A thangka painting was traditionally a portable fabric scroll, kept unframed, and intended to be used either for personal meditation or in order to instruct other individuals in Buddhist teachings. Thangkas use a combination of depictions of deities or influential leaders, alongside symbols and very precise geometry in order to help aid the viewer on his or her path to enlightenment. Thangkas can also serve to retell a historical event involving a well-known lama, or depict a myth of a deity like a Buddha or bodhisattva. It is believed that if painted correctly and beautifully, these works could house the spirits of their deities, and so a very strict set of rules and patterns is taught and enforced. The deities must always be depicted with the exact same proportions, the color palette is restricted, and the stances of the figures are heavily curated. The monks who produce these works must spend at least six years studying the art form before the painting can be deemed acceptable to Buddhist standards.
Some of the key religious symbols that can be seen in thangka paintings are lotus flowers, banners, knots, fish, umbrellas, vases, conch shells, and the dharma wheel. These motifs are referred to as the 8 auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism: