Perception of Thangka Paintings by Tourists: Outlining the Ethnographic Evidences from Thangka Painters


Lazey Doma Bhutia, DR. R. A. Sharma

Jiwaji University, Gwalior, India

*Corresponding Author Email:



The purpose of this paper is to provide insights on the Thangka paintings and perception of tourists visiting Sikkim. It also extends the emblematic significance of these types of paintings both traditionally and culturally as majority of inbound tourists lacks the understanding of such mythological characters. This research has attempted to bridge the gaps of tourists’ understanding of Thangka paintings and the underlying authenticity of those. Through an interactionist approach to the gap, this research has adopted an ethnographic methodological approach to broadly understand the present perceptions of visiting tourists. A total of 18 highly skilled thangka painters were interviewed during the process of data collection. Consequently, through a thematic analysis approach the verbatim transcripts were analyzed and represented in the findings. Interestingly, the findings has uncovered many captivating specifics about the realism and perception of tourists about Thangka paintings. The findings of the current study has wide opened the future niche research possibilities related to understanding of various values.


KEYWORDS:  Thangka Paintings; Ethnography; Tourism; Tourist Perception; Sikkim; India.




Paintings is the visual representation of the painters thoughts, so does thangka paintings is one the important paintings of Buddhist community, it’s a representation of god and goddess in the pictorial form which tells about the life of Buddha and wheel of dharma. This painting is considered one the cultural art that has been descended from one generation to another in order to maintain the originality, but more importantly things is they still they maintain the originality of the paintings that have been taught by master (Kreijger, 1999). In fact, anywhere that we find that the embodiment of the soul in a communication with other souls we find art.



As such, we may also think of both cultural and religious expression as a form of art (Tarlow, 2011). Through the religious touch and having different purposes, this art is not only mystical but it is one the attribution for the development of cultural tourism. The development of tourism and people of different interests have become more curious about these paintings, which helped to fuel tourists’ travelling motivation. These days inbound tourists to Sikkim (a state of India) mainly come for relaxation and to enjoy the solitude among the natural landscapes of this place. They usually get interested on local handicrafts, souvenirs and local delicacies, and take back home. The local government’s tourism improvement agenda is to initiate measures those can influence further attraction of tourists to the state of Sikkim. With the already grown interest in many international tourists, the domestic tourists are also gradually getting attracted towards Thangka paintings. Having quite less understanding, the local tourists usually consider thangka paintings as mythological art of god and goddess as they are always curious to know how these paintings are painted. As there are very limited studies and scholars those have explored such phenomena of tourists’ perception about thangka paintings in the context of Sikkim, the researchers of this study believe that this exploratory study can contribute for such cause.  


Therefore, the purpose of this study is to explore the perception of tourist visiting Sikkim, India as thangka painting considered as emblem of this destination. This paper further outlines the evidences of perception on thangka paintings by tourists from the perspective of thangka painters. In reference to Thangka paintings’ historical and social representations within various north-east part of India, the researcher of this study considered answering the question on “how the thangka paintings are perceived by the tourists?” as previously identified gaps have supported the purpose of such study. From the methodological perspective, this paper have used semi-structured face-to-face interviews and further analyzed the data using thematic coding.



Thangka a pictorial expression of deity that is rolled up and also known as a scroll paintings which is considered to be as mystic art form in Buddhism and one of sacred art which have religious value, and sometimes it is known as written record of oral representation. Dorji (2003) has defined the meaning of Thangka is seal, where they mainly talks about the life of Buddha and the teaching of Buddha and that’s symbolize spirituality which helps in transformation of the practitioner and develop inner strength. Trungpa Rinpoche (1975) also put a light on the same things that the Thangka art is entirely based on spirituality strong influenced of the art sources from India with the influences of China and Persia.


