The Silk Road is one of the most fascinating periods in world history, connecting the East to the West through Han China and the Roman Empire. Yet, it is also one of the most elusive. Despite the lack of written records, historians have managed to partially reconstruct the nature of the Silk Road and have found it to be symbolic of a new age of diplomacy, connecting two major superpowers.
In particular, this is seen after the fall of the Roman Empire and Han China. At this time, the rise of independent powers and city states along the routes of the Silk Road resulted in an increase of cultural diffusion, as opposed to trade. In this discussion, the Kushan Empire is the most significant due to their adoption and patronage of Mahayana Buddhism, which resulted in the creation of various monasteries, shrines, stupas, and cave temples along the Eastern Silk Road.
Like most powers at the time, the Kushan Empire lacked a written tradition and adopted the cultural legacies of the region. This created a unique tradition of Greek and Sanskrit cultures, of which Buddhism was a product. They were particularly swayed by the ideas of Mahayana Buddhism, erecting monasteries and other forms of Buddhist infrastructure across their lands, attracting Buddhist pilgrims and monks alike. By the 4th century AD, Buddhism was one of the dominant religions of the Silk Road.
Used for both religious and educational purposes, monks carried the paintings across the routes of the Silk Road, spreading Buddhist philosophies and ideas to the Ancient East. The Thangka scrolls depicted scenes from the lives of the Buddha, as well as other deities that embodied the spiritual power and authority of Buddha. The scroll paintings were widely used as a medium of religious education, exchanging ideas through their images. With scarce written sources, the Thangka scrolls are important sources that recorded the socio-political atmosphere of the time, providing insight into an elusive and important period in world history.
These scroll paintings were also used in religious ceremonies in the monasteries and shrines of the Tibetan Himalayan region of India and Nepal. Mounted on the walls, they were exposed to the thick grease and soot that is produced by the burning of the butter lamps and incense used in traditional Tibetan Buddhist religious ceremonies. Consequently, these scrolls deteriorated quickly. Today, few know of the existence of the Thangka scrolls that still occupy the ancient walls of the remote Buddhist monasteries of Tibet. A forgotten art, their existence is further endangered by the turbulent socio-political climate of the region. It is only recently that the Thangkas have become accessible to the world.
The Thangka paintings today represent a unique identity for the nearly extinct Tibetian culture. In such communities, conservation of the Thangka scrolls is a popular desire. However, it is a challenging task, as most of these communities lack the resources required to preserve the delicate Thangka scrolls. Mounted against the walls of the monasteries, the scrolls often loose color and important details become blurred. This happens because of changes in the levels of humidity in the air, water damage, and other environmental factors. Additionally, the process of creating new Thangka scrolls is a lengthy process that can take decades. Requiring a long apprenticeship, knowledge of Thangka paintings is transmitted from master to student. Moreover, each region has its own distinctive Thangka style, technique, and mounting style, which makes the production of the art form very difficult, even for those most interested.
Despite its difficulty, there are efforts for Thangka conservation. Over the years, tourism has promoted the art form significantly. With scrolls displayed prominently in various hotels across the Tibetian Himalayan region, tourists are exposed to the vanishing art form and are encouraged to purchase Thangka scrolls as souvenirs. While this is far from the original purpose of the scroll paintings, commercialization and increased private consumption are some of the most effective ways to create awareness and for the endangered art form. Additionally, independent art studios and organizations also play an important role in the scrolls’ conservation. Located in Dharamsala primarily, organizations such as the Thangde Gatsal Painting Studio and the Norbulingka Institute offer classes and workshops for Thangka painting that range between single day workshops to longer, more intensive workshops that extend for six months. The role of these independent organizations has become more prominent and important over the years. Working both as private vendors and agents of cultural conservation, independent organizations promote the idea of seeing the Thangka scrolls as a form of private art that is to be enjoyed for spiritual or aesthetic pleasure.
Today, the conservation of the Thangka paintings is a rewarding process that faces many obstacles. Due to lack of adequate monetary resources, technology, and knowledge of the proper handling techniques, ancient Thangka scrolls are endangered. Furthermore, the industry faces the threat of stagnation due to lack of interest and sufficient exposure. As a result of this, Thangka paintings have been pushed to the brink of extinction. The ThangdeGatsal Painting Studio in particular is important to this cause. Owned by Sarika Singh and her husband Master Locho, Singh is the first female painter and teacher in the long history of the art form and represents the hope to revive such important local traditions that form the rich cultural legacy of both the Tibetian Buddhist tradition and East Asia as a whole. A relic from the Ancient World, the Thangka paintings serve as one of the dying embers of the Silk Road.
To learn more about the Tibetan cultural heritage, visit SAFE’s page, “Recording Tibetan Cultural Heritage”. And to further join this fight and raise awareness about the Thankga Paintings, consider working with or donating to SAFE.