AN ARCHITECTURAL CURIOSITY:

THE THANGKA WALLS OF THE MAJOR TIBETAN MONASTERIES

Christian Lassure, agrégé de l'Université

 

French version

 

A "thangka wall" is a stone-built structure used in some buddhist monasteries of China's Tibet for the open-air hoisting of giant or monumental appliqued thangkas, or scrolls [1], called gos sku / go ku ("cloth image") in Tibetan. The wall stands on a hillside from where it overlooks the monastic complex. It is a narrow, elongated, tall rectangular building with a battered façade and a flat roof surrounded by a parapet. The overall appearance of a thangka wall is not unlike− all things being equal − that of a computer's flat screen. Some authors have also compared the thangka wall to the screen of an open-air cinema or to the blackboard of a classroom. Thangka walls are used mainly during the Buddha-displaying festivals that take place in four large monasteries at various dates of the Tibetan calendar.

The discovery of these unique edifices has induced this writer to look for photographic and textual evidence about them. While the present article is the result of these investigations, it does not purport to cover every aspect of the subject.

Fig. 1 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse. View of the thangka wall during the display ritual of the thangka  of Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light, on July 1, 2015. Source : site vtibet.com.
Followers are seen contemplating the image.

1. Designations of giant thangka walls

Depending on whether one faces the front long side or one of the short sides of the edifice, one gets the impression of either a gigantic wall or a lofty tower. This may explain why the writings that describe these edifices refer either to a "wall" or to a "tower". Whatever the case may be, the more popular designation is "wall" : "thangka wall" in English, "mur à thangka" in French, "tangamuer" in German.

1.1 In Tibetan

At Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, the thangka wall has had the following designations:
- kugopea (Samuel Turner, 1800) ;
- gö-ku-pea (Laurence Austin Waddell, 1895), ie cloth-image tower ;
- kiku tamsa tower (Laurence Austine Waddell, 1895 ; William Carey, 1901), ie cloth-image support tower ;
- kiku-tamsa » (Sarat Chandras Das, 1902), ie cloth-image support ;
- gos-sku-spe'u (Michael Aris, 1982), ie cloth-image tower support  [2].
 

Fig. 2 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse. Source: Ali and Julians Travels in Tardis.
Viewed from the front and at a low angle, the elongated, narrow edifice looks like a gigantic wall. Its stonework is rendered with whitewash.

At Palcho Chode monastery in Gyantse, the thangka wall is called
- gheku tower (Victor Chan, 1994), ie cloth-image tower ;
- goku tramsa (The Tibet Album, 2006) or gos sku thang sa (Michael Henss, 2011), ie cloth-image support.

The words kugo, gos sku, goku, gheku and kiku refer to the monumental thangka (kugo being apparently the result of inverting the two syllables of goku while gheku and kiku are supposed to be informal pronunciations of gos sku or goku).

1.2 In English

In English-language writings, this type of building is referred to as
- "thangka wall" (Victor Chan, 1994 ; Andreas Gruschke, 2001 [3] ; The Tibet Album, 2006 ; Michael Henss, 2011 ; Tibet, Lonely Planet, 2015 ; Diana Lange, 2016) ;
- or sometimes "support wall" (Tibet, Lonely Planet, 2015) ;
- or again "display wall" (Ronald M. Bernier, 1997) ;
if not simply and metonymically "wall".

American explorer F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr. uses the term "pylon" in his memoirs published in 1938.

1.3 In German

In the original captions attached to the photos taken by the 1938–39 German expedition to Tibet, the Palcho Chode edifice is called große Gebetsmauer ("large prayer wall") while its counterpart at Tashilhunpo is termed große Tangamauer ("large thangka wall").

1.4 In French

In the French translation (1998) of Victor Chan's Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrimage Guide (1994), "thangka wall" is "mur à thangka " and "gheku tower" is "tour du gheku".

Fig. 3 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse. Source: tripadvisor.com website.
Viewed from the side and at a low angle, the slender edifice looks like a gigantic tower. The three rods jutting out from the top of the rear façade are presumably gargoyles allowing rainwater to run off the flat roof and away from the foot of the rear wall.

2. Inventory of giant thangka walls

At least four large monasteries in China's Tibet Autonomous Region possess a giant thangka wall : Sera (Lhasa), Palcho Chode (Gyantse), Tashilhunpo (Shigatse) and Riwo Dechen (Qonggyai). The walls at Sera and Riwo Dechen are recent additions while those at Tashilhunpo and Palcho Chode are centuries-old monuments. Their sturdy construction is not unrelated to such longevity.

2.1 Sera monastery at Lhassa

The thangka wall at Sera stands near the Chöding hermitage (Tsongkhapa's retreat before the monastery was built). The wall is a recent replacement to a scaffolding erected on a slope [4]. It has some semblance to its counterpart at Tashilhunpo (see beneath).

Fig. 4 - Sera monastery near Lhasa, in 2011. Source:  Wikimedia Commons.
In the right half of the photo, the thangka wall can be seen in the background with its blind front face (except for rows of diminutive windows or lights) and its trapezoid form, enhanced by the wide-angle shot.