Leoshko (1998) in his research has specified that this type of paintings have served as the historical background of relation with Buddhism which has crated awareness among Buddhist people about the benefits and using of the paintings. Dorje (2000) identified that the various purpose of Thangka paintings have been shown in relation with mediation and deep connection with India, which covers the subjects like Buddha, bodhisattva and mandalas. Essentially, the attributing factors of these artworks have great influence on the linage and region style (Jackson, 2012). Which makes it look different from each other and even in the paintings style too. It has been used for teaching tools for Buddhism because of easy carrying it has been nomadic for the ages since it came in contact with the different regions artists (DeHart, 2016). Loh (2002) nearly at the same time explored the spiritual significance of Thangka paintings, those have created a massive impact on the people’s mind rather than the artistic form or design. The deities presented in Thangka would bring a positive energy in individual’s lives. Jackson et al. (1984) the extensive importance of Thangka need to understand and the insight of art and its uses. Bentor (1993) has identified that sketching of a deities is very important according to the demand, Kapsner et al. (2011) further supported by specifying that the painters have to follow the systematic way to draw Thangka painting according  to the what their teachers have been taught. The importance of thangka paintings and its usefulness have increased with the increasing awareness among the tourists and for the local it’s for the healing properties (Buckingham, 2009). The mudras that have used in Thangka paintings which is very much different from other. Loh (2002) in his research, unveiled the spiritual significance of thangka paintings and its spiritual message beyond artistic form and design. The art is considered sacred art in this world and each painting has specific purpose and it is from different form one another. Not only is that, it very important to conserve the value of the art for the present and future. Jackson (2013) further indicated that there are various variations in the paintings artworks, when compared art from different era and linage.


In his research, Straub (2011) elaborated the importance of Thangka paintings and the methods have been used for the making of the Thangka paintings is very different and style of paintings and the even the thread and the color which have used in the paintings are of different kind and basically they used the natural color. The paintings have been using the different technique since it has been started, the importance and the true meaning of thangka even the color processing of it have also been understood. Maki et al. (2011) and his fellow scholars indicated that there is need for the importance of thangka art and it intended to study the iconography that helped to understand the behind the purpose of the particular work of art.  Recent study by Bhatta (2016) has focused on understanding the importance of art in the tourism industry development and helped to create the employment opportunity directly or indirectly for the local community.


From previous the literature on Thangka paintings study about the origin and methods have done so far though this painting have become one of the important cultural tourism aspect for community of Sikkim in this study on perception of tourists on Thangka paintings viewpoint of painters that they have observed their opinion for thangka paintings. This consider to be useful steps for fulfillment of gap on the usefulness of thangka painting for tourism attrition can be able to understand the future demand of this painting. Hence, the purpose of this paper is to understand the tourists perception on thangka, from painters point of view’ their own perspectives, with involvement with this paintings practices that they have put into place in their efforts to achieve optimal outcomes.



A qualitative approach was employed in order to achieve the purposes of this study. Qualitative research generally focuses on the experience of the people or on the phenomena being studied, thereby procuring the study participants’ perspectives of such an experience. This type of research adopts an ethnographic approach to comprehend or examine a certain phenomenon. Walker (1987) and Creswell (2013) discussed the strategies associated with qualitative research, including Ethnography, Grounded Theory, Case Studies, Phenomenological research, Narrative Research, and Art Practice as Research. Harrington (2003) described ethnography as “the process by which researchers gather data via interpersonal relationships with participants” (p.593). Hence, the ethnographer’s most important function is to form and maintain meaningful interpersonal relationships in the field. Thangka art painting practice by the thangka painters as research project is dependent on relationally derived data and interpretation. This strategy is defined as the visual arts research practice that inquiries into the procedures and creations of an artistic perceptive. Studio methodology and art-based practice as research are extensions of a qualitative model (Creswell, 2013, pp. 14–15). Further, it’s important for the ethnographer of this study is to establish solid relationships in the field, sometimes this refers to as an insider position (Loftland, 1995). On a contrary, it’s often argued that the researcher’s position of power equates to a cultural difference between researcher and participants and requires cultural sensitivity and a process of mutual negotiation. In this research, the ethnographer participated in painting and learning the basics of such arts, which elevated the experience and knowledge of the researcher.


