T H A N G K A A P P L I Q U E
Thangka applique is a technique of creating thangkas using not paint, but precious silk. Just like thangka paintings, thangka applique is a sacred art, and appliqués follow the iconography for Buddhist deities as laid down Buddhist scripture. The art of appliqué first began among the Huns of Central Asia to embroider saddle blankets. Gradually, it spread east across the Silk Road, and was adopted by Tibetans as a religious art.
Some appliqued thangkas, called kyigus, can be many stories high. The largest, which hang down the face of the Potala, can be over one hundred feet in length. Traditionally, these are only brought out on special religious occasions, and the rest of the year are kept safely stored away. These thangkas are considered great treasures and are so well cared for that within living memory, silk thangkas have still existed that dated back to the 13th century.
A completed thangka is composed of hundreds, if not thousands, of individually embroidered pieces, each outlined by a border of horsehair wrapped in silk thread. This type of embroidery, called couching, is different from other methods in that the design is not embroidered directly onto the fabric, but rather, the cord of horsehair and silk is "couched" over the fabric to create the design. Once all of the pieces are finished, they are assembled and hand-sewn onto a base to form the design. This layering technique creates an extremely durable piece, while the horsehair gives the thangka strength and allows it to adjust to different environments without losing its shape. A completed thangka is the product of many months of work and the care of many artists.
Traditionally, thangka applique was an art practiced by the most skilled tailors. The tailors were given the layout of the thangkas by thangka artists, who sketched the design using the correct proportions for each deity, as specified by Buddhist scripture. The tailors could then use this sketch as a blueprint to create the thangka. They were extremely skilled in stitching, but as they had not studied Buddhist iconography, had to rely on thangka artists to produce a complete creation.
Norbulingka’s thangka painting master Temba Chophël, who studied for a brief time under the 13th Dalai Lama’s master tailor, was skilled in the arts of both sewing and painting. He had the innovative idea to combine knowledge of iconography with knowledge of stitching, thus creating a new tradition of specialized thangka appliqué artists here at our Institute.
The largest thangka the Norbulingka team has created is 14ft high and currently hangs in our temple, the Deden Tusklakhang. It is a must-see for any visitor to the Institute.
For those who wish to learn the art of appliqué, Norbulingka offers workshops ranging from one day to several months. Courses are designed based on the time and interest of individuals and groups. They are a great way to learn more about the sophistication of Tibetan culture and students will leave with a beautiful piece of their own.
Tempa Chophel, Late Thangka Master
Tsultrim Gyatso, Thangka Applique Master