 

Fig. 5 - Sera monastery near Lhasa. Source: Guide de la Chine website.
View of the rear façade and the narrow side of the thangka wall. While the rear façade is blank, the narrow end is pierced by a line of three large windows (the same goes for the opposite end with its entrance to the building). The dark red textile surrounding the top level does not cover the rear wall. The four gargoyles are used to evacuate rainwater from the flat roof. The wide yard fronting the building is where the faithful gather to gaze on the giant thangkas.

The wall is used for lifting giant thangkas of the Buddha during the Shoton festival in August.

Fig. 6 - Sera monastery near Lhasa. Guide de la Chine website.
View of a monumental thangka hanging from the top of the wall. The building's entrance with its guardrail can be seen in the lower part of the narrow end.

 

Fig. 7 - Sera monastery near Lhasa. Source: Potala Travel.
View of another monumental scroll being displayed during the Shoton festival. Judging from its faded look, it must be an old thangka. It hangs from a wooden rod that is attached to ropes lowered through the parapet of the flat roof. On the right, the stairs leading up to the side entrance sport a bright yellow metallic guardrail. At the foot of the thangka wall, on the left, a flock of devotees are throwing ceremonial scarves towards the deity.

2.2 Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse

The stark, massive thangka wall at Palcho Chode monastery stands toweringly above the hillside in the north-eastern part of the monastic enclosure built in 1425. The wall is not supposed to have been built before the 1430s when the associated monumental scrolls were ordered. The wall is called gheku tower (according to Victor Chan), goku tramsa (according to The Tibet Album) or gos sku thang sa (according to Michael Henss who also styles it gos sku spe'u) [5].

Fig. 8 - Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse in 1938. View of the monastic enclosure with its towers and ramparts photographed by Ernst Schäfer from the neighbouring plain. Source : Wikimedia Commons.
The large thangka wall (große Tangamauer) rears its imposing mass at the highest point of the enclosure wall, hiding from view a length of rampart and ruined towers. Unlike the other monastic buildings, it is not whitewashed.

 

Fig. 9 - Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse in 2010. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
View over the monastery in its cirque of hills bordered by ramparts and towers. The thangka wall is high up on a hillside, just against the rampart. Its stone masonry has been spared the whitewash splashed on to the monastic buildings and the redwash splashed on to the ramparts and towers.

 

Fig. 10 - Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse. Satellite view of the thangka wall and the remains of the ramparts (from Google Earth).
Interestingly, this screen capture reveals the presence of a long flat roof bordered by a parapet at the top of the structure.

During the Gyantse festival, on the 15th day of the fourth month of the Tibetan year  [6], the wall is used, within a two-year cycle, to display the Sakyamuni thangka (kept in a leather bag in the Dorje Ying chapel) in alternation with the Maitreya thangka. A third thangka, the Dipankara gos sku, is no longer displayed due to its poor state of repair [7].

Fig. 11 - Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse in 1938. The thangka wall photographed by Ernst Schäfer during the display ritual of the Buddha. Source : Wikimedia Commons.
Standing in the top part of the hillside, the large thangka wall (große Tangamauer) has a sloping front face designed to resist the outward thrust that the building has to sustain. The narrow sides, too, exhibit a marked batter in their upper part and possess buttresses in their lower part. The diminutive figures standing at the top or at the foot of the massive edifice give us, by contrast, an indication of its size.
In the picture, a large central thangka is displayed on the wall next to a smaller banner to its right − right and left are defined in relation to an outside observer facing the wall. The space to the left is empty. A small yard outside the base of the wall is used for hoisting and lowering giant thankas and accommodating devotees.

 

Fig. 12 - Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse. Photo by Brian J. McMorrow. Source : site pbase.com.
The lighter marks visible on the front face of the building apparently match the footprint of a fully deployed central banner. The eighteen small holes in a row right beneath the parapet at the top of the edifice (and above a row of three small openings) are housings for the 18 pulleys that guide the ropes used to pull up the central and side banners.

 

Fig. 13 - Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse. Source : Tibet: Sakya & Gyantse, Om-Round the World weblog, 15 november 2011.
Exhibition of the Sakyamuni thangka, the oldest in the whole Tibet, on the 15th day of the 4th month of the Tibetan year. Two more recent side banners flank the faded central banner. At the foot of the wall a throng of devotees greet the deity with ceremonial scarves or khatas.

 

Fig. 14 - Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse. Source : Wona Bartoszcze, Sagadawa; wielka thangka w Gyantse, Czerwiec 23, 2011.
Close view of the central banner and its two side banners. The central piece hangs from a horizontal rod that is slightly curved at the ends. The white trails clinging to the top of the banners are khatas.

2.3 Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatsé

The thangka wall at Tashilhunpo monastery stands on a hillside in the far north-eastern part of the monastic compound. With its overbearing position, it can be seen from afar. It is the largest and most formidable thangka wall still extant. It is approximately 32 metres high and 42 metres long at its base. It was constructed in 1468 [8].

Fig. 15 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse as photographed in 1900 or 1901 by Russian explorer G. Ts. Tsybikov (or Tsybikoff) on behalf of the Imperial Geographical Society of Russia at Saint-Petersburgh. Source: website of the World Digital Library. The white mass of the thangka wall looms high on the slope to the right of the monastic buildings.

