Thursday, July 01, 2004

Thangka painters in the afternoon

sani-bar / saturday

Now I sit in a small open air hovel, protected from rain. Quietly positioned behind three thangka painters--2 girls, 1 boy--whose busy hands deftly color in the meticulously-drawn Buddhist iconic images. I had been greeted by them with smile, no talk. The guy then waved me up onto the stoop to the room where they worked. He indicated a small bench where I could sit and watch. Turning back to his work, he mixes paints to make the color of human skin for the thangka he is trying to complete. I cannot tell if it is painted on silk or leather. A rare paper fiber? I don't know, but do not ask. I want to fill my eyes with this observation. The young man makes Buddha eyelids now, and every little detail-nuance is carefully placed. Dried color is made to blend in with wet new paint, very exacting. It is like the mastery of pointillism--what I am watching.

Later I learn that the young painter is: Tibetan, a father of two daughters, and a dedicated student of thangka painting--having studied in Lhasa for some time before moving to Kathmandu (probably as a refugee). There are thousands of Tibetan Buddhist refugees in Nepal, and this is evidenced by the proliferation of Buddhist book shops, thangka galleries and showrooms, and spiritual trinket (y'know, beads, singing bowls, and Dalai Lama picture cards). This young painter, after about 10 minutes of me watching them paint, invites me in to the interior rooms of the small building for some tea. I remark that one room is beautifully-painted, and I am told to say "sundar kotha" ("beautiful room"). It's my first time to try the infamous hot butter tea, which is a staple beverage of the Tibetans. I'd read in several guidebooks that it wasn't the best-tasting thing to drink. But--it is, apparently, good for people in many ways: to help keep the body warm, aid digestion, cleanse the body of excess lactic acid, and rejuvenate strength and stamina. Hoping to not offend the young painter and his young daughters in the room (watching midday tv), I kindly accept a cup of the tea and take my first sip cautiously. I've eaten things that others have tried to dissuade me from, finding that my tastebuds actually found the suspected food quite delicious. In this case, the rumors and reports were well-founded. Tibetan butter tea is nauseating. Would you ever go to the movies and buy a bucket of hot butter oil, minus the popcorn, and find it enjoyable? Ugh, I just couldn't mouth it, much less stomach it. After five small sips, intermittently spaced during my 20-minute conversation in the room w/ the Tibetans, I politely pushed the cup to the middle of the table and spoke a thanks, but no thanks farewell to the tea. End of hot butter tea in my lifetime. If I can help it.

I bid a quiet farewell to the painters and the young daughters and make my way down the puddled road in the late afternoon rain. Seeking a new flavor.

This small thangka-making center is named SURYA ART--TIBETAN THANGKA GALLERY and it is very close to Swoyambhu, also spelled as Swayambanath (and about three other ways).

Have a look at some beautiful full-color thangka images at

Wow! or Very Cool! => "erambro" (pronounced excitedly, like "RAM-ROW!"

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