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In one of the halls of the crowded National Art Museum of China sits a young Tibetan painting a thangka. His name is Dargye Sangpo, and he is considered one of the most outstanding working thangka artists in China today. He was invited by organizers of the exhibition “Heavenly Thangka” to work and display the fruits of his labor all in one place.
A traditional art of Tibetans, thangka displays Buddha images, legendary stories, history, medicine, life and production methods of the ethnic group. “For occasions like funerals, weddings and festivals, we usually have thangka painted,” explains Lhaba Tsering, secretary-general of the Tibetan Artists Association. “When someone dies, his family finds an astrologist to decide which Buddha to paint before going to the painter.”
Closely tied to religion, thangka was once mainly painted by monks. They would spend months or even years producing the Buddha images for worship. But there are also some thangka painters like young Dargye Sangpo who come from poor families, and learn thangka in the hope of making a living. Those studying the craft don’t have to pay tuition, but they do have to feed themselves and help with chores. Learning thangka is a hard and time-consuming process, often lasting several years or even decades.
Actually, seven years had passed until Dargye Sangpo finished his first independent work, which won the gold prize at the first Thangka Art Festival. “A good thangka painter must be a pious disciple of Buddhism and seek great religious and artistic accomplishments,” says Lhaba Tsering.
For Dargye Sangpo, painting thangka is a sacred ritual akin to a pilgrimage. Before he paints, he washes his hands clean. While working, he neither eats nor drinks. Thangka painting has strict guidelines for proportions. “If I fail to follow those rules exactly, not only will the painting be considered bad, but it will also disrespect Buddha and be a sin,” stresses Sangpo.