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Tsakli: Tibetan Ritual Miniature Paintings
by Juan Li, March 17, 1995

Text and images copyright Juan Li and Asian : not to be reproduced without permission

(click on small images for large images with captions)

Fig. 1. Tsakli of attributes

Among the numerous items employed in Tibetan ritual is a genre of miniature painting little known in the occident and rarely spoken of in the liturgical literature translated into western languages. These are the 'Tsakli' or 'Initiation Cards' (fig 1, left) 1.

Tsakli paintings are employed in numerous ritual situations such as empowerment, ritual mandalas, transmission of teachings, substitutes for ceremonial items, visualization aids and funerals. The subjects depicted in tsakli cover a vast range from main deities and protectors to their various power attributes and appropriate offerings. While tangka paintings often depict these subjects in rich detail, tsakli are unique in that they generally focus on just one item at a time. One card may have a Mahakala, for example, another card would depict the vajra attribute, another the rosary of heads, another may have the skull cup and so on (see fig. 1 and fig. 3). This individualized approach may add up to form an entire mandala set of cards with over a hundred paintings.

Fig. 2. monk with tsakli

To facilitate visualization during ritual tsakli are sometimes briefly shown to the initiates by the officiating lama by simply holding the card at arms' length, or they may be held by a stick as part of other ritual items in the altar (fig. 2, right). Sometimes the cards being displayed in an altar are changed gradually over a course of several days as a series of teachings unfold or they may be integrated with torma offerings to form a tridimensional mandala. Tsakli with the guardians of the four quarters may be set up facing the appropriate directions during the construction of a new monastery building. Or they are placed singly within a portable altar called Gau to be carried during a long journey. Tsakli often serve as substitutes for ritual items which are difficult to procure such as precious stones of different colors, or flayed skins of demons.

Tsakli also play a central role in funeral ceremonies guiding the awareness of the deceased through the intermediate Bardo realms. Since Bardo rituals may last for 49 days or less, an effigy of the deceased is set up either in its home or at the home of the local lama. Usually a monochrome tsakli printed from a woodblock represents the deceased and a large set of color cards represents the individual deities and spirits encountered in the different stages of the Bardo journey. Sometimes this funeral set of tsakli may consist of just a handful of cards or it may have the complete mandala of the Bardo deities and their attributes individually depicted, running into eighty cards or more.

Fig. 3: Tsakli of skull-cup

The materials employed for tsakli are generally either primed cloth or cardboard made by gluing several layers of Himalayan paper. Some very rare sets have been made on very thin sheets of Himalayan mica carefully painted and then trimmed and glued on the edges (fig. 3 left). Other sets have been made from carved woodblocks and then printed either on paper or cloth. The large sets of tsakli were often carried between wooden covers specially carved to size.

So far, there is no evidence of tsakli use in ancient India, China or South East Asia, so it may be a purely Tibetan custom. With our scant knowledge about this genre of ritual art it is impossible to speculate when tsakli use may have begun. The only certain thing is that they deserve an important place among the ancient ritual arts of Tibet and the outlying regions.


{1} Lobsang Lhalungpa notes the spellings tsak-li and tsa-ka'-li, and adds; "Tsakali are primarily used for single or serial empowerments. Besides figures of deities, tsakalis also depict every set of symbols and offerings, including ritual objects. Sometimes a tsakali of a chosen deity is placed in a traveller's shrine (ga'u)." Tsakali does not appear to be a Tibetan word but may be derived from a Sanskrit word or compound. to text

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