The Koelz Collection of Himalayan Art

Tangka Paintings


A tangka (also spelled thangka, tanka) is a portable religious painting on cloth. The tangkas in this exhibition were used in Tibetan Buddhist religious practices. The paintings depict the historical Buddha and his disciples, other Buddhas and bodhisattvas, historical figures, wrathful deities, and mandalas or cosmic palaces. The paintings are part of a larger array of efficacious religious art that also includes murals, sculpture, and other portable objects. They were commissioned by individuals and monasteries and would have served as teaching devices, objects of devotion, and aids used by devotees to focus attention during meditation.

In this exhibition, we feature 58 Buddhist tangkas in the Museum of Anthropology collections. All were collected by Walter N. Koelz during his travels in the Western Himalayas in the 1930s. Although the region he visited was formally part of British India, and now lies in the modern states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, culturally and historically this area lay within the western territories of Tibet. The majority of its inhabitants belonged to the various sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

Map of Western Himalaya

Map depicting Koelz's route from June 27 through December 3, 1933. The dates reference stopping points on his route; monasteries where Koelz acquired tangkas are marked.

The largest grouping of paintings shown here consists of the 48 tangkas in the Museum's Koelz Collection. These were acquired specifically for the University during the 1932—1934 University of Michigan Himalayan Expedition. Koelz wrote about acquiring these paintings and other objects in the collection in the diary that he kept throughout his travels. His records make it possible to identify precisely where he collected each painting and, in many cases, tell us something about the nature of the transactions through which these sacred objects came into his possession. The largest grouping of paintings comes from Ladakh; there are also tangkas from Zanskar, Spiti, and Kinnaur.

The iconography of the paintings reveals some of the complex histories of artistic development in the Western Himalayan region, whose residents interacted with Tibet to the east, Nepal to the southeast, the Kashmir Valley to the west, lowland regions of India to the south, and Central Asia to the north. Chronological and stylistic study of the paintings draws on comparisons with well-known dated tangka paintings, original wall paintings found in situ in dated buildings, historical and literary sources, and studies of individual design elements and the raw materials used in paintings.

In addition to the tangkas in the Koelz Collection, this exhibition features paintings that were collected by Koelz but were donated to the museum by other individuals who had acquired them either directly or indirectly from him. These paintings include the three tangkas in the Lauff Collection, three from the Bartlett Collection, and four donated by former University of Michigan President Alexander Ruthven and his wife Florence. Unlike the paintings donated directly by Koelz, we do not currently have any information on the collecting locations of these paintings. Koelz also had a large personal art collection, including dozens more tangkas. These were auctioned off after his death and are now dispersed in private homes and museum collections around the world.

Viewed as an entire collection, the paintings and other objects collected by Koelz speak to the complex history of collecting in late colonial India. These are sacred objects that were not intended to be sold or removed from their original context. Koelz' recently published diary reveals the complex and often disturbing stories of poverty, bribery, coercion, and corruption that transformed these sacred objects into commodities, and resulted in their removal from South Asia and their arrival in Ann Arbor.

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