The ethnographer of this study selected Sikkim, India as the context where few high skilled painters provide painting education to the new painters. Acknowledging Sikkim as the vital context for this study and based on its vast influence on Thangka paintings, the methodological of Art Practice as Research is an especially valuable strategy for research projects targeting to describe, explore, or discover a phenomenon (Leavy, 2009). Considering that an artwork is a form of goddess representation, it can be considered a location where knowledge is created and meanings are made. A study on works of art shares new perceptions into how objects carry meaning regarding ideas, themes, and issues. As an object of research, an artwork is an independently and ethnically created form and can, therefore, be regarded as a mine of knowledge (Sullivan, 2010). Methodologically, these approaches frequently analyzes the available arts and the style of these Thangka paintings were painted by the painters. Qualitative, semi-structured face-to-face interviews with the painters were employed to understand their perspective and insights of styles of, how the paintings were been drawn.


In this research, nonprobability purposive (judgmental) sampling was applied during the sample selection process. This type of sampling obtains information from a specific target group who can give the desired data based on the criteria set by the researchers. Judgement sampling aims to approach the subjects of this study who can provide required information based of the objectives of the study (Sekaran and Bougie, 2010). Due to the depth of information previous researchers (Ragin, 2014; Jennings, 2005) often specified lager sample can be difficult to manage and handle by any ethnographer. Theoretical sampling is one of the suitable approach in order to justify the sample size (Jennings, 2005), which can be further consider for data collection and analysis process. Based on the criteria of data saturation of qualitative information “isomorphs” the interviewer proceeded for transcripts coding after of 18 interviews.  The data collected for this inquiry were analyzed based on the qualitative style.


This technique was employed when the data are presented in words and remain in words during the analysis (Blaikie, 2003). The current study applied the thematic analysis technique to analyze the data. This practice is defined as “a method for identifying, analysing, and reporting patterns (themes) within data” (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 80). According to Braun and Clarke (2006), thematic analysis grants an accessible and theoretically resourceful approach, through which to analyze qualitative data. Using this technique, interview transcriptions were studied to obtain the essence and extract the content. The positive topographies of the data across the whole data set were then coded in a methodical manner, further reported in findings section. 


Analysis and Findings:

According to the respondents (thangka painters) of this study, they explained their understanding on perception of tourists on thangka paintings. The analysis of the verbatim transcripts has identified major themes through the process of coding (thematic coding) and according to painters as they are the one who are frequent contact with tourists and what they have observed over the years that the tourists are very much interested in thangka paintings, they are the one who directly contact with tourists for years and as per their opinion the tourists finds this art very different and attractive than a usual paintings. The attitude of tourists have become the source of motivation for the painters for many years, their curiosity have towards this art always showed way to do more innovation in their present work to make it more beautiful. It also have observed that the tourist come with many doubts regarding thangka paintings like they ask questions about how long it takes to learn this art and sometimes they want to sit with painters and want to see making of the art. However, these are small activities showed by tourists but for the painters it’s more than anything else because that’s makes they motivated to do something new in creative way. The beauty of thangka painting have captured the attention of tourists coming to visits, though they considered it as a decorative items and buy they arts but they always appreciate the work of painters and they value them as well, which is again a very good part for the painters, so the bottom line is tourists are very much interested in this paintings though they have very little knowledge about this art form but still all tourists they always have value to this art according to the painters.


RP.1       Some tourists finds it very interesting they just sit back and see how we are drawing and they try to understand what exactly we are trying to convey through this art…

RP.2       yes, there are lots tourist they get attracted about the thangka paintings, they come and see this paintings and asked us so many questions like how you draw this paintings and how long it will take stuff like that.

