modifications through successive empires, temporal and spiritual leaders of pre-colonized Tibet, classified thangkas into different schools of teachings which adhered to particular founders’ preferences[2].Thangkas banned and remodeled in colonized Tibet, post 1959 depicts exoticized wild Tibetan plains favored by Han Chinese artists[3]. While thangkas produced in diaspora by the exiled Tibetan refugees in India or Nepal, in America or other European countries, are considered a link to the past, a representation of Tibet of their memories, and custodians of Tibetan traditionalism. Adapting native physical features, smaller eyes, flatter nose, shorter neck, rounder face, typical bodily representations imbibe distinct identity creation. Thangkas today still bear influences of Chinese patterns of silk brocade on the robes of deities, marking perverse nationalism.

[Para#5] The theory of iconometry traverse borders and various artistry professions. (voice) “from thanka to mural paintings, sand, gold or bronze statues to carpentry and tailoring, everything has a measurement and they were all practiced in daily lives” explained Mr. Wangdak. In the 7th century during the reign of Tibet’s 33rd King Songtsen Gampo[4], buddhist missionaries and merchants from India helped transmit buddhism to Tibet. Thanka prevailed as a religious symbol, token of exchange between elites, high lamas, and from kingdom to kingdom. Today, almost every Tibetan household, monasteries, and temples have thangkas hanging on their walls in brocade frameworks. Thangka, it’s an object of prayer, it’s an object of  wonder for its aesthetic beauty, but it’s also an object of exchange, an object of monetary, social and political value.

[Para#6] Thangka maps expanded networks of exchange . Yet these networks were exclusively male. Women were rarely included in thanka production. Sacredness and its monetary value renders thangka painting a profession for the few, male[5]. Skills passed down from masters to disciples[6], fathers to sons as women and girls were considered not only impure but also incompetent in comprehending theories of measurement.

Through printing machines[7] dozens of thangkas could be produced in a short period of time. Dwindling physical labor further obscures the techniques of producing thanka and the ways in which many artists[8] were trained. For them, iconometry remains a memory. For buyers, dealers, observers aesthetic, value is fixed on the superficial appeal of the art. The tensions between surface value that obscures the labor of the unknown artist conveys the history of thangka painting as a contemporary production, irrelevant to the many lines beneath the surface. “Sor” remains a distant theory, an idea, and a concept that is on the verge of fading from the memories of the few trained minds

[1] Jackson, David and Janice. Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Materials. Boston: Snow Lion, 1988. Print. (Iconometry or iconography basically explains the major lines of orientation such as diagonals, vertical and horizontal axes, and borders, division of spaces, and sketching on these measurements. But these are simpler methods of measurement whereas “Sor” is unique in its concept and more complicated to apply to any other forms of painting).

[2] Sangay, Thubten, et al. “Tibetan Thangka Painting—A Short History.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 1984, pp. 31–34. JSTOR, JSTOR, . (Some sources mention that are six major traditions, while some mention there are four major traditions of thangka painting in Tibet. The four commonly known are Mendi, Khentselug, Karmagadi, Jewkhangluk named after their founders. The tradition in question here is the Mendi which is mostly practiced in the central part of Tibet).

[3] Harris, Clare. “The Buddha Goes Global: Some Thoughts towards a Transnational Art History.” Art History, (2006) 29:698-720. (Thangka like rice is modified, it moved from different locations along with people and artists. It is interesting that this article particularly deals with three biggest changes possible in the life story of a thangka. How it existed as a symbol of buddhism prior to Chinese occupation of Tibet and how it got banned for a while during the wave of cultural revolution under Mao Zedong. A revival ensued with the new political motives of liberalization under socialist China and Thangka regained its artistic value but not completely its spiritual recognition. It traverse borders along with Tibetan refugees and becomes an emblem of tibetanness in exile, pitting against sinicization of Tibetan visual culture).

[4] Jane Casey Singer, “The Cultural Roots of Early Central Tibetan Painting,” Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central, Steven Kossak, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.) 1998, 3- 24. Print. (Tibet became one of Asia’s great imperial powers under the king Songtsen Gampo(617-649/650 CE) and corresponding to his successful reign Tibetans began importing buddhist artifacts from its neighboring countries such as India, Nepal, and China. As a result early Tibetan thangka paintings were filled with imagery and elements of style commonly found in its neighboring buddhist countries.)

[5] Jane Casey Singer, “The Cultural Roots of Early Central Tibetan Painting,” Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central, Steven Kossak, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.) 1998, 3- 24. Print. (practice itself is not gender bound but a great number of thangka artists known in the literature and history of the practice is male. A hierarchical leinage of master and disciple, a hierarchical pattern of patronage and the most skilled painters dominated the economy of thanka culture).

[6] Makkuni, Ranjit. “The electronic sketch book of Tibetan Thangka painting.” The Visual Computer 5 (1989): 227-242. ( Dissemination of thangka painting techniques has been mostly done through the lineage of master and disciple. As a result it is not a public knowledge and nor was a popular discourse that was taught in school curriculums. Makkuni’s work is a fusion and contemporary approach to make the knowledge of thangka painting more public, as well as more accessible through modern technologies such as computer).

[7] Makkuni, Ranjit. “The electronic sketch book of Tibetan Thangka painting.” The Visual Computer 5 (1989): 227-242. (Beside its positive impact of preserving and spreading the information about thangka painting techniques, Makkuni work also has its negative effect. Printing thangkas has become easier with restorations of early masterpieces on computerized programs. This further proliferates the chain of marketization and profit maximization the very problem that traditional artists detest the most).

[8] Ibid. Jackson, David (Traditionally thangka painters were well paid as opposed to other artist who dealt with metal or sculptor even though they were religious objects too. The wide misconception of Thangka painters as yogis or high lamas seems to be myths generated from textual sources. Painters also refrain from signing their works as spiritually the subject is considered more important than the fame and fortune of the artist).


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