For World Art Day today, here is a write-up and summary of a teaching the 17th Karmapa gave in March 2021 about the Karma Gar-ri (Karma Encampment Painting) style (video here). This followed on from a prior teaching he gave on Pre-Karma Kagyu Encampment Art in Tibet. For a write-up of that teaching, see here.

First, I refer to some important points the 17th Karmapa made previously about the Karma Gar-ri style, such as the meaning of the word Karma Gar-ri and the time periods of the three main styles of Tibetan art that came before it.

Then, there is the teaching on Karma Gar-ri style, with exquisite (previously unseen) rare images of artworks and murals as presented by the 17th Karmapa (who is a talented painter and artist himself, see here).

May these images encourage us all to be more creative, expressive and artistic in our life!

Music? Mahakala melodies? The Mahakala Daily Practice  and If by Bread…If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you?….’

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 15th April 2022.


In his previous teaching on Tibetan art, the 17th Karmapa explained why it was more suitable to say Gar-ri than the more commonly used, Gar-dri (sgar bri):

 “In terms of the Tibetan term. Karma Gar-dri. It is better to say Karma Gar-ri. In Tibetan, the word ‘dri’ can be confusing in this context, because when you say Gar-dri, it means ‘encampment writing’, so it might be mistakenly thought of as a style of calligraphy that was developed in the encampment, or as a particular handwriting style. So it was less confusing to call the painting style Karma Ga-ri. It would be good to distinguish them in that way. Whether this is logical or not is something that experts should examine. I am not saying unilaterally it should be that. Whatever we say, what we need to understand is that the the Karma Gar-ri style of painting became an exceptional Tibetan style, developed within the Karma Garchen under the instructions of the Karmapas and their Heart Sons. It emerged as a new Tibetan artistic style augmenting earlier Tibetan art forms with techniques and styles from other cultures. It was a new style in that way. Due to the Gyalwang Karmapas and their heart sons, it spread widely and continues to this day.  So it is an artistic style that came from the Encampment (the Gar-ri, the Encampment painting style).”


From the 7th until the 15th century, most of the paintings and sculptures in Tibet were in either Indian or, primarily, Nepali/Newari style. So when did a distinctive Tibetan art form and techniques  develop?   In his previous teaching, the 17th Karmapa described a text by Bhikshu Rinchen Chok (born in 1664), from Milk Lake in Gyaltang, Kham, entitled the Light of the Great Sun: A Commentary on the Presentation of the Characteristics of Statue Forms Called the Essence of Goodness,  composed at Tsurphu monastery in 1704. In this text, it says there are three main styles that developed in Tibet after the 15th Century. This text was also the only one that explained the origin and development of the Gar-ri style.

1.Men-ri style – artist Menla Dondrup

2. Khyen-ri style – artist Khyentse Chenmo

3.Jeyu-ri style – artist Tulku Jeyu

The 17th Karmapa finished the teaching on the pre-Karma Gar-ri style with an explanation of how the main Tibetan source texts on these ‘three great styles’ do not mention anything about the Karma Gar-ri style:

“Later, Desi Sangye Gyatso (sDe-srid Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho) ‘s Catalogue of Offerings of the Ornament of the World, written in 1697 CE, mentions Dopa Tashi Gyalpo, his students Menla Dondrup and Khyentse Chenmo, and the Chiwu style. It is the primary source for historians of Menluk and Khyenluk. However, there is not a single word about the Gar-ri style. The reason for this is unclear, but from one perspective, Sangye Gyatso was writing at a time when the Karma Kagyu were being suppressed, so the Garchen was probably also suppressed and could not be mentioned.

Geshe Tenzin Phuntsok of Marsho Gojo [born 1673] was skilled in Tibetan medicine and astrology.  He also wrote about techniques of coloration in a text called Giving Hues to Flowers and Bringing Out the 100,000 Colours of Rainbows. In this work, he wrote a history of Tibetan art similar to that of Sangye Gyatso. In 1716, he wrote the Long Explanation of Consecration: The Smile that Pleases Maitreya, Eight Parts of Excellent Auspiciousnes, within this he says basically the same thing as Sangye Gyatso and that the first styles to develop were “the three great styles.”

For a timeline and various examples of extant murals that show the development and styles of pre Karma Gar-ri Tibetan art from the 7th to 15th Century, as presented by the 17th Karmapa, see here[1].