RP.3       Yes, most of them are really interested in this paintings every tourists ask the same question how to learn this art and how long you have been you are learning this art.

RP.7       When they see the paintings the kind of curiosity came into them that how this paintings they are doing and they will be very much get attracted about. Live demonstration makes them really attractive…


This thangka paintings have become very interesting part of tourism irrespective for the tourist coming to Sikkim, India and for them is a life time memory to see making thangka painting live and that is also they can interact with painters and ask their questions to clear their doubts. It has been seen that’s a good moment for a tourist who is seeing this art making for the first time even though for the people who knows about this art they have a very high regards already. But when they talked about tourist they have seen there is interest levels differences in the people coming over there like it has been noticed, that the international tourist are very much interested and they usually gathered all the information of the paintings before they visits, they are more informed about the paintings from history to its importance even its uses, but it has found the domestic tourists are less informed paintings but they give regards to this art.




The growing popularity of this art among the tourists had been a great push factor for the artists to do their work and improve as well. The ultimate goal for the artists is to attract the attention of people they feel great when people appreciated their work and usually that’s give them motivation to do better in their performance. According to artists the international tourists have open a new business for the artists because when any foreigners they feels attracted about the Indian things they usually go in deep to get all the details information about that arts, which is hardly can be seen in domestic tourists. In addition, other than that, this interest of the tourists has been creating a business for the local people and getting employment too, which is always good part of tourism.


RP.4       But I have seen that international tourist are much more interested about this paintings and they have some background knowledge of the painting too…

RP.5       what I have notice as compare to domestic tourist have found that international tourist are very much interested about this paintings…

RP.8.      Yes they are really interested about this paintings as international tourist are very much interested in this.

RP.9       Usually international tourists were very much interested have and gets more knowledge about it, they just don’t see it as a show piece but whereas for domestic tourist is more of decorative piece…

RP.13     But not all the tourists they liked it but they don’t have knowledge about it but foreigner they have very much knowledge about the thangka paint

RP.16     This art but the international tourists’ number is always high they have much curiosity than the domestic tourists…

RP          The international tourists are always very much interested than the domestic tourists and they sometime stays back and learn this art… 


This art have been appreciated by all the tourists coming to visit this place and as I have mentioned by the painters that it has been seen they are very much interested about this art. The beauty of thangka paintings have given many opportunities to the local as well as to painters and this had become the great path to show their talents to the rest of the world. And not only that this had helped them to showcase their art and culture to the other side of the world, Every years lakhs of tourists visits this place and according to the painters it is observed that most of the tourist like this art and find this art is a unique piece, which attracts attention of the tourists because of the color combination and the way of displaying of this art and the way it comes in the finished work it really catches the attention of the people who are looking into it. Everything contribute to make this art look more attractive and unique from others art which can be available in the market. The interest level of the tourists and their queries regarding thangka paintings have much more than the information provider, it shows that they are really much interested in this beautiful art of a small sate of India, Sikkim.


With the increasing number of the tourist inflow every years the painters have been observed that nearly almost every one of the total tourist who are coming they like this beautiful art, as I mentioned that they are very much attracted towards this art, unless if it’s a kinds. And most interesting is that almost most of the tourist from international they have the knowledge about this art and even they knows about the usage of the paintings too. At the same time the domestic tourists they don’t have the deep knowledge but they have a great respect for this art and most of them they found this art very unique and attractive.


Looking at their curiosity about this art have shown their level of interest towards this art and their desire to get the details of it, looking at all this one can say that they have are liking this art and they want to make know even more. 


RP. 1      In overall tourists coming to Sikkim, I would say 80 percent of the tourist get attracted by this paintings and finds this is an interesting art and it generate the curiosity to know more in details about the paintings…

RE.6.      I think most of the tourists are really interested about the painting because they shows their curiosity about the paintings and most of tourists had lots of queries about the paintings.

