I've bought a lot of cheap trinkets in my travels, like the infamous Thai Beer Can Tuk-Tuk, but there is one souvenir that makes up for all my episodes of bad judgement — a Tibetan thangka I bought in Kathmandu, Nepal.
While it's the most beautiful piece of art I own, it's also by far the most expensive souvenir I've ever purchased.
Thangkas are traditional Tibetan cloth paintings, framed with embroidered silk. The paintings typically depict the Buddha, other Deities, mandalas, the Wheel of Life (as you see in the photos here) or other important scenes from Tibetan Buddhism. Full of symbolism, they are are hung around monasteries and homes to illustrate Buddha's teachings, as well as for decoration.
Before leaving home, I had encountered thangkas at a Washington, DC Buddhist center and at a DC shop that sold crafts from the Himalaya. In that shop, there were a limited choice of thangkas, and the prices were around $500 apiece.
I wanted one badly, however I knew I could get one for less if I went to the source — Tibet.
As it turned out, I never made it to Tibet. I was in Chengdu, China when riots broke out in Lhasa, and the border was closed to foreigners 3 days before I was to depart by train. I had already visited Little Tibet in Chengdu, a street filled with Tibetan shops and monks. Unfortunately, the majority of “thangkas” were just cheap prints, so I had to wait a little longer to see the real thing.
Once I landed in Kathmandu, and settled in a guest house in the tourist ghetto known as Thamel, I began to explore. The Nepalese people were friendly, and it wasn't long before I had shopkeepers inviting me into their stores to sit down for a cup of milk tea and look at whatever they were selling. Ironically, Nepal probably has more Tibetan thangka artists and schools than Tibet now, given China's religious oppression has driven artists into exile.
In the beginning, I had a trek to focus on, so my thangka shopping had to be put on the backburner, but when I returned to Kathmandu toward the end of my stay in Nepal, I dedicated an entire day to shopping for the best thangka I could find.
I'm confident I found it, and for those who would like to shop for one as well, I have a few tips on how to buy a Tibetan thangka in Nepal.
- Set a budget (and then be willing to break it…I paid 3x what I initially thought I'd spend, but it was worth it). Factors affecting the cost of a thangka include: quality of painting/skill of painter, size, and your ability to negotiate.
- Select a subject of your thangka in advance, or as early as possible in the shopping process. There are thangkas hanging from shops all over Kathmandu and Pokhara, if not the rest of Nepal. The sooner you can narrow down the subject you want depicted, the easier it will be to compare quality between shops.
- Decide on the size of the thangka you want, inclusive of the embroidered frame. Most of the paintings you'll browse will not be framed with the silk embroidery yet. While you can frame a thangka like a normal painting, their traditional silk frames will distinguish them from other artwork you might have hanging around. The paintings are available in all sizes, and you can usually customize the width of the frame. [Note: It might take a day or two for the frame to be stitched together with the painting.]
- Allow yourself a few hours to visit shops and thangka schools. Talk with the shopkeepers, ask questions about the stories and scenes depicted in the paintings. Expect offers of tea in an effort to keep you in their shops. Accept the offers as a courtesy, enjoy the tea, but if they pressure you to buy, head for another shop.
- Determine quality by looking closely at the lines. There are three general skill levels of thangka painters: students, professionals, and masters. You can discern the skill of the artist by looking closely at the lines, such as those used to make waves, clouds, and the faces of people, deities, and animals. The finer and clearer the lines, the greater the skill involved. A thangka painted by a master will cost more than one painted by a professional. The student painted thangkas are the lowest quality, and therefore the cheapest. In order for you to start recognizing the minor differences between professional and master quality yourself (versus taking the salesman's word for it), look at a dozen or more thangkas of the same subject.
- Negotiate before you buy. Once you've found the thangka you want, negotiate for it! Nepalis expect this, and if you've already been to several shops, then by the time you pick the painting you want to buy, you will already have a good idea of the going rate for the same size and quality elsewhere.
If you plan to continue traveling for an extended time, you will want to ship your thangka home. To ensure delivery, I recommend using a courier service such as FedEx or DHL.
The thangka I bought was painted by a master, on the larger side, and included the two wooden rods for the frame, with metal tips. I paid $75 to have it shipped via FedEx from Kathmandu, to Virginia. It arrived safe and sound, packaged in a cardboard tube thick enough that I could stand on it without it giving way.