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October 2015

Postcard from India: UBC student investigates social and cultural change in Buddhist art

I’m majoring in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and I’m currently researching thangka painting in Sikkim state in northeastern India. It’s a unique region with a long history of Tibetan Buddhism. Thangka paintings are typically painted on fabrics and display Buddhist images like deities or mandalas.

I have been interested in visual anthropology and representations of cultural heritage throughout my degree. In discussions with my supervisor, Dr. Sara Shneiderman, I learned about the deep cultural histories of the Himalayan region, and I aimed to bring together my interest in visual anthropology with a field-based ethnographic study of a social phenomenon.

I wanted to apply what I’ve learned in class while documenting a tradition undergoing rapid change throughout the Himalayan region. Thangka art turned out to be the perfect subject: because it is as much an artifact as a souvenir, it is being reproduced in various social-cultural contexts in the Himalayan region.

Part of my research consists of searching for thangka artists at monasteries, workshops, and private galleries. Being native to India and knowing Hindi was very useful for building rapport while conducting interviews and observing artists. The data I have been collecting consists of painters and associated institutions — this documentation could help revive the traditional thangka style, which is threatened by flex-printed versions that are cheaper to produce. I’m also assessing the impact of tourism on Sikkim’s traditional arts, and how this shift is refiguring identity construction in the state, which has undergone significant demographic changes over the last century.

I have been lucky to have two supportive supervisors in Sikkim, Dr. Anna Balikci-Denjongpa and Dr. Sameera Maiti, both of whom provided initial contact with thangka painters and research material to get started. I shared my research with master’s students at the Department of Anthropology, Sikkim University. I also was invited to speak about anthropology at Mount Kidzee school in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. Overall, my research project provided an opportunity to exchange ideas about anthropology and research methods with students and to learn from them about Sikkim. 


Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec their support of the Globalink Research Award program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with international partners to support this award, including Campus France and Inria, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.