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Learning to make traditional Tibetan thangka in Shangri-la

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During my summer trip to Shangri-la (香格里拉), I was lucky enough to come across the reopening ceremony of the Shangri-la Thangka Institute (香格里拉唐卡画院). The building is located in the old part of the city, which was largely destroyed during a fire in 2014. I went right in and fell in love with the place. I asked the founder if they accepted foreign students and he explained he would be glad to. As an added bonus, there wouldn't be any tuition if I could help him translate from Chinese into English.

So in September, the decision was made, and accompanied by a friend, I took a flight to Shangri-la to spend a month at the Thangka Institute. It was the time right after the Mid-Autumn Festival holiday, and all the tourists had left town. The town welcomed us with the slow pace of life which you can only find in Yunnan.

I didn't have many expectations about my course of study — I just hoped to make some progress in drawing and experience a new part of Chinese culture. When we arrived, Kelsang Dawa, the owner, wasn't there. We were welcomed instead by an artist named Zhou Tai. "Zha xi de lei" (扎西德勒)!" he said. It was the first thing we learned — a greeting in Tibetan.

Zhou Tai turned out to be one of the most positive people I've ever met. Every day from early morning until late at night he was there drawing. Most of the time he had his earphones in listening to Buddhist mantras or Tibetan rap. Once in while he would look at us, smile, lick the tiny brush he was using, warm up the paint with his lighter and then dive back into drawing.

He gave us a book opened to a page depicting the Buddha's body and told us to copy it exactly. We were a bit surprised. It looked impossibly difficult, with millions of tiny details. Zhou Tai patiently explained how to draw proportionally without the use of a ruler to create the proper images — that's how he had learned from the monk who was his master. I had a very strange feeling on the first day — I was trying to draw, but couldn't calm myself down. Thoughts were thrilling in my head, we talked a lot and every half an hour we went out to get water. That day was so different from the ones that followed.

As we realized later, the reason why Buddha and other deities look so similar in paintings — even those created in countries very far from each other — is because of the ancient thangka-making method. Just as with other kinds of Buddhist art, thangka are highly geometric. Every textbook contains the same first lesson, teaching initiates to use proper proportions laid out on a systematic grid of intersecting lines.

During the earliest stages of our education, we had to master proportions so perfectly that we could draw without any helping lines. Shapes, proportions, attributes, hand positions — they are all extremely important. Thangka is religious art and every detail you see represented is taken from Buddhist scriptures. It is required that artists draw and color according to the rules specified in these texts. Mainly the idea is to represent the physical body of the Buddha and his associated qualities, while sometimes depicting historical events concerning important lamas, or retelling myths associated with deities.

We learned that artists must study Buddhist philosophy extensively, especially focusing on all the symbols that are shown in thangka. As the teacher explained, it is an intrinsically spiritual art. You have to feel what you are drawing. It may be the same picture again and again, but the feeling that you get when looking at it is always different. And that's what the artist is expected to master.

Thangka were mainly used as tools in the past. They had two main purposes. The first is use during rituals as a way of visualizing the deities as guides on the path of enlightenment. This usually a very personal thing and, as such, the paintings are not supposed to be displayed all of the time. An exact translation of 'thangka' would be "a thing that one unrolls", and typically families own them, but rarely exhibit them.

The other traditional purpose of thangka was for use while teaching Tibetan Buddhism to young monks. By studying different scenes, initiates were expected to learn specific points of philosophy. We were very lucky regarding this, as during our stay teacher Dong was always with us. He is in charge of "talking and writing" at the institute. Everyday we had discussions with him, where he explained some basic principals of Buddhist philosophy which are presented in thangka.

There were many different thangka at the school. Most of them were made by artists in Qinghai, which is where the school's founder, Kelsang Dawa, was from. A monk since the age of seven, he spent twenty years in different monasteries mastering his drawing skills and learning philosophy before a pilgrimage brought him to Shangri-La, where he finally decided to stay.

As he says, the impetus for starting the school was mainly helping thangka artists from Qinghai — which is one of the least developed provinces in China — to make some money from selling their art. Usually the prices vary according to how detailed a thangka is. The ones painted in gold on black backgrounds are usually the most expensive, and prices can reach 20,000 yuan for a single piece.

When I just arrived at the institute I didn't believe it is possible to find customers willing to spend that amount of money. However, I once watched Zhou Tai help rich tourists choose a thangka. They simply asked for the most expensive ones, trying to choose between a painting of Guanyin — the goddess of mercy — and another of Caisheng — the god of prosperity. The problem was, they weren't looking at them as pieces of art, but as a a way to choose between love and money. Zhou Tai simply couldn't bare it and sarcastically scolded them, saying, "I don't think you should buy that one, take a look instead at the god of wisdom." We laughed about it for a long time.

It turned out to be a common situation — we would be sitting and drawing and tourists would come very close, stare at us, block the light and take pictures. It made us feel uncomfortable, and Zhou Tai would make smart little comments like "you don't care about culture, so we have only foreigners to teach".

An inner hall of the institute contains a collection of masterpieces, which are amazing in both size and quality. Some of them are already sold, but the owners feel it's better to leave them hanging in a public place so more people can see them. Monks often come and read their mantras in the hall, sitting or standing in front of works, some of which are several hundred years old.

One day Zhou Tai showed us the mineral powders the paint is made of. I volunteered to help prepare them without any idea how difficult it would be. The powder is first mixed with glue rendered form yak fat, which has an awful smell when you add heat. When warm, it has to be stirred until perfectly smooth. It takes hours, but is incredibly important to make it perfectly so it is properly sticky and lasts forever. When I tried doing it, I couldn't bear the smell and the little stick left blisters on my palm. In the end I could only finish mixing a little cup of red paint and was exhausted. In the same amount of time, Zhou Tai made several.

The best thing about being at the institute was the environment. Every day we studied in a traditional wooden building surrounded by beautiful pieces of art, which combined to create a powerful sense of spirituality. Drawing divine creatures, translating texts about thangka and the institute, having conversations about religion and philosophy — it was a great deep dive into Tibetan culture.

Monks came to the school on a daily basis. They liked talking to us, showing off their pictures and chatting. The feeling we got — concentrating on the tiny little details of a painting, trying to make everything perfect, listening to people praying — it was amazing!

When I look at my finished drawings now, they don't seem like something I made. The process was the point, simply going millimeter by millimeter, from one detail to the next. It was always a surprise when we looked at it after. Our instructors said thangka-making is a meditative art, and I totally agree. I couldn't think of much while drawing — my mind was empty of everything but a deep concentration.

Looking back at my time in Shangri-la, I have so many memories apart from being at the school — the wooden houses, little streets, locals wearing traditional outfits, cozy guesthouses and music everywhere. The people were amazing, smiling and trying to communicate, treating us like locals after meeting only a few times. When my month of study came to an end, I left with a warm feeling. The experience was far more than I ever expected. I did feel like a local, like a little part of something so great and beautiful.

Images: Sasha Degenina

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Wonderful news that the school has reopened. Thanks for the article. Sounds like you had a great time

Thanks. Some of those guys there great personalities and artists. Well worth it. The smiling Tibetan, overall, is a market cliché, but those guys are not brutal.

Wow. Thank you for sharing that incredibly interesting experience. I wonder if they accept short-term child students.

wow,that girl Anna

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