Collecting guide: Teachings of the thangka

From wrathful protector deities to maps of the cosmic realm — five variations on the mystical paintings on cloth explained by specialist Leiko Coyle


1. The wrathful deity/protector

The thangka, a Tibetan painting using ground mineral pigment on cotton or silk, functions as one of the principle meditational tools in Buddhist practice.

A thangka usually depicts a central Buddhist deity or teacher surrounded by associated gods and lineage figures, describes events or myths attributed to important religious teachers, or outlines the blueprint of a particular deity’s realm as a mandala. The viewer accrues merit and makes spiritual progress by meditating on the iconographic imagery associated with the particular Buddhist teaching.

Each of the thangkas selected below comes from an exceptional collection of Himalayan Paintings ranging from the 15th to 19th century*. Of varying sizes and depicting both wrathful and peaceful imagery, these works illustrate the vast array of iconography and styles in this ancient painting tradition.

Depicting the red wrathful protector Chamsing Begste Chen, this painting is a meditation aid that emphasises the ferocious qualities of this deity, as illustrated by his wrathful appearance. Typically, the principle deity tramples either an animal or a human (see below), symbolically stamping out illusion and suppressing the limitations of attachment to the earthly realm.


This thangka displays a central deity surrounded by his lineage. These figures are depicted within a landscape of Heaven and Earth with images of a monastery (below left) and bodies of water. Sensory offerings, associated with the main deity (in this example, the offerings such as the eyes, heart and blood in the skull cap) represent the important Buddhist concept of the impermanence of the physical body.

The deity’s appearance is not meant to frighten but rather to convey the strength needed when trying to overcome the powerful obstacles that thwart man’s transcendence of the material world.

2. The benefactor deity/protector

An Important and Exceptionally Fine Painting of Vaishravana, Tibet, 18th century. This work was offered in the The Van der Wee Collection of Himalayan Paintings auction on 15 March 2016 at Christie’s New York. Click and zoom for more detail

Vaishravana is a semi-wrathful god who bestows wealth and prosperity on his devotees. As leader of both the North and the Four Directional Guardians, he is depicted riding a white lion and holding a black mongoose spewing jewels to his side. Thangkas painted on black ground are used to depict wrathful and semi-wrathful deities. This particular example of a black thangka is especially notable for its vivid palette, excellent condition and large size.

3. The yab-yum posture/meditational deity


A Painting of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi, Nepal, 16th century. Sold for $545,000 in the The Van der Wee Collection of Himalayan Paintings auction on 15 March 2016 at Christie’s New York.

This painting of Chakrasamvara, or ‘wheel of union’, is a paubha — a Nepalese painting on cloth. Paubhas commonly include images of donors along with an inscription bearing a date in the bottom register of the painting.

Here, Chakrasamvara is depicted with accoutrements that represent his divine abilities. Depicted in embrace with his consort, their union represents the joining of male and female qualities of wisdom and compassion.

Unlike Tibet, which is generally arid year-round, Nepal’s monsoonal climate has limited the number of remaining paubhas, which deteriorate with humidity and mould. Therefore, already rare to begin with, this painting is exceptional for its present condition and quality.

4. Historical figure/teacher

A Painting of Khedrubje Geleg Palzang, Tibet, 18th century. This work was offered in the The Van der Wee Collection of Himalayan Paintings auction on 15 March 2016 at Christie’s New York. Click and zoom for more detail

Depicting the important, spiritual teacher Tsongkhapa in a strikingly vivid palette, this thangka depicts the lineage and teachings of this Buddhist master through surrounding symbols and his position between heaven and earth, from which a donor, possibly Tsongkhapa’s pupil Khedrubje, gazes up from the bottom left hand corner.

The images of blessings falling from the heavenly sky (below right) symbolise the blessings passed from the heavenly realm to the earthly devotees.

The rich and complex iconography of this painting, along with its vivid colours and finely rendered imagery, make it an exceptional example of Tibetan art, as well as a divine diagram for spiritual progress.

5. Mandala


Painting of Raktayamari Mandala, Tibet, 15th century. This work was offered in the The Van der Wee Collection of Himalayan Paintings auction on 15 March 2016 at Christie’s New York

A mandala depicts in two-dimensional form the three-dimensional space inhabited by the deity. The bird’s-eye-view centralises the main deity within concentric squares, circles and borders of his associated lineage and related figures, arranged in order of importance.

In the central mandala (above left), the red, wrathful god is depicted in yab-yum, surrounded by his lineage. Four doorways at north, south, east and west (example, above right) offer opportunity for entry and approach; circles with lotuses support the diagram. Registers of historical people, often human practitioners, complete the image in the top and bottom sections (see below).


A mandala maps the meditative path for the practitioner, connecting them to the deity and the world he inhabits.

*The thangkas in the single-owner auction on 15 March 2016 are documented on the Himalayan Art Resource (HAR),


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