 

Fig. 16 - General view of Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse in 1938. Picture taken from the plain by Ernst Schäfer, leader of the German expedition to Tibet (1938-1939). Source : Wikimedia Commons.
The caption in German – große Tangamauer im Hintergrund und Pferdesteppe – lays stress on the "large thangka wall in the background" and the small herd of steppe horses in the foreground.

 

Fig. 17 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse. Satellite view of the thangka wall and its outside yard (as shown in GoogleEarth).

The wall is used for displaying giant representations of Matreya (the Buddha of the future), Amitabha (the Buddha of the infinite light), and Sakyamuni (the enlightened Buddha) on the basis of one different thangka a day during the festival taking place on the 14th, 15th and 16th of the fifth Tibetan month (ie 1st, 2nd and 3rd July).

Fig. 18 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse, 1938. The thangka wall (tangamauer in German) as photographed by Ernst Schäfer, head of the German expedition to Tibet (1938-1939). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
This is a low-angle view of the thangka wall shot from a building down below. The wall's front is pierced by six rows of four ventilation or lighting holes each, the sixth row being hidden by the dark-coloured hangings round the top. The wall's narrow sides have a strong batter and are buttressed by a masonry reinforcement structure (only the left-hand reinforcement is visible in the photo). A terrace retained by a high wall fronts the edifice. It is intended to accommodate a large crowd of the faithful. The whole structure is whitewashed.

 

Monastère de Tashilhunpo à Shigatsé, 1938 : vue d'un des côtés étroits et de la façade arrière du mur à thangka photographiés par Ernst Krause.

Fig. 19  - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse, 1938. Shot of one of the narrow sides and the rear side of the thangka wall as photographed by Ernst Krause, a member of the German expedition to Tibet (1938-1939). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The lower third of the narrow side is hidden from view by a bulge in the slope between the photographer and the wall structure. The vertical succession of five small windows in the narrow side matches the succession of five rows of openings in the front side. The small protrusion on the top of the edifice is a covered loggia sheltering the access to the flat roof from the inside of the building.

 

Fig. 20 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse, 1938. View of the monastery from above as shot by Ernst Krause. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
In the left-hand upper corner of the photo, the thangka wall can be seen with its back face and huge stone-built side buttresses. It is  topped  by a flat roof  ringed by a slightly corbelled parapet. Underneath, a dark-coloured hanging runs along the front and sides of the structure.

 

Fig. 21 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse, 2005. Photo by Philip Rodelli. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Front side view of the thangka wall with one of its side buttresses and its outside terrace. The  hanging running along the top of the façade wall is dark-red. The row of small rectangular cutouts corresponds to the sixth row of slot-like openings.

 

Fig. 22 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse. Source: Wallpaper Studio 10 website.
Rear side view of the thangka wall. The masonry consists of successive courses of large, similar-sized mortared stones. The stonework of the side buttress alternates a course of large stones with a course of thin flat stones. The narrow side wall is pierced from base to top by six wood-bars openings, the lowest of which is hidden from view by the side buttress. The rear side is blank. The edifice's entrance can be discerned in its base, in the vertical middle axis. Under the parapet at the top, three inclined gargoyles are used to evacuate runoff water from the flat roof. The monastery's circumambulation path runs alongside the rear façade.

 

Fig. 23 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse. Displaying the thangka of Amitaba, the Buddha of the infinite light (July 1st, 2015). Source: vtibet.com wbsite.
The veil with multi-coloured vertical stripes (used to conceal the thangka from view while the latter is being hoisted)  has been rolled up at the top of the wall. A yellow strap or rope is attached to the middle of the lower edge of the thangka.

 

Fig. 24 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse. Displaying the thangka of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, or historical Buddha (July 2nd, 2018). Source: unknown.

 

Fig. 25 - Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse. Displaying the thangka of Maitreya, or Jampa, the Buddha of the future (July 3rd, 2018). Source : Tibet Vista website.
The thangka is brand-new judging by its vivid colours.

2.4 Riwo Dechen monastery in Qonggyai

Built on a hillside, the Riwo Dechen kagyupa monastery possesses a thangka wall that overbears the other monastic buildings and can be seen from afar. It is apparently a recently-built addition to the complex.

A giant thangka of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, is preserved and maintained by the monastery.

Fig. 26 - Riwo Dechen monastery in Qonggyai in 2008. Source:  Wikimedia Commons.
The narrow sides of the thangka wall are upright, the front face of the wall has a strong batter. The top storey is set back from the front face of the structure. It has a row of three small windows and a door at each end.

 

Fig. 27 - Riwo Dechen monastery in Qonggyai (no date available). Source: mapio.net.
The batter of the thangka wall's front is obtained through a succession of setbacks in the masonry, hence the serrated appearance of both left and right corners. A guardrail runs along the gallery beneath the top of the building. Each receding step in the wall's front face is pierced by a row of of small openings or lights. A stone masonry wall retains the platform that extends outside the thangka wall.

