Butter sculptures: Unique Tibetan art

By LONG RENQING / 08-15-2019 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Butter sculptures displayed in the Ta’er Temple Photo: FILE


Kumbum Monastery, also known as Ta’er Temple, is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery is located in Lusar, Huangzhong County, Qinghai Province, which is also the birthplace of Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), the founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Hence, this monastery is considered holy to the Tibetan Buddhist monks and followers. 

The Kumbum Monastery is very much a repository of Tibetan culture and art, including various sculptures, statues and religious artifacts, among which the butter sculptures, Thangka painting and murals are praised as the “Three Masterpieces of Art in the Kumbum Monastery.” Butter sculptures are a particularly unique and sacred form of Tibetan art that is as famous at home as is abroad. 
Power of faith 
Traditionally made using yak butter, the most precious food on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, butter sculptures display the Tibetan people’s power of faith. It is said that butter carving originates from torma, figures made mostly of zanba (dough made of roasted barley flour) and decorated with butter-carved flowers, used as sacrificial food offerings in the Tibetan Bon religion. Many stories associate the origins of butter sculptures with two famous figures in history—Je Tsongkhapa and Princess Wencheng (625–680). 
Legend says that Je Tsongkhapa held a ceremony named the Grand Sermons Ceremony in Lhasa in 1409. One night, he dreamt of colorful clouds floating in the sky, thorny bushes turning into bright lanterns and weeds bursting into blossoms amid numerous shiny treasures. When he woke up, the great master immediately asked his followers to make the treasures and flowers that he had dreamt by using yak butter and then to offer them to the Buddha in the night of the full moon on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. 
Another legend puts forward that it was Princess Wencheng who started the tradition of offering butter sculptures to the Buddha. During the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang, when Princess Wencheng arrived in Lhasa to marry Songtsen Gampo (617–650), the 33rd Btsan-po (king) of Tubo (Tibetan Kingdom), she brought a statue in the shape of Sakyamuni, founder of Buddhism. In accordance with Buddhist traditions, flowers must be offered as a tribute to the Buddha statue, but it was deep winter at the time and no fresh flowers could be found. So the Tibetan people made a bouquet of flowers using yak butter as an offering. 
It is said that for believers of Tibetan Buddhism, artistic butter designs take on a spiritual role. They symbolize a serene commitment to the Buddha. The name used for butter sculpture in Tibetan also means “flower offerings.” It was therefore clearly used as a substitute for flowers in sacrificial offerings. Offering flowers to the Buddha has long been a Buddhist tradition as early as when Buddhism became widespread in India. This tradition was introduced into Tibet with Buddhism. Butter sculpture was developed as a way to offer flowers in the long-lasting winter on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, when there was no vegetation but plenty of yak butter. 
Yak butter is made from the milk of a yak. It is a precious food item for the Tibetan people, providing nutrients needed in cold weather and high altitudes. There are several steps involved in turning fresh yak milk into butter. Firstly milk must be boiled in a container, then put into a tall wooden churn after it cools. Next, the milk must be churned repeatedly with a wooden pestle thoroughly for an extended period of time until the yellow cream is separated from the raw milk. The cream is then skimmed from the milk and dehydrated, then patted into a flat cake. The last step involves preserving the cake in an inflated stomach of a cow or sheep. In addition to the malleability of yak butter, the other reason to choose it as a raw material for making offerings is that the Tibetan people believe that yak butter is the best item that they can offer to the Buddha. 
As the techniques of sculpturing developed, people found that the white butter produced in winter did better than yellow butter for coloring. Yak cows produce little milk, so only after several days’ accumulation of milk can people expect enough material to be obtained for sculpting. Milk is much more plentiful in summer than winter, because yak cows cannot get enough nutrition in winter due to the lack of grass. White butter is made of yak milk produced in winter. The low milk yield makes the white butter much more valuable. 
Every year, monks from the Ta’er Temple come out to purchase butter around Qinghai Lake when it is about time to make sculptures. Herders have already prepared white butter and sell it to the monks at a low price, in the knowledge that the butter would be used for the praise of the Buddha. 
From butter to sculpture 
There are two “Hua Yuan” (“Flower Schools”) in the Ta’er Temple specializing in producing butter sculptures. Monks in these two schools compete with each other in sculpting. Before formal exhibitions, sculpting is considered confidential and the makers don’t talk about their works with their competitors. 
There is an efficient sculpting procedure in the Ta’er Temple. After the themes and designs are confirmed, monks begin their work under the command of “Zhang Chi,” their general leaders. 
Monks first prepare the frame of their sculptures with iron wire, ropes and needlegrass. They then mix smashed old butter sculptures with wheat ash to form black mud, which is then applied to the frame so as to make the primitive body of the sculptures. Recycling old sculptures is a good way to economize precious yak butter. 
After modifying the base, monks apply colorful butter onto it. The colorful butter is made by mixing white butter with different mineral pigments. Coloring butter sculptures is a daunting task. Because butter melts in warm weather, butter sculptures have to be made in the coldest months of the year. To sculpt butter, each maker is equipped with two bowls of water, one filled with icy water while the other with hot water mixed with pea powder. Makers must soak their hands in icy water to keep melting to a minimum. They wash their hands in hot water when their hands are coated with too much butter. The plateau is extremely cold in winter, but no heating is permitted in the workshop. Monks begin the sculpting in sub-zero conditions, carefully and devotedly. It is said that many of them suffer from arthritis or stomach problems. 
The finished sculptures are arranged in order, including buildings, plants, animals and the Buddha, depicting a story in a way similar to comics. The final step is a ritual called kaiguang (opening the light, literally). In the morning of the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, the Zhang Chi solemnly inlays the eyeballs into the sockets of the Buddha sculpture that is made of butter, the act of which is called kaiyan (opening the eyes). Then he sprays the butter sculptures with holy water and barley, which is believed to endow the sculptures with the souls of flowers.
Grand display 
There are several antique pieces of wooden board in the two Hua Yuan, known as lao ban (ancient boards) to the monks. The history of these boards is too long to be traced effectively. They are used to exhibit butter sculptures each year. The nine-day session of the annual Great Prayer Festival begins on the eighth day of the first lunar month. There is a butter sculpture display on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. 
Before the display, a wooden shed is built outside the temple, wrapped in elaborated Thangka paintings. These Thangka paintings are treasures of the temple, carefully selected from the collections in accordance with the theme of the display. After being washed by icy water, the butter sculptures are “invited” into the shed and exhibited in order. The sculptures are displayed at a 20-degree lean such that the Buddha is looking down at all our lives. When the display is ready, a tulku followed by monks come to hold the ritual of kaiguang. All of the monks chant sutras and throw barley and rice. After the ritual, the sculptures are believed to become holy. 
The article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Long Renqing is the vice president of Qinghai Writers Association.
edited by REN GUANHONG
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