Characteristics of Tibetan Art – a psychological and meditational practice
Tibetan arts started from the rock paintings in ancient time and its subjects ranged from animal images of deer, ox, sheep, horse, etc to hunting scenes. Tibetan arts have flourished very well during the period of the Tubo Kingdom. Especially after the installation of Buddhism in Tibet, religious paintings made a more progress.
Table of Contents
- 1 - Introduction to Tibetan Art
- 2 - Tibetan Buddhist Art
- 3 - Types of Tibetan Murals
Introduction to Tibetan Art
The heritage of conventional Tibetan crafts and the fusion of India, Nepal and Han People’s art essence make Tibetan arts outstand in the world. Tourists can get a wide view of Tibet arts through stone and rock inscriptions, murals, frescos, sand mandala, and precious Thangkas.
As a kind of folk art, Tibetan inscriptions is Tibetan culture in miniature. It records the last days of the Tibetan area and people’s life. The contents in stone and rock inscriptions have covered Tibetan daily necessities, fairy gods, Bon religion, folk legend, historical pictures, and Tibetan Buddhism, etc. Three typical representatives of Tibetan rock carvings are really worth your visit, namely, Ritu Rock Carving in Ngari, Yaowangshan Rock Carving in Lhasa and Zaxi Cave Rock Carving in Nagqu.
Tibetan wall paintings and frescos are the actual pictures of Tibetan legacy, from which you can find the trace of Tibetan politics, economy, culture, customs, and medicine. And it also has liberal subjects, including Buddhist teachings, fairy tales, local lives, natural scenery, etc. The best place to enjoy Tibetan murals is Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and Ruins of Guge Kingdom.
Different from oil paintings Tibetan arts are made on clothes of silk, brocade, and paper. Most of them focus on Tibetan religions, represent the life of Buddha and historical stories of important Lamas. While joining Buddha presentation Festival in Tashilhunpo Monastery, you’ll understand how important Thangka it is to local Tibetans
Tibetan Buddhist Art
Tibetan monasteries contain thousands of frescoes and idols of Buddha and Buddhist gods such as the eleven-headed Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist god mercy. Many of the frescoes describe episodes from Buddha’s life, whose aim in part is to educate the unlearned the same way painting of Christ and the saints in European Christian churches tries to do.
Kathryn Selig Brown wrote in the Metropolitan Museum of Art website: Although Tibet’s vast geographic area and its many adjacent neighbors—India and Kashmir, Nepal, the northern regions of Burma (Myanmar), China, and Central Asia (Khotan)—are reflected in the rich stylistic diversity of Tibetan Buddhist art, during the late eleventh and early twelfth century, Pala India became the main source of artistic influence. In the thirteenth century and thereafter, Nepalese artists were also commissioned to paint thankas and make sculptures for Tibetan patrons. By the fourteenth century, stylistic influences from Nepal and China became dominant and in the fifteenth century, these fused into a truly Tibetan synthesis.
“Although numerous monks were artists, there were also lay artists who traveled from monastery to monastery and, with a few exceptions, it is difficult to assign a particular style to a monastery or sect. Most artists were anonymous and rarely signed their works, although names have survived in texts, in murals on monastery walls, and on some thankas and bronzes. In addition to Tibetan artists, the names of Indian, Nepalese, Central Asian, and Chinese artists were recorded.
Kathryn Selig Brown wrote in the Metropolitan Museum of Art website:
“Many sculptures and paintings were made as aids for Buddhist meditation. The physical image became a base to support or encourage the presence of the divinity portrayed in the mind of the worshipper. Images were also commissioned for any number of reasons, including celebrating a birth, commemorating a death, and encouraging wealth, good health, or longevity. Buddhists believe that commissioning an image brings merit for the donor as well as to all conscious beings. Images in temples and in household shrines also remind lay people that they too can achieve enlightenment.”
Purpose of Tibetan Religious Art
Tibetan fresco, 1000 BuddhasIn Tibetan art the emphasis is placed on the “sacred process” and devotional aspects of the work rather than the aesthetic qualities and originality of the finished product as is often the case with Western art. Most works are done anonymously. Personal expression and the selling of Tibetan art is frowned upon.
Tibetan art is expected to be a tool for enlightenment rather an expression of the self.
John Listopadm an expert on Tibetan art told the Los Angeles Times,
Many works of Tibetan Buddhist art are connected with Tantric rituals and are regarded as tools for meditation and worship. Some art objects can he touched, owned, held and moved. Others are meant to be meditated on. These incorporate a “Circle of Bliss” a sharing of power between the observer and the work of art.
Most Tibetan painting is in the form of murals and frescoes painted on monastery walls. They depict bodhisattvas, scenes from the life of Buddha, Tibetan gods, portraits of famous lamas, asparas (angels) and demonlike dharmpalas stomping on human bodies. Many are intended to be used as meditation aids.