3. Ancient descriptions of Tashilhunpo's thangka wall

3.1 Samuel Turner (1800)

The thangka wall at Tashilhunpo monastery is, according to the description published by Samuel Turner in 1800 [9], "a lofty & broad, but shallow edifice" standing towards the extreme limit of the monastery in the north-east and "styled Kugopea." It reportedly contained "portraits of the sovereign Lamas", and "other sacred subjects appertaining to their mythology." It was dedicated to the practice of certain "mystic rites" during their religious festivals.

Fig. 28 - Engraving of Tashilhunpo monastery's thangka wall published by traveller Samuel Turner in 1800 (with the caption "The Dwelling of Tessaling Lama, with the religious Edifice stiled Kugopea"). Source: Michael Taylor, Le Tibet – de Marco Polo à Alexandra David-Néel, Payot, Office du livre, Fribourg, 1885, p. 86, fig. 54. 

 

Fig. 29 - Map of "Thibet, Mongolia, and Mandchouria" taken from R. M. Martin and J. & F. Tallis's Atlas of the World (1851). In it are shown the northern and western parts of the Chinese empire within its borders delineated by the treaty of Nerchinsk in 1685. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
In the left-hand upper corner, the picture of the panchen lama's palace at Tashilhunpo monastery can be seen along with the towering wall used for hanging a thangka of the Buddha (see below).

 

Fig. 30 - Image of the panchen lama's palace at Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse as found in the "Thibet, Mongolia, and Mandchouria" map from R. M. Martin and J. & F. Tallis's Atlas of the World (1851). The image is a copy of the engraving by Nicolas Turner.
The thangka wall appearing to the right of the palace and further up the hillside has been stretched height-wise inordinately by the engraver. It is easily recognizable with its blank front face, strong batter, small openings on the side face, and the cloth hangings round its top storey. However, the edifice is lacking in depth.

3.2 The Wise Collection (mid-19th century)

A detail of the panoramic map of Southern Tibet belonging to what is known as the Wise Collection renders the appearance of Tashilhunpo monastery as it was in the middle of the 19th century with its thanka wall, the four panchen lama mausoleums and the Kiku Naga garden [10].

Fig. 31 - Image of Tashilhunpo monastery on the panoramic map of Southern Tibet in the Wise Albums. Source: The British Library Board, Add. Or. 3016, Folio 2.
In the right-hand upper corner, a barely discernible thangka wall is dwarfed by the panchen lama mausoleums although in reality the wall is taller than, and towers over, them. This points to an obvious hierarchy in the monastic buildings according to their religious importance.

3.3 Laurence Austine Waddell (1895)

Half a century later, British explorer Laurence Austine Waddell describes the same edifice, going at the time by the name of "gö-ku-pea " ("the stored silken pictures"), which was used on certain festivals to exhibit gigantic pictures of Maitreya and other Buddhist deities on the edifice's front. Devotees for their part would call the building "ki-ku tamsa." It was also a store room for the dried carcasses of sheep, goats and yaks used for feeding monks. The large terrace outside the front of the edifice would accommodate crowds of people when the monumental thangkas were exhibited in June and November [11].

3.4 William Carey (1901)

Waddell's portrayal of the thangka wall is echoed by the description given by missionary William Carey in 1901. Carey sees the display wall as the most interesting building in Tashilhunpo. He compares its shape to that of "a wedge" or "the broad blade of a hatchet" and likens its functions to that of "a gigantic blackboard or picture screen."  As a quip, he calls the edifice "the lamas' larder" on account of its being used alternatively as a store house for dried meat (in the same way, the caption of a photograph reads "the Lamas' Blackboard"). The only name he uses for the edifice is that of "kiku tamsa" [12].

3.5 Sarat Chandra Das (1902)

Around the same period, the Indo-British spy, Sarat Chandra Das, went to examine the edifice and found it to be more than 200 years old, about 60 paces in  length and 30 in breadth, with 9 storeys, and "kiku tamsa" for its designation. He also notes that the edifice is used as a store for dried meat and that Turner made a sketch of it in 1879 but mistook it for "a religious edifice" [13].

Fig. 32 - Drawing of Tashilhunpo monastery as made in the Tibetan manner by pandit Sarat Chandra Das in 1882
In the right-hand upper corner, under number 19 the thangka wall can be seen with its terrace and access stairs. The caption reads: "Kiku Tamsa. The nine storeyed stone structure, about 120 feet high (= 42 m 60), 100 feet long (= 30 m 50) , and 60 feet wide (= 21 m 30), to the western face a tapestry is hung during the prayer time every year."

 

Fig. 33 - Enlargement of the thangka wall in the above drawing.
The real thangka wall has bigger side buttresses and five rows of 4, not 3, small openings.

