Thanka was the first thing I saw for the very first time I visited Nepal. I thought they were computer generated images. I didn’t pay them much attention. So uniform and exact, the lines were perfectly straight and the curves so consistent. Then I saw a lady painting one in front of a shop. I took a closer look and it dawned on me that these seemingly perfect images are in fact hand painted. The perfect lines and curves are all done by hand, with maybe just with the help of a ruler and compass.
The second time I was in Nepal I had several weeks to kill and not a lot of money left to spend. What should I do? Then I stumbled upon a Thanka shop in Boudha, facing the Stupa where I noticed a French girl sitting and drawing a Thanka. Quite excited at the prospect of having a go at one myself, I asked the shop assistants if I could have a go. They passed me onto the teacher. He spoke a little English but had one of his assistants with slightly better English who was on hand to help.
“How long you have?” he asked.
“Three weeks,” I replied thinking surely that this would be plenty of time.
“Normally month for small Thanka.” He looked at me and seeing how keen I was said, “Okay then.”
Perfect, I thought. Now I had something to do till my friend arrived to go trekking with. Easy!
Easy it was not, but I really, REALLY, I enjoyed the experience and the challenge. I could come and go as I pleased, and I chose to go in at 9am and leave when they were closing up in the evening. It was a really authentic experience. I sat on a cushion on the floor. They gave me a primed canvas and all the same tools and mineral paints that they use. After a couple of days when they figured that I was going to keep going with it, they offered me to lunch with them. Someone would come in with tea and chapattis, and whatever sauce and potato was to go with them. The food was sometimes very spicy. It was only after I took my first bite and didn’t react that laughing, they told me some people found the food too hot. They did have a wicked sense of humour! It was a good thing I had had several months to condition myself to the hot food. But having lunch with them there, and working at the painting all day like they did, really added to the whole experience.
Painting a Thanka in the traditional way was a privilege as I was able to gain a very good appreciation of how skilled as artists thanka painters are. While rulers and compasses are used to draw the pencil outline of the paintings, once you start painting, it’s all freehand. The brushes I was given were those that apprentices use. You only get to use the finer brushes when you are experienced. Using the not so fine brushes helps hone your skill and make you better, as it is harder, so my teacher the lama said. I did grumble a bit at first but was pleased that the lama told me to stick with it. He really was an excellent teacher. I like to draw and paint and was good enough at it to have been offered an unconditional place to study art at one of the London art colleges many moons ago. But this was such a humbling experience. It takes years of training to get to a top standard and I’ve no doubt not everyone who trains gets to the level of the lama who taught me. Looking my Thanka, at first glance, it looks okay, but when you look closely the only properly straight lines and smooth curves you can see were done by the lama when demonstrating to me!
The other thing I learned was how there is meaning to everything you paint in the Thanka. Every colour and every symbol painted has its own meaning. Thankas are complex, meaningful paintings that require great skill when producing the best. And doing the painting is a type of meditation in itself.
In the end, I spent 17 full days painting, so I didn’t completely finish it. I was very pleased when the lama said that ‘I’d done okay given I’d not had enough time.’ Praise indeed I thought. I also learnt a great deal more about a part of Nepali life and culture by having a go at doing something different. I learnt something about myself and what I could achieve if I set my mind to it. The time spent focused on the painting also enabled me to make big, well-thought-through decisions in my life. The experience for me was literally life changing.
You don’t need to have a history of being able to paint to have a go (although it may help). Attributes such as patience, focus and perseverance are much more helpful. And when you finish your Thanka (or like in my case, almost but not quite), being able to appreciate what you’ve done and love every ‘not straight’ line that looks straight to all your friends, but to the lama has more bends in it than the devil’s staircase, is very, very satisfying. Painting a Thanka was for me one of the best ways to meditate too. A journey of a different kind.
Author of this article is Jess Tyler