Tibetan painting has been influenced by art from China, Central Asia, and Nepal but is regarded as closest to the original Buddhist art that evolved in India but is now all but lost. The composition of paintings is often the same: a central image of Buddha, surrounded by smaller, lesser deities. Above the central figure is a supreme Buddha from which the central figure emanated.
See Monasteries, See Places.
Some of the best frescoes are seen outside of Tibet in places like Mustang in Nepal and Ladakh in India. Many frescoes in Tibet were either lost or badly damaged in the Cultural Revolution.
Rutog Rock Paintings in Western Tibet
The famous bird-observing site, Pangongcuo Lake, is surrounded by rocks on which there are many paintings. They are the well-known Rutog rock paintings in western Tibet. Some of them are on the rocks beside the road. You can easily see them in your car if you travel to Ngari, west Tibet. But these have been painted relatively recently. You should get off the road to view the ancient rock paintings at Rutog.
In recent decades, people found a large number of rock paintings in the Gerze, Ge’gyai, and Rutog counties. Some of them are found in higher elevations in western and northern Tibet. They consist mainly of deep and shallow lines carved on stones with harder rocks or other hard objects. Some images have been painted in rich colors. The most beautiful rock paintings in about a dozen places in the Rutog County. Among them, those in the Risum Rimodong and Lorinaka are both large in size and great in number. Their artistic value is important but as of is not completely understood and is not even really known how old they are although they are believed to be very ancient.
In ancient times, Tibetan people used the stone inscriptions to describe and record their way of life. The content of the Rutog rock paintings are very rich, including images of hunting, religious rituals, riding, domestic animal herding, and farming, and objects like the sun and moon, mountains, yaks, horses, sheep, donkeys, antelopes, houses and human figures.
The capital of the ancient Xiangxiong Kingdom was also in the Ngari. Xiangxiong writing is a special form of writing created by the ancestors of the Tibetan ethnic group. This kind of writing is significant as it appeared before Tibetan writing. Thus, the rock paintings here are very important to study the history, culture and early human life in Ngari, as well as the whole region of Tibet.
Tibetan Mural Painting
Tibetan mural painting traditions grew out Tibet’s indigenous religion, Bon, and Tibetan Buddhism but also incorporate features from the religious and artistic traditions of India and Nepal. While the majority of the murals center on religious aspects of Tibetan culture, others portray historical figures or social activities. As many of these murals are religious in nature, murals are concentrated in temples, the holiest sites in Tibet, although they may be seen anywhere.
Tibetan murals contain rich content, involving religion, politics, history, economy, culture, Tibetan medicine, and social life. Any of the Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist messages, fairy tales, history stories, daily living scenes, mountains and rivers, birds and flowers, patterns and adornment can be adopted into a wall painting, which has a unique style. It uses cold and dark colors, such as black, dark blue, mauve, dark grey, brown and white; drawing with lines, especially plain lines; simple, rough and sparse outlines. It has the same style of art as the atmosphere of the monastery and contains exaggerated and distorted art images.
Brightly colored wall paintings can be found everywhere in Tibetan monasteries. Some of them are more than 1300 years old. As it is recorded in Tibetan history, in the year when Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetan king, inherited the throne, it is said he saw Sakyamuni, Horse-necked Diamond King, Tara, Stationary Vajrapani, and the four Buddhas. He told the Nepali artisan, Ciba, to carve the four Buddhas into a rock wall and paint them. This is the earliest wall painting and sculpture.
History of Tibetan Mural Painting
Some of the earliest Tibetan murals and Buddhist paintings are found in caves and thus it can be argued that the art form evolved from early rock paintings. Early rock paintings found in Tibet consisting mainly of the animal images of deer, ox, sheep, horses, and hunting scenes. Rock painting was quite developed in ancient times, especially after Buddhism arrived, and religious painting was further developed.
Tibetan mural experienced two periods. The first period starts after Songtsen Gampo became the king. Because he married a Khridzun princess of Nepal, and a Wenchen princess of the Tang Dynasty who brought Buddhist statues and Buddhist scriptures, he built Jokhang Monastery and Romoche Monastery, which affected the development of wall painting. The figures in the wall paintings of that period are chubby and painted with simple color, which is close to the artworks at Dunhuang by Bei Wei and the beginning of the Tang Dynasty.
The second period started around 10 century A.C. when the initiator of the Yellow sect, Zongkapa, reformed the religion. Yellow sects grew rapidly as the predominant religion. The number of yellow sect monasteries increased to 3000. During that period, the political and religious leaders collected many folk painters to complete wall painting jobs, and let them run in the families. That is the most splendid period of wall painting. The painters gave human life to the statue of Buddha through art, which makes the statue look faithful, handsome, merciful, charming, fiery and forthright. Such works exist as the picture-story book in all the monasteries. Each of these images has distinct features that can be easily recognized by someone who knows a little bit of Tibetan culture.