4. Ancient description of the thangka wall at Palcho Chode

4.1 F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr. (1938)

A relatively detailed description of both the inside and the outside of the Palcho Chode thangka wall is found in the memoirs of F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr., an American explorer who went to Gyantse in 1938 to photograph the dances performed by monks during the Saga Dawa yearly festival held in celebration of the anniversary of the Buddha. He first of all remarks that the "pylon" as he calls the edifice, originally served a dual purpose: not only hanging a gigantic "banner" bearing a picture of the Buddha but also storing grain ("granary"). He stresses the fact that the thangka is in three parts: a middle banner and two side banners. The left-hand side banner was missing though, it had disappeared in unexplained circumstances, he was told. The rumour blamed either the Chinese or the English. The thangka is made of brocade"which was cut to bits that were sewn together before being applied upon a base." The brocades are, Wanderhoef observes, among the finest  and most  expensive ones:  Genoese velvet, Florentine cut velvet, Persian gold tissue, 17th-century French silk brocade, besides pieces of Chinese, Indian and even Japanese material [14].

Fig. 34 - Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse. Source: F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr., A Glimpse of Another World: A Journey Through Western Tibet (1938), 2008, p. 120. The ascent to the thanka wall. (The entrance to the building is at the back of the building.)

The inside of the pylon is divided into several floors supported by heavy cypress beams. The ground floor is steeped in almost complete darkness. Each floor is occupied by a row of huge grain bins along each side of a central gallery. Communication between floors is by means of a wide circular ramp at one end of the gallery. As the pylon is constructed on a relatively steep hillside, its rear elevation is much reduced in comparison to its sloping front elevation. On the top of the pylon is a flat roof serving as a terrace. Under the front parapet  is a row of big wooden pulleys set into the masonry to guide the ropes attached to the upper edge of the banner [15].

5. Transporting, hoisting, unveiling, displaying and letting down of a gigantic thangka

5.1 At Palcho Chode

The transport, hoisting, unveiling, displaying and letting down of the gosku at Palcho Chode monastery in 2001 were related by tibetologist Michael Henss. On the ninth of June, at 4 a.m., in one of the chapels, the large bags containing the thangkas were opened. At 5 a.m., the principal scroll and the lateral banner were carried by young lay people to the foot of the thangka wall where 35 monks or so were waiting, chanting sutra verses and blowing long trumpets. At a quarter to six, when it was still dark, the central banner was fixed in its full upper width to a long metal pole. A little after six, fifteen devotees standing behind the parapet topping the front face of the gos sku spe'u started to pull up and unroll the central image with the help of fifteen ropes fixed to the metal rod. The  process took only five minutes. At a quarter past six, the side banner in its turn was pulled up and unrolled with the help of another three ropes by three devotees. All eighteen ropes slid over as many wooden rolls set in holes under the parapet at the top. When  passing by the base of the thangka wall, the pilgrims performing their circumambulation, or kora, were able to offer silken scarves to the deity and prostrate themselves in front of its image. Around ten, when the sun was about to rise over the eastern hills, the long trumpets sounded again, signalling the end of the ceremony and the letting down of the banner.  The process of rolling up took half an hour, requiring more care and time than the earlier process of unrolling: the thangkas had to be folded, not rolled, by savvy hands before being packed and carried back to their place of origin. This took one more hour. In all, the gos sku were displayed  for about  four hours [16].

Although Michael Henss's description matches that of F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr., it lacks any of the photos taken by the latter eight decades ago.

Fig. 35 - Palcho Chode Monastery at Gyantse. Source : F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr., A Glimpse of Another World: A Journey Through Western Tibet (1938), 2008.
The central banner has been hoisted up the front face of the wall and displayed for devotees to worship. The side banner is missing as it is nowhere to be found in the monastery.

 

Fig. 36 - The thangkas are being let down to avoid their being hit by sun rays. One notices the battered or sloping base of the wall with its succession of steps.

 

Fig. 37 - Monks are busy folding the scrolls under the early rays of the sun.

 

Fig. 38 - A scroll is being folded (not rolled).

 

Fig. 39 - The side banner is being put back into its bag while the folding of the principal banner is nearing completion. A few monks are still perched on the steps formed by the successive ledges in the lower part of the wall face.

5.2 At Tashilhunpo

A video posted by a Chinese travel agency highlights the hoisting process of a giant thangka from the top platform of the Tashilhunpo kiku-tamsa. Groups of two or three monks sitting on the floor are rhythmically pulling up the ropes used for lifting the kiku by means of muscle power. Being attached to the thangka rod, the ropes run through cavities underneath the front parapet and are guided by wooden pulleys set into the masonry [17].

 

Fig. 40 - The covered loggia over the access to the terrace on the flat roof. Ascent is by means of simple wooden ladders.

 

Fig. 41 - Monks in pairs are hard at work pulling up the ropes behind the front parapet.

 

 

Fig. 42 - Perched atop the parapet wall, a monk is setting the pace by beating on a drum.

 

The thangka's upper rod is in fact an assembly of smaller wooden rods (made of poles split lengthwise).

 

Fig. 44 - The overhung base of the front parapet rests on floor joists. One interval between two joists is occupied by a pulley consisting of a shaft and two wooden wheels. The pulley allows the hoisting of a rope.

 

These video images bring an end to this author's investigations of thangka walls. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the outdoor display of giant thangkas can also take place on the façade of a building, on a cobbled platform or on a metallic contraption on a hillside, a variety of supports which are also worthy of study.

