In the general distribution of figures within the tangka, the center is usually occupied by the main figure; the top portion by honored teachers and favorite deities of the main figure; and the bottom portion by protectors of the faith, most often in their wrathful shapes. Light within the painting either lacks any identifiable source or emanates from the deities themselves. The treatment of space and of size relationships is handled as a free field where anything is possible.
Tibetan art cannot be fully understood without knowledge of the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism. The iconography can be quite complex. For those who have not been exposed to the Buddhist pantheon, the list below provides some definitions and categories. For additional information, see the bibliography or go to Himalayan Art Resources.
- Arhats are Buddhist saints representing the earliest disciples of the Buddha who have been charged with preaching the law of the Buddha. In the Himalayas and India, they are depicted in a group of 16; in China, there are usually 18 arhats or lohan (tangka 17452, tangka 17474, tangka 17480).
- Buddha: "Enlightened one," state of being enlightened.
- Buddha Shakyamuni (Tibetan sha kya tu pa) is the historical Buddha who lived in the sixth to fifth centuries BCE (his precise dates are still debated) (tangka 17451, tangka 17452, tangka 17467). He was Prince Siddartha of the Shakya tribe and his clan name was Gautama. In tangka art he is often depicted seated with his right leg over the left (vajra paryanka), at the moment of enlightenment, as indicated by his right hand in the earth-touching gesture, calling the earth to witness (bhumisparsa mudra), and his left hand resting on his lap in the gesture of meditation. On the top of his head is a protuberance that appears to be a hair bun topped by a gold ornament. He is usually depicted in patchwork robes, and sits atop a moon disc resting on a lotus blossom.
- Many Buddhas other than Sakyamuni are also depicted in tangka
art. Examples in the present collection include:
- Amitayus/Amitabha (tangka 17457, tangka 17460). In art depictions, this Buddha takes two forms. As Amitabha ("Infinite Life"), he is red and is shown in meditation posture, wearing the patchwork robes of a monk. As Amitayus ("Eternal Life"), he wears the jeweled ornaments and garments of a peaceful god.
- Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha (tangka 17459, tangka 17451, tangka 17462); dark blue in color and holds a fruit of the myrobalan plant, the emblem of healing.
- The thirty-five Buddhas of Confession (tangka 17495);
- and others representing different aspects of Buddhahood. Each Buddha is usually flanked by a pair of Bodhisattvas, or a pair of disciples in the case of Shakyamuni.
- Bodhisattvas are portrayed in the tangkas in both human and supernatural forms. A Bodhisattva is on the verge of Buddhahood, but has put off the final step of absorption with the infinite in order to stay and help the living. Tangka 17462 shows the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara as Aryavalokiteshvara, a form that dramatizes his qualities of all-seeing mercy. His eleven heads and his thousand arms, with an eye in the palm of each hand, represent this all-seeing, infinite compassion. Other Bodhisattvas in this collection include Manjushri (tangka 17462, tangka 17492), who represents infinite wisdom, and Tara (tangka 17458, tangka 17467, tangka 17497), the patron goddess of Tibet.
- Dakinis are female spirits or deities, many of them fierce, some with animal heads, who are usually portrayed in a dancing pose (tangka 17463).
- Dharmapalas, "Protectors of the Dharma," are deities committed to the protection of the Buddhist religion and its practitioners. They take ferocious forms, which can be found in a temple devoted to their worship. A few of the most powerful ones frequently depicted are Palden Lhamo (tangka 17454, tangka 17463), Mahakala (tangka 17477), Vaishravana, Yama, and Begtse Chen (tangka 17455, tangka 17456).
- Founders of Tibetan Buddhist sects are often depicted in tangkas. The three most commonly illustrated are Padmasambhava, the original founder of Tibetan Buddhism and thus the founder of the Nyingmapa sect (tangka 17467, tangka 17486); Atisa (982-1054), the founder of the Kadampa sect; and Tsongkapa (1356-1419), the founder of the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect (tangka 17467, tangka 17478, tangka 17498).
- Mandala: complex circular cosmological diagram that represents the universe (tangka 17471, tangka 17476).
- Mudras are hand gestures that signify certain actions.
- Bhumisparsa mudra is the earth-touching gesture, done in a seated position with the right arm straight down, hand open with the palm inward and fingers extended as if touching the ground (tangka 17467). When the Budhha gained enlightenment, despite the forces of Mara, who tried to distract him from his goal, he called on the earth with this gesture to be his witness to the deeds that made him deserving of enlightenment.
- Dharmachakra mudra represents the turning of the wheel of the law or teaching. It is done with both hands in front of the chest, with fingers pointing upward, right hand palm-outward, left hand palm-inward and partially covering the right hand (tangka 17467).
- Varada mudra is the gesture of wish bestowing or gift giving. The arm down and forward, the palm of the opened hand faces outward and is extended toward the viewer as if offering something (tangka 17464).
- Abhaya mudra is a gesture of assurance, "fear not." The hand is held with fingers upward and open palm facing the viewer (tangka 17464).
- Anjali mudra is a gesture of reverence that resembles the Western gesture of prayer. Both hands are held in front of the chest with fingers pointing upward and palms touching each other (tangka 17467).
- Dhyana mudra is a gesture of meditation. Hands lie in the lap palms upward, open, and overlapping. Sometimes a begging bowl or other object rests on the palms of the hands (tangka 17457).
- Siddhas are Tantric adepts, practitioners who have achieved the goals of their meditation. The 84 mahasiddhas ("Great adepts") are the principal teachers of Hindu and Buddhist tantra (tangka 17463, tangka 17476).
- Vajra: a lightning bolt; scepter, signifying the invincible quality of the Tantric path. As a Buddhist scepter, it is a small metal object with bent prongs on each end, usually accompanied by a bell (ghanta) with half vajra handle (tangka 17484, tangka 17463).
- Yab yum is a term used to designate a god and goddess portrayed in sexual union, a union used as a symbol to represent the most intimate relation between two opposites, and to express the basic unity and harmony that results.