Tibetan Tankas

December 18, 2020

By Kristen Herdman

Tibet MSS 62, Box 50.  A Tibetan watercolor painting on cotton that depicts Palden Lhamo crossing a sea of blood riding side-saddle on a white mule.

The tanka (also spelled thankga, thanka or tangka) is a genre of Tibetan Buddhist painting. Similar to the Nepalese paubha, tankas feature brillant, beautiful images painted upon a fabric support. These objects display an almost overwhelming complexity— curls of etherial clouds, arms outstretched wide, gracefully arcing aureoles. Produced primarily as vertically-oriented hanging scrolls, they are typically paired with a textile cover to protect the object when not in use.

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has an extensive collection of well preserved tankas. While the three featured objects below are painted on cotton, many tankas use silk as the primary support. As the Yale collection, which includes objects dating from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century, can attest, the traditions and visual grammar associated with tanka painting have a lengthy history which tells of a vibrant and thriving artistic tradition. The three objects highlighted below are each paired with explanatory text from the catalogue. 

Tibet MSS 62, Box 41. Painting detail showing a large figure draped in yellow, red, and orange robes with a halo. To the right are four seated divine figures of a much smaller scale on a green ground.

Detail, Tanka of Lobsang Choíökyi Gyaltsen.

Tibet MSS 62, Box 41

From the catalog: “A watercolor painting on cotton that depicts Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen wearing yellow and seated on cushions with smaller figures of protective divinities, ten lamas, and Güshi Khan (1582-1655), a Khoshut prince and leader of the Khoshut Khanate. The tanka includes a silk cover.”

Tibet MSS 62, Box 24. Painting detail showing one large diety figure with three wide eyes at the center riding a lion. Five smaller figures float above him, the center three are robed in yellow and kneel on pillows. Flanking them to the right and left are two deity figures surrounded by deep orange flames.



Detail, Tanka of Dorje Shugden.

Tibet MSS 62. Box 24

From the catalog: “A Tibetan watercolor painting on cotton that depicts Dorje Shugden below three lamas and two deities and above three deities, as well as flanked by three smaller figures. Inscriptions in Tibetan on verso. The tanka includes a silk cover and ribbons.”

Tibet MSS 62, Box 72. Tanka painting mounted on dark colored fabric support. A figure is seated in the center of the painting, adorned with gold details. Six smaller figures, three above and three below, surround the central subject.

Tanka of Vajrasattva.

Tibet MSS 62, Box 72. 

From the catalog: “A Tibetan watercolor painting on cotton that depicts Vajrasattva seated on a lotus holding a vajra (dorje) and ghanta (bell), below three smaller figures: a lama, Adi-Buddha, and Atiśa Dipankara Shrijnana, as well as above three protective divinities: Palden Lhamo, Mahākāla, and Yama.”

More on the Yale Tanka Collection 

The tanka collection at Yale has been extensively digitized and a number of resource guides have been created. The Yale University Library Guide is particularly detailed and features a videos, links to digital exhibitions, and descriptions of further highlights of the collection. 

Links to Yale Resources 

Yale University Library Guide 

More on the Beinecke Tanka Collection

Yale Archives Resources

Slideshow: Tibetan Selections from Other Collections Around Yale

External Links and Further Resources

Buddhist Digital Resource Center
Christies Feature on Tankas
The Field Museum on Tanka Conservation
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Collection
The Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Thangka Collection

Jacinta Boon Nee Loh, “Decision From Indecision: Conservation of Thangka Significance, Perspectives and Approaches”, in Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, vol. 8, 2002-11-01

Joshua Goldberg. Tibetan Tankas: the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona, December 6 1980. Tuscon, Ariz.: The Museum, 1980.

Laura Harrington. “Crossing the great divide: ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in Tibetan Buddhist art.” In Material Religion Vol. 4, issue 1. Mar. 2008.

John C. Huntington and Dina Bangdel. The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. Serindia Publications, 2003.

David P. Jackson, History of Tibetan Painting; The Great Tibetan Painters and Their Traditions, 1995.

——————– Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods & Materials. 2nd rev. Edition. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2006, 1984.

Steven M. Kossak, Jane Casey Singer, with essay by Robert Bruce-Gardner. Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.