 

Appendix : the large thangkas of the Potala palace

Since the last quarter of the 17th century, the centre wall of the white façade of the Tibetan pontiffs' fortress palace has provided a vast expanse for displaying two giant thangkas which appear to be stitched together at the side in photographs of the turn of the 20th century while being unstitched and switched around in a post-1959 postcard.

Fig. 45 - Black and white photograph of the Potala palace taken in 1900 by Russian explorer O. M. Norzunov (or Norzunoff) from the Chagpori hill. The vast base wall in the central part of the white façade is being used to display a double monumental thangka which can be seen from afar owing to its elevated position. With this kind of support, there is no need for a free-standing thangka wall.

 

Fig. 46 - Black and white photograph of the Potala palace taken from the south south-east by G. Ts. Tsybikov (or Tsybikoff) in 1901 during the Tsog Chod festival on the 29th day of the second moon of the Tibetan year. Source: American Geographical Society.
The central white façade is covered by two thangkas sewn together to form a single piece. The giant images hang from the lowermost row of windows. According to the photographer, the character on the right is Sakyamuni while the character on the left is Tara or Doma.

 

Fig. 47 - Black and white photograph taken by Hugh Edward Richardson in April 1949. Source: The Tibet Album, 2006.
Partly hidden by the Shöl outer stone pillar (doring chima, rdo ring phyi ma), the two koku (gos sku), joined together into one piece are seen hanging from the lowermost row of windows in the background.

 

Fig. 48 - Colour photograph taken by Hugh Edward Richardson between 1936 and 1950. Source : The Tibet Album, 2006.
The double koku is being displayed on the Potala façade.as part of the Sertreng ceremony on the 30th day of the 2nd Tibetan month.

 

Fig. 49 - Mural painting representing the ceremony held after the completion of the Potala palace. Source : A Mirror of the Murals in the Potala, Pékin, Jiu zhou tushu chubanshe, 2000.
On this occasion, the two banners were deployed (with the goddess Tara being on the left-hand banner). They are joined together as is indicated by the single continuous veil along the top.

 

Fig. 50 - Colour postcard of the Potala (c. 1980-1990).
Two gigantic thangkas are displayed side by side on the large white walls of the south façade. They are hanging from the eaves of the roof (and not from the lowermost row of windows as in Richardson's photos). Apparently, each individual thangka of the double koku visible in the previous documents has regained its autonomy although after switching sides (the goddess Tara is now to the right). When the banners are not displayed, they are kept in a small building  further down the slope.

 

NOTES

[1] A monumental thangka – a Tibetan word meaning "scroll"  – is a gigantic cloth several dozen metres wide and high which bears the image of the Buddha or some other deity of Tibetan buddhism. The cloth uses the appliqué technique  – pieces of brocade carefully cut out and assembled on it. The thangka can be unrolled and rolled up on a vertical wall or a sloping ramp.

[2] Michael Aris, Views of Medieval Bhutan. The Diary and Drawings of Samuel Davis, Segindia Publications/Smithsonian Institution Press, London - Washington, DC, 1982:  "The building in the foreground is the residence of the unidentified 'Tessaling Lama' and the tall construction to the rear is what Turner called the 'Kugopea' (Tibetan: Gos-sku-spe'u, 'Cloth-Image Tower'). Its purpose was to serve as a frame for displaying once a year a gigantic tapestry of Buddhist divinities worked in applique of a type still seen during certain festivals in Bhutan today." See also Ronald M. Bernier, Himalayan Architecture, Farley Dickinson University Press, 1997, 196 p., p. 72: "a building of one of the region's most extraordinary structural types [is] in the background. Turner called it a kugopea and Aris provides the Tibetan term Gos-sku-spe'u or 'cloth-image tower'."

[3] Andreas Gruschke, The Cultural Monuments of Tibet's Outer Provinces: The Qinghai Part of Amdo, White Lotus Press, 2001, p. 249: "thangka-wall, Tib. --> gökudramsa (gos sku bgram sa)."

[4] Michael Henss, Liberation from the pain of evil destinies: the giant appliqué thang kas (gos sku) at Gyantse (rgyal rtse dpal 'khor chos de), in Issues in Traditional Tibetan Art from the Seventh to the Twentieth Century, Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the IATS, 2003, Volume 13: Art in Tibet (Erberto F. Lo Bue dir.), International Association for Tibetan Studies. Seminar, Charles Ramble, BRILL, 2011, 240 pages, pp. 73-90, p. 87: "Most recently a huge image tower of this kind was erected at Se ra monastery, where – as at 'Bras spungs and other places – the banner had been until then displayed over a permanent scaffolding structure on the slopes ascending behind the monastic compound."

[5] Victor Chan, Tibet Handbook, MOON publications inc., 1994, p. 420: "In Gyantse, the gheku tower can still be seen, massive and severe, high up on the hill;" Michael Henss, op. cit., p. 87: "This huge 'tower for displaying the cloth image' (gos sku spe'u) inside the great enclosure wall built around the Dpal 'khor chos sde in 1425 probably was not erected before the 1430s, when the giant Gyantse banners were commissioned. This form of architectural 'image support' was constructed specifically for the display ritual."

