Natural Earth Paint Through the Ages: Buddhism

Natural Earth Paint Through the Ages: Buddhism

For over 2,500 years, Buddhists have spread their message of enlightenment to every corner of the globe. 

Today, with an estimated 488 million practicing Buddhists worldwide, followers of this ancient religion continue to make significant contributions to philosophy, literature, and art.

This entry into Natural Paint Through the Ages will explore how Buddhists have used natural paint and dyes throughout the centuries to advance their cause, including the creation of temple cave paintings, monastic robes and the Buddhist symbol of the universe—the Tibetan sand mandala.

(© Jerrye and Roy Klotz MD, CC BY-SA 3.0, image source)

Temple Cave Paintings

Some of the earliest Buddhist paintings adorn the temple caves of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Bamiyan is a city located along the ancient Silk Road. Buddhists and merchants used this route to travel across Asia and the Middle East beginning around second century BCE. A majority of the Bamiyan paintings feature images of Buddha and creatures of Buddhist mythology.

A 2008 article in the science publication, Nature, highlights a study of the Bamiyan paintings. A cultural researcher named Yoko Taniguchi and her colleagues determined that Buddhists painted the cave walls around seventh century BCE, making the Bamiyan oil paintings some of the oldest in the world.

According to the article, chemical tests on the paintings revealed the pigments vermilion and lead white. Vermilion is a bright, red pigment created by crushing a mineral known as cinnabar. This finding highlights a sobering fact about some of the most common pigments of ancient times. Vermilion (containing mercury) and Lead White are created from natural minerals, but they are fairly toxic to humans. So these pigments could've threatened the health of the Buddhists who used them.

While Indian and Chinese Buddhists are credited with many temple cave paintings throughout Asia, the origin of the Buddhists responsible for the Bamiyan paintings remains unknown.

(Free use image from

Monastic Robes

One of the most visible aspects of Buddhism is the monastic robe. For centuries, Buddhist monks have worn dyed robes to represent their modesty and spirituality. While there is no specific guideline for colors, monks have often been forced to choose dyes created from regional-specific plants (flowers, fruits, tubers). So, in part, the earliest robes happened to be orange, yellow, or red because of a monk's geographic location.

According to textiles expert Janet Stafford, the dyeing process involves submerging cloth into a bath of hot or cold water mixed with the source of dye. Depending on the region, saffron and St. John's Wort are two sources of yellow dye, while onion skin and annatto seeds can provide oranges and reds.

Today, the Theravada monks of Southeast Asia have adopted orange as their robe color. Tibetan monks choose to wear maroon—a deep red.

(Free use image from

Tibetan Sand Mandala

Regarded as a Buddhist symbol of the universe, the Tibetan sand mandala is a stunning, time-consuming piece of artwork. To create this art, Tibetan monks carefully place grains of colored sand along a drawing of geometric shapes, with the colors representing each of the five Buddhas and their families. The five Buddhas and their corresponding colors are:

  • White (representing the Buddha family)
  • Blue (representing the Vajra family)
  • Yellow (representing the Ratna family)
  • Red (representing the Padma family)
  • Green (representing the Karma family)

According to Buddhist teachings, the five Buddahs symbolize different areas of the mind. During the process of creating a sand mandala, monks chant and pray to summon the power of the Buddahs.

While early Tibetan monks relied solely on the natural color of Himalayan sand, recent monks have used natural pigments to dye their mandala sand. The sources of color include:

  • Yellow ochre
  • Charcoal
  • Red sandstone
  • Flower pollen
  • Corn meal
  • Bark

After weeks of careful assembly, the monks sweep the mandala sand together. Then they place the sand into a body of water, symbolizing a return to nature.

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