Types of Tibetan Murals
Murals in Tibet focus primarily on religion. Although some early murals devoted to Bon still exist, most of the contemporary murals depict various aspects of Buddhism. The most popular murals are of religious figures, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Guardians of Buddhist Doctrines, Taras in the sutras, or Buddhist masters. In these paintings, there is always ahead deity or human, who is usually surrounded by some other deities or humans. If the central figure is featured alone, his surroundings are extravagantly detailed. Jokhang Temple and Tashilhunpo Monastery have built special courtyards dedicated to this type of mural painting.
In addition to the murals of religious figures, there are also some that focus on religious activities, such as debating sutras, Changmo Dance, the Buddhist cosmologic mandalas, and other Buddhist morality tales. In certain temples, chains of pictures illustrate Tibetan legends or follow the lives of religious figures like Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. One of the most famous legends about the Tibetan ancestors – a monkey and a Raksasi – is told in the murals of Potala Palace and Norbulingka.
Based on the history of Tibet, these murals depict key historical figures and events. There are paintings of ancient Tibetan kings, like Songtsen Gampo (617-650), Trisong Detsen (742-798) and Tri Ralph Chen (866-896) of Tubo Kingdom, as well as their famous concubines, Princess Wencheng and Princess Jincheng of Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Their stories are told through the series of pictures in Potala, Jokhang, and Norbulingka. In Potala, there are also chains of pictures about the biography of the 5th Dalai Lama, who had done much to facilitate the friendship of Tibet and the Chinese central government. Two other historical murals of note: in Ruins of Guge Kingdom there are a series of murals about the rise and down of Tubo Kingdom; and an impressive mural in Norbulingka provides a brief illustration of the entire Tibetan history, from the origination of Tibetans to the 14th Dalai Lama’s meeting with Chairman Mao.
Some murals are neither religious nor historical, but rather feature the social life of Tibetans. For example, in Jokhang Temple, there is a group of jubilation murals that show people singing, dancing, playing musical instruments and engaging in sporting matches. In Potala and Samye Monastery, murals of folk sports activities and acrobatics can also be seen.
In addition, many large palaces or temples in Tibet feature murals that describe their entire architectural design and construction process. These murals can be found in Potala, Jokhang, Samye Temple, Sakya Monastery and other famous buildings in Tibet.
Whether religious, historical or social, all of the murals are elaborate and detailed pieces created by expert artists. In some cases, strict guidelines define the correct way that a key figure should be depicted, so the artist must use his artistic talents to impart subtle differences that make the mural unique from others that feature the same figure. Colors must be applied properly to make sure the murals do not fade excessively over time.
Donggar Frescos in Western Tibet
The vast stretches of the Ngari region in western Tibet is the birthplace of the Bon Religion and the home of the capitals of the ancient Xiangxiong and Guge kingdoms. The region is also the home of some of Tibet’s oldest art: the Donggar frescos and Rutog rock paintings. Discovered relatively recently, these 1000-year-old frescoes are among the oldest Buddhist art in Tibet and were produced when the small Guge Kingdom was the main cultural center in Tibet.
Donggar, located in Zhada County, is a small village with only a dozen households. It is about 40 kilometers northwest of the ruins of the Guge Kingdom. Many important archeological discoveries have been made. Two grottos—one discovered on the cliff near the Donggar village, and the other near neighboring Piyang Village—are the largest known Buddhist caves in Tibet.
Donggar frescos are housed in three caves. The caves are located halfway up the mountain. Since no records are left, much about them remains a cultural mystery. The craftsmanship is of a high quality. They were well knitted with smooth, easy lines, using bright colors and unique designs. The contents include exotic figures, patterns, and designs. They are in amazingly good condition: almost a good as those in Mogao Caves in Dunhuang. People think the special mineral-based paints is one of the secrets to their longevity.
Figures of Buddha are the main images of the frescos. There are also images of Bodhisattvas, protectors of Dharma, and men with unnatural strength. The frescos also depict legendary stories about Buddhism. We can also find pictures expounding on Buddhist texts, and pictures of people worshipping Buddha. Other images include various decorations like peacocks, dragon fish, twin dragons, two phoenixes standing opposite each other, and the Tantric Mandala. There are foreign animals in the frescos, like the dragon, phoenix, lion, horse, sheep, cattle, wild goose, duck, and elephant. The most common images are apsaras—heavenly girls—a sign of Indian influence.
The universe described in the Donggar frescos is both colorful and figurative. Preliminary investigation indicates different types of cave groups. There are caves for worshipping Buddha, caves for monks and caves for the storage of sundry objects. In the caves for worshipping Buddha, we can find the most exquisite and marvelous frescos. In order to protect these precious frescos, the public is not allowed to get close to the frescos.