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Tibetan Buddhist Thangkas

Unique religious paintings on cotton, with Chinese brocade borders

The twelve Thangka paintings on show at the Albert Bender exhibition are part of a wider collection comprising twenty-one that illustrate the Arhats (disciples) of Buddha, and the Four Guardians of the Four Quarters of the World.

When they were acquired by the National Museum of Ireland in 1932, they were stated as having come from a single temple. Such a collection of Thangkas is rare.

What is a Thangka?

Thangkas perform several functions in Tibetan Buddhism. Images of deities can be used as teaching tools. These images also act as a central focus during a ritual or ceremony and as a medium through which one can offer prayer and make requests to the divine.

One or more persons may work on a single Thangka. The master draws the outline, while assistants may do the colouring. The large size and iconographical complexity of the Bender Collection’s Thangkas would have required the efforts of several artists.

Often seen by many as colourful wall hangings, to Tibetan Buddhists these religious paintings contain a beauty, believed to be a representation of the divine, and are as a result visually stimulating.

Examples of Thangkas in the Albert Bender Collection

Angaja (Tibetan: Yan lag ‘byung)

His name translates in Tibetan as ‘partly born’ because he was born from his dead mother’s body after flames consumed her. He is believed to live in a place called Mount Kailash with 1,300 arhats. Angaja is noted for the cleanness and fragrance of his body.
Two objects are portrayed alongside him, a fly-whisk made from animal tail and an incense bowl. He is portrayed in other images as an old man with a staff and a book containing Indian writing.

Bhadra (Tibetan: bZang po)

His name translates as ‘good’. According to Buddhist belief Bhadra is the son of the charioteer of King Suddhodana, Buddha Shakyamuni’s father. He lives on an island in the River Yamuna, India with 1,200 arhats.

Bhadra was renowned for his preaching, which was in clear and simple language. Therefore, he is represented in an attitude of worship or as holding a book. Other illustrations of Bhadra sometimes portray him accompanied by a tiger, which he attempts to restrain.

Upasaka Dharmatala (Tibetan: dGe bsnyen dhar ma ta la)

His name translates as ‘one who increases Buddha’s teachings’. He is found only in the Chinese and Tibetan series of Eighteen Arhats, and is regarded as a layman who was servant to the original Indian group of Sixteen Arhats. He is renowned for his wisdom and learning and is characterised by long hair tied on the top of his head.

A vase and fly-whisk are held in his hands, and a tiger accompanies him to his right hand side. In this Thangka he is seated before a representation of the Buddha Amitabha.

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