Tibetan Butter Sculpture

  • by Eric
  • Last Updated: 2020-02-06

Tibetan Butter Sculpture is a special form of art made of ghee. Fortunately, after the founding of the Bonismo, Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche changed a lot of primitive belief methods, including the way to offer a sacrifice to deities, and so on. The new way is to use Zanba and ghee to form a variety of colored thread disks to replace the animals to be sacrificed, therefore reduce the killing. This is the origin of Dolma and Butter sculpture.

Dolma and Butter sculpture were widely used as offerings by other Tibetan Buddhist denominations and became a major feature of Tibetan Buddhism. Many of the customs and traditions of modern Tibetans have also been passed down from the ancient Bon religion. Many unique ways of praying of Tibetans are also relics of the ancient Bon religion, such as kora/worshipping/circumambulating the holy mountains/lakes, scattering wind horse flags(Longda), hanging multi-colored prayer flags, engraving Buddhism scriptures on stones, and placing mani piles, divination, worshipping the Dolma plate, butter sculpture, and even using a prayer wheel, etc. All the abovementioned features are now indivisible of Tibetan culture.

Today, you can see butter sculptures in many Tibetan Monasteries. Taér Temple, which is located in Xi'ning, Qinghai Province, is well-known for its finest butter sculpture. As one of the "Great Three Arts" of Ta'er Monastery, Butter Sculpture is shown as Buddha statues, figures, landscapes, pavilions, birds and animals, flowers and trees, etc. The collection of butter sculptures in Ta'er Temple not only has quite high artistic value and style but also has a grand scale and colorful contents.

Tibetan butter sculpture

It can be dated back to the 1400s during the Ming Dynasty even though its origin was entirely mystical and mysterious. We can look back into its history in two different versions.

First, we were made to believe that since the arrival of the Sakyamuni Buddha statue in Lhasa, the monks planned to adorn it with different flowers to be used for offering during the bleak winter of Tibet. And since getting flowers during this time was difficult, the monks then plan to use Dri (the female yak) butter.

While the second version of the origin of the Tibetan butter sculpture lies with Tsongkhapa(the founder of Gelug sect) according to his dream. He dreamed that the thorns turned to be a bright lamp, the weeds turned into flowers, countless rare treasures, colorful and brilliant. Tsongkhapa then instructed the Tibetan monks to carve a sculpture with butter to successfully visualize his legendary dream. Later, the butter sculpture being displayed everywhere in the Tibetan temples and monasteries.

Tibetan people have the custom of dedicating butter to temples, which are generally only to use as Buddha lamps and monks' food. Before The Lantern Festival(the 15th day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar), they paid tribute to Taér Temple with pure white butter. The monks kneaded butter into the shape of the embryo made from various mineral dyes and then set up scaffolding in the cold room to complete. In order to keep the styling from melting due to body temperature, the monks need to put their hands into the biting snow water to cool down. That's also the reason why some people say it's cruel art.

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