Thankas are a type of Tibetan Buddhist paintings usually painted on cotton or silk, depicting a Buddhist deity, scene from the Buddhist scriptures or a mandala. Treated properly, kept in a dry place where moisture doesn’t affect the silk, they can last for a very long time. Most of them are very small and designed to be displayed in monasteries walls and during religious festivals for a short time. They are also intended for personal meditation of monastic students. They serve as important tools that aid the teaching process about the life of the Buddha, influencial lamas or other deities and boddhisattvas. One usual subject is The Wheel of Life (Bhavachakra), which is a visual representation of the Abhidharma teachings (Art of Enlightenment). 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.
As Buddhism is quite prevalent in Nepal, thankas can be found in various places in the country where Buddhism is practices. The oldest surviving thanka paintings in Nepal date to about the 14th century AD, but this is probably well after Buddhists and Hindus began to make illustrations of the deities and natural scenes. In Nepal, the thangkas are of two types: the Palas which are illustrative paintings of the deities and the Mandala, which are mystic diagrams paintings of complex test prescribed patterns of circles and square, each having specific significance. It was through Nepal that Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into Tibet during reign of Angshuvarma in the seventh century AD. There was therefore a great demand for religious icons and Buddhist manuscripts for newly built monasteries throughout Tibet. The influence of Nepalese art extended to China in regular order in the thirteenth century. Nepalese artisans were dispatched to the courts of Chinese emperors at their request to perform their workmanship and impart expert knowledge, with the Nepalese innovator and architect Balbahu, known by his popular name Araniko becoming the chief Imperial artist of Kubilai Khan.
Therefore, Newars of the Kathmandu Valley were very sought after thanka artists and have been making thangas (Newari: paubha) since the 13th century. Thangkas are also made in the Himalayan region along the lamas. Many artists from the Gurung and Tamang communities are also known as great thanka artists.