Exploring the Symbolism of Tibetan Thangka Painting

A Thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist scroll painting, often including Buddhas or mandalas.

Thangka is a Tibetan word which is often translated as ‘recorded message’. They communicate a message to the Buddhist practitioner. A thangka painting serves as an aid to teaching, as each detail is filled with meaning and refers to parts of Buddhist philosophy. A Buddha painting can also help to develop a practitioners Tibetan Buddhist meditation as it shows you how to visualize the deity.


Thangka paintings perform several different functions:

  • Images of deities can be used as teaching tools when depicting the life (or lives) of the Buddha.

  • They describe historical events concerning important Lamas

  • They often retell myths associated with other deities.

  • Devotional images act as the centerpiece during a ritual or ceremony and are often used as mediums through which one can offer prayers or make requests.

Overall, and perhaps most importantly, religious art is used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path to enlightenment. The Buddhist Vajrayana practitioner uses a Thangka image of their yidam, or meditation deity, as a guide, by visualizing themselves as being that deity, thereby internalizing the Buddha qualities. Thangkas hang on or beside altars, and may be hung in the bedrooms or offices of monks and other devotees.

Thangka often overflow with symbolism and allusion.

Because the art is explicitly traditional, all symbols and allusions must be in accordance with strict guidelines laid out in Buddhist scripture. The artist must be properly trained and have sufficient religious understanding, knowledge, and background to create an accurate and appropriate Thangka.

Here are some common Buddhist symbols often found in Tibetan Thangka Art!

Learn to paint your own Thankas in our upcoming workshop series. More details here!


Treasure Vase

The treasure vase with flaming jewels symbolizes Buddha’s dharma teachings, which, despite being shared with others, never lessen in value. It also more broadly represents long life, health, wealth, prosperity, and other benefits in this world.


Conch Shell

The reverberation of a conch shell is said to symbolize the deep, melodic, far-reaching sound of the dharma, the Buddha's teachings, that awakens spiritual disciples from ignorance.


Victory Banner

The victory banner is depicted using four colored panels of cloth that represent Buddha’s victory over four maras, or hindering forces, in the path to enlightenment: pride, desire, disturbing emotions, and fear of death.


Lotus Flower

The lotus is often understood as a symbol of spiritual purity. The blooming of a lotus is said to mimic the Buddhist eightfold path — it grows from the mud (the cycle of life), it appears clean on the surface and floats above the mud (purification), before finally producing a beautiful flower (enlightenment).



The parasol is a symbol for protection from harmful forces and a place to take refuge the way followers take refuge in the dharma.


Varada Mudra

This mudra symbolizes charity and compassion. It is the gesture of the accomplishment of the wish to devote oneself to human salvation.


Vitarka Mudra

In Sanskrit, vitarka means applied thought or reasoning. The mudra is often considered to be the gesture of discussion or debate. Here, we have a lama with his right hand up and with his thumb touching his index finger, indicating he is teaching.




With all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground, this hand gesture symbolizes the Buddha's summoning Sthavara, the earth goddess, to witness his defeat of mara (the hindering force) that will be followed by his attainment of enlightenment.


Dhyana Mudra

This gesture is often associated with meditation, representing the supremacy of an enlightened mind and wisdom.