A colorful life
While most thangka artists in the Tibet autonomous region are men, the work of producing the mineral pigments, and therefore the colors they use, is done exclusively by women.
At a pigment-production workshop at Lhasa Ancient Architectural Art Co, five women sang a traditional Tibetan song as they ground ores into fine powder.
Although the work is physically demanding and requires great patience and application, none of the women looked tired or bored. Instead, they worked enthusiastically and harmoniously because they believe their work has a spiritual dimension.
“It’s hard work, but I don’t get stressed or bored because the pigments are used to paint religious thangkas,” Pema Dechen said. “The more pigments I produce, the more merits and virtues I accumulate,” she added.
The 49-year-old hails from Shannan prefecture, which is often considered the cradle of the Tibetan ethnic group and its culture, and has been making pigments for 13 years. She said she will keep working until her last breath.
Before moving to the workshop, she worked on construction sites at monasteries in Tibet.
“I’m getting older and can’t take heavy construction work anymore, so I decided to work as a pigment maker,” she said.
The process is complex and takes more than 20 working days to complete. First, the ores are boiled in a large crucible for 60 minutes, then placed in a water-filled stone groove where they are broken down into smaller pieces before being ground again. The water in the groove allows the pigments to separate from the surrounding material. The grinding process continues for more than 10 days.
The rocks in the groove are ground with a heavy stone pestle suspended from a girder, and its action alternates between heavy and light depending on the stage of production.
The pigments are used to render religious images, such as the Buddha, on traditional scroll paintings, so the workers are required to maintain high standards of personal and workplace cleanliness.
“The whole process takes more than 20 days, and produces about 2.5 kilograms of pigment,” Pema Dechen said.
Her average working day lasts eight hours, and she works more than 340 days every year, earning about 2,700 yuan ($440) a month. Although that’s not a high salary in Lhasa, Pema Dechen and her colleagues said they have never regretted choosing this line of work.
Every day, the women take turns to buy butter tea or sweet tea, and never miss their tea break and morning chanting sessions.
“We drink tea together every morning, and we spend an hour chanting the daily sutra, too,” Pema Dechen said.
Tsamcho, who also makes pigments in the workshop, said the women only take a break during key Tibetan festivals or religious events.
“I will continue to work here in the future. I’m very pleased to be engaged this work,” said Tsamcho, who like many Tibetans only has one name. However, she won’t be teaching her three children her skills because she wants them to finish school and get a decent education.
The 51-year-old said she feels honored to work as a pigment producer because the end products are genuinely Tibetan and are made using traditional skills.
“Grinding the green and blue ores requires a person to be patient, but grinding whites and yellows requires more strength, like a young man,” she said.