Karma Gon monastery (one of the three main seats of the Karmapas in Tibet)

“The two founders of the Karma Gar-ri style were Namkha Tashi (Sprul-sku-nam-mkh’a-bkra-shis (1500s) and Yarto Tulku Pende (dkon-mchog-phan-bde). These days, it’s said that Tulku Pende from E or Ye (g.Ye) was the art teacher of Namkha Tashi, but his role in the development of the style is not well known. [Author’s note: It is said that Tulku Pende was a follower of the Men-ri (sMan-ris) tradition and was traditionally said to be an emanation ofWen-ch’ eng kung-chu, the Chinese consort of the 7th-century Tibetan ruler Srong-btsan-sgam-po].

However, if we look at the  Light of the Great Sun by Rinchen Drupchok, which I quoted before, the liberation stories of the Karmapas and other related histories, we can establish that he was an important person in the founding of the style.

In the Golden Garland of Kagyu Biographies by Situ Chokyi Gyaltsen (si tu 01 chos kyi rgyal mtshan), there is a story:

Each storey of the Yermoche main temple [built by Situ Chokyi Gyaltsen] with 150 columns and a foyer with eight columns, took nine years to build. Tulku Pende and Tsebum Tende and others painted the murals. These depicted the 100 deeds as described by Lord Chokyi Wangchuk. 

Many of the murals paintings at the Yermoche (Karma Gon) Monastery are gone but there are some left in the Lhamo Lhakhang and it is thought that these were painted by Tulku Pende. In 1918, when Kathok Situ stopped at Karma Gon on his way to Central Tibet, he said the shrine at Yermoche had 56 columns and murals there depicting the Jataka Tales in the Gar-ri style. They were the Jataka Tales but these were the murals in the guru shrine room.  Tulku Pende probably painted them.”

“There is also the 6th Gyaltsap Drakpa Dondrup’s liberation story of the 9th Karmapa. It says that after Mikyo Dorje passed away, Tulku Pende made a reliquary stupa for him. The Golden Garland of Kagyu Biographies records that there was no master artist during the time of the 9th Karmapa. Tulku Pende was critical about that. This is apparently why the 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje became a very fine artist.

Here is an illustrated representation of the Mahakala puja melodies made by the 9th Karmapa. If you look at them they are a bit like a child’s drawing. So he did not really know how to draw well. Since Tulku Pende was very familiar and close to Wangchuk Dorje, he could be frank with him about his lack of artistic skills.

“Also, the autobiography of Situ Panchen mentions paintings of the eight close sons by Tulku Pende. He commissioned copies of the sketches of Tulku Pende’s work; and got other artists to add colour to these copies. The original by Tulku Pende we do not have, but I would like to show you this copy. It is probably his:

A depiction of Manjushri in the Karma Gar-ri style, said to be originally sketched by Tulku Pende. 

“Tulku Pende may have initially painted in the earlier Men-ri style, but he eventually held and established the Karma Gar-ri  style and became an important painter. To compare his work to Namkha Tashi’s is difficult, until we can actually examine the paintings. However, it does seem clear that his technical skills were equal to Namkha Tashi’s.”

Modern drawing of Tulku Pende from David Jackson’s ‘History of Tibetan Painting’ (1996)


9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje

Turning to Namkha Tashi (Nam-mkha ‘bkra-shis) this artist was considered an emanation of Mikyo Dorje, [who predicted that this child would carry on the Karmapa’s activities in the special sphere of making sacred images}. So he not only became highly skilled in the techniques but he also became one of the leading innovators in establishing the Gar-ri style. The 9th Karmapa and his heart sons treated him very well, and he worked on many of their projects as an artist and a supervisor.

To give an example, If we look at the Golden Garland of Kagyu Biographies, and in particular, the story of the 5th Zhamar Konchok Yenlak Rinpoche, we learn that Namkha Tashi was asked to make a copy of a work by Mentangpa, a old Chinese painting, depicting the amazing deeds of the Buddha. The 5th Zhamar Rinpoche told the artist to draw one like that, and he did it very well. The artist also wrote the Twelve Deeds of the Buddha and the Qualities of Removal and Ripening of the Buddha in gold letters on silk, and placed on either sides of the central thangka.

