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I am not a lover of the ornate; it often strikes me as overly busy, fussy, and even messy. Nevertheless, I was strangely attracted to the Tibetan Buddhist paintings called thangkas that I saw all over Tibet. Is it the geometric nature of the design, the purpose behind the work, or the way they are created? I can’t explain why I like these somewhat garish compositions, but I do! I viewed hundreds of thangkas all over Tibet, in temples and shops, and at the end of my trip I took some time to pick one out to bring home.


Thangkas are meant to be a guide for personal contemplation, a meditation tool to help lead adherents down the path to enlightenment, and many thangkas serve as teaching tools for monastic students by depicting the life and history of the Buddha, other deities, and important lamas. As I watched some artists at work in a spare, sunlit room, I saw that many seemed to be in a meditative trance as they moved their tiny brushes in regular, repetitive strokes to produce the ornate scenes.

As you can see, thangkas are very elaborate compositions that may include hundreds of very small figures. The design of a thangka is highly geometric and symmetrical, often with a central deity surrounded by other figures. Body parts like arms and legs, eyes and ears, as well as other ritual implements are all laid out on a systematic grid. While the process seems very methodical and prescribed, it requires training and a deep understanding of the underlying symbolism to create an accurate and meaningful thangka. Like them or not, most would agree they are quite ornate and intricate pieces of art.