[6] "Service by thangka wall at Palkhor Chode, Gyantse," The Tibet Album, 5 Dec. 2006, The British Museum: People standing and sitting next to the Goku Tramsa wall of Palkhor Chode monastery, Gyantse, where the large embroidered thangka on display can just be seen in the left side of the image. This textile would be displayed during the Gyantse festival which took place in the fourth month of the Tibetan year. The wall [...] was high on the hillside around Gyantse in the north east corner of the monastery."

[7] Michael Henss, op. cit., p. 86: "Because the damaged Dīpankara gos sku is not displayed, the display of the Maitreya alternates annually within a two-year cycle with the Sakyamuni gos sku."

[8] Michael Henss, op. cit., p. 87: "the largest intact tower that has survived is at Bkra shis lhun po [Tashilhunpo]. This is approximately 32 meters in height and 42 meters in width (at the base) and was constructed in 1468 for the display of Sman bla don grub's giant Buddha banner (circa 28 by 19 m)."

[9] Samuel Turner, An Account of an Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet: Containing a Narrative of a Journey Through Bootan, and Part of Tibet, G. and W. Nicol, London, 1800, 473 p. P. 313: "Here [towards the extreme limits of the monastery upon the north east] stood a lofty and broad, but shallow edifice, styled Kugopea, filled, as I was informed, with portraits of the sovereign Lamas, and with other sacred subjects appertaining to their mythology ; and solemnly dedicated to the festive celebration of some mystic rites of their religion"  – P. 314: "A view of the dwelling of Tessaling Lama, with the religious edifice styled Kugopea, on the north eastern boundary of the monastery of Teshoo Loomboo [Tashilhunpo], is given in the annexed plate."

[10] Diana Lange, There’s More Than Meets the Eye with These Maps of Tibet, on The Rubin website, November 28, 2016: "Tashilhunpo Monastery with the big thangka wall, the four Panchen Lama mausoleums, and the Kiki Naga Garden; detail of the panoramic map of Southern Tibet © The British Library Board, Add. Or. 3016, Folio 2 (detail)."

[11] Laurence Austine Waddell, The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism, With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology and in Its Relation to Indian Buddhism, W.H. Allen & Co, Limited, London, 1895, p. 272: "Hard by the last-named premises, is to be observed a lofty building of rubble-stone, reared to the amazing height of nine storeys. This edifice, which forms a very remarkable object on the hill-side, was sketched by Turner, who visited Tashi-lhumpo one hundred years ago, and his drawing of it is here annexed on opposite page. It is called Gö-Ku-pea, or 'The Stored Silken Pictures,' as it is used to exhibit at certain festivals the gigantic pictures of Maitreya and other Buddhist deities, which are brought out and hung high up as great sheets outside the walls of the tall building. By the vulgar it is called Kiku Tamsa. It is used as a storehouse for the dried carcasses of sheep, goats, and yak, which are kept in stock for feeding the inmates of the monastery. A wide-walled yard fronts the Kiku Tamsa, and this space is thronged by a motley crowd when (as is the custom in June and November) the pictures are exhibited." P. 273: "The 'Gö-Ku-pea' or 'Kiku-Tamsa' Tower at Tashi-lhunpo." After Turner.

[12] William Carey, Adventures in Tibet: Including the Diary of Miss Annie R. Taylor's Remarkable Journey From Tau-Cahu to Ta-Chien-Lu Through the Heart of the "Forbidden Land", United society of Christian endeavor, 1901, 285 pages, p. 101: "The most interesting building at Tashi Lhunpo is that called the Kiku Tamsa. It is nine stories high, and tapers upwards like a wedge or like the broad blade of a hatchet. It is the lamas' larder, being filled with dried carcasses of sheep, yak, and goat, for the monastic table. But it is also a gigantic blackboard or picture screen, and this purpose determined its peculiar shape. A large enclosure fronts the building; and twice a year, in June and November, immense crowds gather to gaze on the silken pictures of Buddhist deities which are hung over it for exhibition. These pictures are a hundred feet long. The chief favorite is Jampa, the 'Loving', the Buddha that is to be. Pilgrims come from long distances to see this picture, and press forward to kiss its silken fringe."

[13] Sarat Chandra Das, Journey to Lhasa in Central Tibet, J. Murray, 1902, 285 p., pp. 117 and 274. P. 117: "Some 200 paces farther on in the same drection, we came to a huge stone building called Kiku-tamsa. It is about 60 paces in length and 30 in breadth, and I counted nine stories in it. Though it is upwards of two hundred years old, it is still in excellent repair. Captain Turner made a sketch of it in 1785, but he mistook it for 'a religious edifice.' It is at present used as a store for dried carcasses of yaks, sheep, and goats. Every year, in the latter part of November, all the sacred pictures of the Labrang are hung up on this building for the benefit of the people, who, by touching these paintings with their foreheads, receive the blessings of the gods they represent.'