5th Zhamarpa – patron and supporter of the Karma Gar-ri style

In fact, the 5th Zhamarpa was the first person to patronize work in the Karma Gar-Ri style and Namkha Tashi seems to have been very close to him. Gyaltsab Drakpa Döndrup wrote in his biography of 9th Karmapa’s liberation-story that in 1582, when Wangchuk Dorje went to Tsurphu Chokong Gon (which later became the residence of many of the Gyaltsab Rinpoches), Namkha Tashi painted the murals in that shrine. Also it says in the biography, that in 1583, when the 5th Zharmapa passed away, Namkha Tashi supervised the construction of his silver reliquary. 

Likewise, when the 9th Karmapa was young and studying philosophical texts, many other intelligent students gathered around him, including Namkha Tashi. He was included in the Karmapa’s entourage, and was called ku-kor, which means “near the Karmapa.”

In 1591, the 9th Karmapa founded Kushok Okmin Ling Monastery. When he founded it, Namkha Tashi was told to paint the thangkas of the lineage masters. It took him eight years; in 1599, he was able to offer them to the 9th Karmapa. Today, this monastery is Yung Okmin Ling Monastery in modern day Shitse City, Rinpung District.

There are some remains of the monastery and some of the murals can be seen in the present day. Despite its ruinous state, the walls still stand and some of the murals remain. Because the monastery was built at the time of the establishment of the original Gardri style, these murals are precious early examples of that style.

Here are some images of the murals (above). It used to be an elaborate monastery and now it is like a farmhouse. Even that has now been torn down and all that is left are the walls. They are in danger of being completely destroyed, so it is important that they are recorded and studied to determine the original characteristics of the style.

There are also two murals in the Gar-ri style depicting the Kagyu lineage masters, including Wangchuk Dorje, from Lhalung Monastery in Lhodrak, Tibet. These also were painted in the original Gar-ri style so it is possible that Namkha Tashi, Tulku Pende, or one of their contemporary artists painted them. It is important to research these murals as well.

 A depiction of the 9th Karmapa is in the middle, surrounded by the Kagyu gurus. It was hidden in a cave during the Cultural Revolution, the works got wet and degraded quite a bit, but the traits of the early Gar-ri style are evident.  

A  recent discovery in the Lhodrak Nyidey Monastery in Thimpu, Bhutan—now a branch of Thrangu Monastery, and once the seat of the 5th Sharmapa Könchok Yenlak. The monastery used to house old thangkas depicting the Kagyu lineage, but it now seems that they were among a collection of sacred objects taken to Tashi Gephel Gön monastery in Lhodrak. This is where Kathok Situ saw them in 1918. He described twenty-five paintings with silk brocade frames in the old Gardri style, painted during the time of Shamar Könchok Yenlak, They were amazing painting that no other works could compare with them. Because these thangkas are associated with the 5th Sharmapa, there is a good chance that Namkha Tashi painted them. The reason being that the 5th Zhamarpa was a patron of the style and he commissioned Namkha Tashi to paint many painting. They are among the oldest remaining examples of the early Karma Gardri style. These are ancestral jewels that also deserve to be studied and researched. 

That is a consideration of the early masters of the Karma Gar-ri—Tulku Pende and Namkha Tashi. 

Statue of 10th Karmapa, said to be created by the 10th Karmapa

In the Light of the Great Sun, Rinchen Drupchok says that the 10th Karmapa first studied the Men-ri style, and later, Chinese and Kashmiri painting styles. He became an unparalleled innovator. Also no one in Tibet was as skilled as he in poetry and art. Choying Dorje said he felt that he had pleased Avalokiteshvara and that he had come to this world was to make paintings. He  created a new image or paitning daily, not missing a single day. According to foreign scholars who have studied his work extensively, the 10th Karmapa ranks among the greatest of all Tibetan artists and one of the most skilled.

Many of Choying Dorje’s works survive, but to show one example, The Deeds of the Buddha, which depicts Shakyamuni sitting under the Bodhi Tree subduing the maras. I plan to continue speaking about the 10th Karmapa’s paintings next year.


