Painting Tibetan Thangka in Kathmandu, Nepal

If you've been to Nepal, you will see some beautiful, incredibly detailed paintings for sale everywhere from the urban capital in Kathmandu to the rural villages. Thangka (also sometimes spelled tangka, thanks or tanka) is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist art form. Paintings of Buddhist deities, scenes or mandalas are painting on cotton or silk and used to be displayed only in monasteries and during religious festivals. They can be also be used as teaching tools or for meditation, but nowadays are mostly sold as souvenirs to tourists. (And they are worth every rupee, by the way.) 

But wait, why are they all over Nepal if they are Tibetan? Ever since China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, many refugees, including the Dalai Lama, fled the country and many ended up in neighboring Nepal. 

Many of the galleries that sell these paintings had signs advertising schools so I assumed that they would accept foreign students, if for nothing else than the money. Many of these studios were understandably clustered around Boudhanath, the famous Buddhist stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu which is one of the largest in Nepal. It's normally a very impressive structure but it was under renovation, partially due to the earthquake last year so I mostly saw scaffolding during my visit. I inquired about painting at one of these schools and was advised that it would take 7 days and cost 5,000 rupees (about $50 USD). This was a bit out of my budgets for both time and money and was too far to travel from my home stay in Swayambhunath (aka the Monkey Temple). 

 Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

When I got back to my home stay, I explored the immediate area hoping to find another Thangka school since Swayambhunath is also home to a Buddhist stupa. I found no schools but I did discover Swayambhu Environmetal Park, which was free to enter and enjoy and boasted three huge Buddha sculptures representing (left to right) Avalokiteshvara, Amitaba Buddha and Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) all over 19 m (60 ft) tall. 

 Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

The next day I searched the internet and found a supposed school located just inside the city and well within walking distance at around 3 km/1.8 miles (one way). After walking the dogs, I headed into town in search of said school. When I arrived, I found it boarded up so I kept walking and ended up at a school in Durbar Square. I was thrilled to find a secret entrance where I wouldn't be hassled by the tourist police to pay the 10,000 ($9.50 USD) rupee World Heritage entrance fee, which I had already paid upon my first visit during Holi, but no longer had my ticket to prove it. 

The owner of the shop, Dev, gladly agreed to let me paint my own and we bargained a price of 3,000 rupees ($28 USD) for the process and supplies. After I looked at a few paintings for inspiration, he agreed to prep a canvas and sketch out a simple mandala shape based on what I liked. I agreed to come back the next day at 10:30 AM.

 Day One

Day One

When I arrived the following morning, my canvas was waiting and the pencil-sketched skeleton on it was about 20" x 20". (I actually still haven't measured the full canvas.) I could tell he used a compass for the circles but freehanded all the straight pieces so I had to spend a little time erasing and realigning parts of the sketch with a ruler. 

I had an assortment of acrylic paints but kept a limited palette of blue, orange, green, red and black. I sat next door on a cushion on the floor of a shop that sold masks and singing bowls. Everyone was very friendly, not to mention curious about what I was doing so I frequently had an audience of locals watching me paint, all offering words of praise and encouragement. I painted for five hours that day, stopping only for a quick lunch break from a nearby vendor who make me a fried egg sandwich which others called a 'Nepali Burger.' I finished the first layer of colors (phase 1) and most of the '[out]lining' (phase 2). 

 Day Two

Day Two

On the second day, I arrived around the same time and painted for six hours. I got through the majority of the gold detailing. This color was literally powdered 18 karat gold mixed with a bit of water. I wanted a gradient of blue rings around the main image so Dev MacGuyvered a compass together out of string and pushpins and penciled in some perfectly circular guidelines. 

One day three, I walked to town with two other girls from my home stay. I showed them my painting-in-progress and Dev bought us all tea. We all chatted for a bit while I started working and once their cups were empty, they headed off to find the Horse Festival. Gotta love Nepal! Another day, another festival!

 Day Three / The Finished Product

Day Three / The Finished Product

It took me about three more hours to design & paint the outermost gold border and paint the blue rings and the background. I was so thrilled to paint those final few brushstrokes around the edge of the canvas. Even though I knew I had just spent days doing it, the painting still didn't feel real. All the locals that I got to know over the past few days complimented me on my work and one even volunteered to take pictures of me holding the finished product. 

The painting process itself was somewhat meditative - especially the intricate detail work with the tiniest of brushes. It's complete focus and concentration, trying to translate the design from my mind to the paper. Maybe one day I'll be able to return to Nepal or Tibet and study at a proper school with a Lama. In the meantime, I'm going to keep seizing every opportunity I have to be creative.