RE.7.      If you ask me I would most of tourists that like about it kind of 100% of the total tourist they gets attracted about the paintings.

RE.9.      These paintings have always great influence on it. It is one of the attractions for the people for who are much interested about the arts and tradition of someone’s culture and tradition.

RE.17.   Almost all of the tourists are very much interested about this art unless if it’s kids because they don’t have any idea about it. 


The paintings have been highly regarded by all the visitors who is directly or indirectly knows about this art and even the painters are also respected by the local as well other people for doing this beautiful work. For a Buddhist family act as a messenger of god and goddess who gives local people idea about the importance of thangka paintings. Since history they have been given a high status in the society for the “Lharipha” (are the teachers of Thangka paintings) who teach to make thangka paintings and not only that they taught to make this art but they give information about the benefits they would be getting for the particular kind of art. To be part of this art the one who is actually very much interested about this art they joined the art academy to learn this art style. According to the painters who are learning this art and who have already learned this art they all are very happy about what they have chosen in their career. So far most the painters are very satisfied with their work, because this work gives them money as well as respect in the society for their work and even their work have been started liked by tourists coming over which is the biggest achievement in their life.



This paper was aimed to understand the perception of tourists visiting monasteries of Sikkim, India. The thangka painters those who are highly skilled have gradually understood that the tourists who all are visiting different historical and sacred places of Sikkim including cultural embankment points have highly appreciated the artwork of different thangka paintings. As previous scholars has mostly focused on the idea of how these artwork or paintings are created; such as, using what are the colour ingredients and what surface they used to illustrate such attractive piece of artwork. In addition to the previous studies, the researcher of this study aimed to contribute on the thangka paintings, specifically on perception of these paintings from tourists’ perspective based on empirical evidences collected from the thangka painters in the form of interviews’ verbatim. As the research question of this paper has focused on perception of paintings by the tourists, there are interesting findings obtained after analyzing the collected data. As explained the thangka painters, these type of arts in recent years have caught tourists’ attention, the tourists are usually curious about the process of creation of such paintings. Furthermore, according to the painters, the visiting tourists finds these paintings more attractive compared to other type of paintings; interestingly, the painters finds sources of motivation to be more creative and innovative in their drawing styles of such paintings. Gaining the interests from the tourists, the thangka painting for them is considered as scared decorative piece of art, where the tourist lacks of knowledge and sometimes fails to understand the real meaning of such arts. The painters further explained a very less number of tourists, especially international tourists have such knowledge as lots of mythological and historical characters are involved within these paintings, but they often clear their doubts with the painters. As the growing popularity of thangka paintings, the painters usually create some majestic artworks to attract more international tourists to visit Sikkim. As the foreign tourists gathers more information compared to local tourists the painters finds enthusiasm to share more information with them. As many international as well as local tourists high level of interests as they gradually understands the real value of such paintings. Additionally, the tourists become more curious to learn such artwork by themselves and wants to explore further in the depth of history. The paintings provides the historical mythological and knowledge to the curious tourists, while expanses their understanding of traditional values and cultural ethics of Sikkim.


Finally, this research has found out quite interesting findings based on strong empirical evidences on the perspective of visiting tourists. As majority of the tourists lacks in basic fundamental knowledge about these paintings, as they are attracted towards these paintings due their magnificent appearances and consider them as a scared piece of art of various form of Lord Buddha. Fascinatingly, the international tourists are well knowledgeable in regards to these paintings and with the given respects to these types of paintings, they shows a lot of interests to learn and know about the process of the creation of these paintings by themselves. The thangka painters gets the motivation through the raising interest of these international tourists as these paintings carries the traditional and cultural values of Sikkim and the distinctiveness of tangka paintings.  



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Received on 23.08.2018       Modified on 20.09.2018

Accepted on 12.10.2018      ©A&V Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2018; 9(4): 905-910.

DOI: 10.5958/2321-5828.2018.00152.3