As already mentioned, Rinchen Drupchok (b. 1664) wrote the Light of the Great Sun (Nyima Chenpo Osel) [1], one of the earliest/oldest commentaries on the Gar-ri style. It includes mention of how to determine the proportions of the deities.  One of the earliest instruction texts on the proportions of deities was Drogon Chopak’s student, Sonam Oser—or Jamyang Drakpa—of Tsawa Rongpa. There are also other important texts concerning artistic practice: 

  • The Flower Motif by Yonten Jungne and Rikpay Raldri; 
  • Mirror for Viewing Reflections (Zug-ngen Tawai Melong) by Tsongkhapa’s student Tashi Tsultrim; 
  • Wish-fulfilling Jewel of Proportions [] by Menla Dondrup; 
  • Proportions of Deities: the Mirror that Shows the Sutras and Tantras, by Tsang Tanak Rikhar Tulku Palden Lodro;
  • Proportions of Deities by Jampa Namgyel Dratsang
  • History of Proportions by Taranatha,
  • the Ocean of Wealth-Creating Images of Body, Speech and Mind by Tagtsam Lotsawa
  • Determining the Proportions of Deities by Dese Sangye Gyatso

Also he created the Great Painting, it is traditionally said there is one Great Painting in U and one in Tsang, but these days the one in Tsang is no longer extant it seems. This is a very old painting and probably one of the earliest and most elaborate of the paintings. 

Also there are the designs and craftsmanship of Demar Yeshe (De’u-dmar dge-bshes). We need to research  study these texts by Tibetan experts to determine their most individual and important features.

[Author’s note: Surprisingly, many of these texts are not listed in David Jackson’s work on this subject. Also, there is a film of a 20th Century project  that restored huge, gigantic applique thangka paintings at Tsurphu Monastery, Tibet, see here )].


There were several early thangkas in Gar-ri style depicting the Gyaltsab lineage, painted during the time of Gyeltsab Rinpoche. One of the main early thangkas depicting the 6th Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Norbu Sangpo is by one of his students, probably Gelong Rinchen Sangpo. These are among the oldest/earliest paintings in the Karma Gar-ri style


“In the 17th Century,  during the lifetime of the 3rd Khamtrul Kunga Tenzin [1680-1728], an artist named Cho Tashi—he was one of the three great artists named Tashi in the Karma Gar-ri school. Under the direction of the 3rd Khamtrul he painted around 48 thangkas depicting the masters of the Drukpa Kagyu Lineage. I will show you the first of these, the one of Vajradhara.”

Situ Panchen (1700-1774) in Rubin Museum of Art

“In the 18th century, Situpa Panchen, Chokyi Jungne was a figure well versed in all fields of knowledge, studied painting and arts thoroughly and restored and helped propagate the Karma Gar-ri style and had a great influence on it. I do not have much time to show these today but there are many examples. I should start to research this now so I can present something next year.”

Situ Panchen painting from
Shakyamuni Buddha – Avadana (teaching stories) (see HAR
19th Century thangka of the Jataka Tales in the Karma Gar-ri style

To end this post, following the art and Mahakala theme, here is a painting by the 17th Karmapa of Mahakala. 

Mahakala by 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje


If Tulku Pende thought 9th Karmapa can’t paint a dog, how about these?
  • Heller, Amy. Hidden Treasures of the Himalayas: Tibetan manuscripts, paintings and sculptures of Dolpo. Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2009.
  • Heller, Amy. Early Himalayan art. Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, 2008.
  • Heller, Amy.  Xizang Fojiao Yishu (Tibetan Buddhist Art). Beijing: Culture and Art Publishing, 2008.
  • Heller, Amy.  Tibetan Art Tracing the Development of Spiritual Ideals and Art in Tibet, 600 – 2000 A.D. Milano: Jaca Book and Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1999. Translations: Arte Tibetana, Davide Cova, translator, Milano: Jaca Book, 1999; Arts et Sagesses du Tibet, Divina Cabo, translator, La Pierre-qui-Vire: Editions du Zodiaque, 1999. Arte Tibetano, Inés Martin/ José Luis Tamayo, translators, Madrid: Libsa, 2000 (reprint 2002).
  • Heller, Amy. Tibetan Art. Milan: Editoriale Jaca Book SpA, 1999.


[1] Although I am not that familiar with her work, Dr. Amy Heller of the University of Bern (2021) breaks up Tibetan art history into six main periods, as can be read in this interesting summary of some public lectures she gave last month: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Art: Lectures by Dr. Amy Heller | Buddhistdoor. See Heller’s various books and articles listed in ‘Further Reading’ below.

[2] bDe bar gshegs pa’i sku gzugs kyi tshad kyi rab tu byed pa yid bzhin nor bu. Gangthog, Lama Dawa and Sherab Gyaltsen, 1983. Reproduction ofnMS of Lama Senge of Yol-mo. See also the text based on a Zhol edition i of Blo-bzang-phun-tshogs, bKa’ -chen, (1993), pp. 11-32.

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