[14] F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr., A Glimpse of Another World: A Journey Through Western Tibet (1938), edited with a foreword by José Ignacio Cabezón, a Joint Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2008, 135 p.: p. 77, "On the hill behind the monastery of Gyantse, there is an enormous stone pylon which has a flat sloping side facing the town and the plain. Though the building itself serves the double purpose of a granary, it was built for the ceremony of Tangka day on the fifteenth day of the fourth month, called Saga Dawa, when the monks hang on the pylon an enormous Tangka, or banner, bearing a picture of the Buddha. [...] it is in three sections, the center section measuring about a hundred feet square, and the two side panels a hundred by about twenty feet. Moreover, instead of being painted, it is made entirely of brocade which has been cut to bits and then sewn and applied upon a base to make the picture." P. 79-80: "One of the side panels was missing. It was stolen some years ago under the most mysterious circumstances. [...] Some say the Chinese took it; some say the English took it." P. 81: "Beside the work involved, the Tangka must have cost an enormous sum to make, for it is entirely composed of the finest and richest of brocades. We were interested to find that parts of it were made of Genoese velvet, some of Florentine cut velvet, some of Persian gold tissue, some even of French seventeenth century silk brocade, besides bits of Chinese, Indian and even Japanese material."

[15]F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr., op. cit., p. 119: "[...] we came to the spot where the wall runs along behind the top of the great pylon that holds the giant tangka. [...] the pylon we found to be only one flight of steps above the level of the hill at the back, and we climbed up to inspect it. On the very top was a wide terrace on the flat roof. Along the front side of this was a covered loggia with several windows looking down on the town. Above the row of windows was a row of twenty or thirty huge wooden pulleys set into the masonry and used to carry the ropes when pulling up the great tangka. [...] We crept through into the darkness. At the very bottom, the building was almost dark, but we could make out a row of square compartments, like huge coal bins, along each side of the gallery that ran down the center of the building. At the far end, a wide ramp circled upward to another floor that had the same double raft of huge bins. The internal construction of the building was entirely of heavy cypress beams, so arranged that the sloping front wall of the building was supported by the hillside at the back. [...] the entire building was once used as a granary. That was the purpose of the giant bins along each floor [...]."

[16] Michael Henss, op. cit., pp. 86-88 (section The Ritual of Displaying The Gos Sku): "On the 9th of June of 2001 preparations began around four am as every year in the Rgyal rtse gtsug lag khang with the opening of the heavy leather bags in which the thang kas are kept throughout the year. Soon after 5 am the principal scroll and the side-banner were carried – mostly by young lay people – out of the assembly hall up to the gos sku thang sa, 'the place for unfolding the silken image' where around 35 monks had gathered and were chanting sutra verses and blowing long dung chen trumpets. / [...] At a quarter to six am, when it was still dark, the thang ka procession arrived at the foot of the steeply inclined wall and the banner was fixed in its full upper width to a long metal pole. Shortly after six, fifteen laymen standing behind the façade at the top of the gos sku spe'u (plate 54) began to pull their precious load up. The image was then unrolled with the help of fifteen ropes in little more than five minutes. / At a quarter past six, the side-banner was pulled-up, fixed to another three ropes. All eighteen ropes slid over an equivalent number of wooden rolls in the top section of the tower and were handled by as many laymen lifting the silken scroll simultaneously. / Pilgrims performing their sacred bskor ra intra muros around the Dpal 'khor chos sde passed by the base of the gos sku thang sa, offering silken scarves and prostrating themselves to worship the silken image. Around ten, when the sun was about to rise over the upper ridge of the eastern hills, the sound of dung chen ('long trumpets') overwhelmed that of monks reciting prayers and the giant banner was let down. This took half an hour, and involved a procedure handled with considerably more care and time than the earlier process of unrolling. The thang ka was displayed for around four hours. Folding (not rolling!) the huge fabric thang ka to keep it safe for another two years is surprisingly complicated and requires a very professional expertise to avoid damage. One more hour was needed for packing and before noon the silken scroll had been carried back to the gtsug lag khang."

[17] Hoisting of the monumental thangka from the top of the thangka wall at Tashilhunpo monastery, on the tibettravel.org website.

 

Contents:

1. Designations of giant thangka walls
  1.1 In Tibetan
  1.2 In English
  1.3 In German
  1.4 In French

2. Inventory of giant thangka walls
  2.1 Sera monastery at Lhassa
  2.2 Palcho Chode monastery at Gyantse
  2.3 Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse
  2.4 Riwo Dechen monastery at Qonggyai

3. Ancient descriptions of Tashilhunpo's thangka wall
  3.1 Samuel Turner (1800)
  3.2 Wise Collection (mid 19th century)
  3.3 Laurence Austine Waddell (1895)
  3.4 William Carey (1901)
  3.5 Sarat Chandra Das (1902)

4. Ancient description of the thangka wall at Palcho Chode
  4.1 F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr. (1938)

5. Transporting, hoisting, unveiling, displaying and letting down of a gigantic thangka
  5.1 At Palcho Chode
  5.2 At Tashilhunpo

Appendix : the large thangkas of the Potala palace

Notes


To print, use landscape mode

 

© Christian Lassure

June 6th, 2019

 

To be referenced as :

 

Christian Lassure

An architectural curiosity: the thangka walls of the major Tibetan monasteries
http://www.pierreseche.com/thangka_walls_english.htm

June 6th, 2019

 

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