Butter Sculptures: The Traditional Art Form of Tibet

Butter Sculpture is one of the traditional art forms of Tibet. More than a piece of art, it has religious implications which is in line with Buddhist teachings. Monks at the monasteries learn for years together to learn and sharpen their skills in sculpting Butter Sculptures. A form of meditation, the monk works for days together to achieve the perfect butter sculpture. The size of the art form created varies from a few inches to many feet in height. The theme often revolve around traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings, beliefs and symbols. Here’s an interesting account by Eswar, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

“How can one sculpt using butter?” This question made me volunteer for the Butter Sculpture Making Session with Ven Thupten Gedun of Gyuto Monastery. The event was organised by Friends of Tibet, at Fire in the Belly Cafe, Technopark, Trivandrum.

It was during this session that I started getting more involved with the Tibet issue, hence this marks a special place and brings in lot of memories.

It was also my first encounter with a Tibetan monk. I had only seen a person in monk’s dress in movies and photographs, hence seeing a monk in person brought forward the child in me. I wanted to ask a lot of questions about the monk dress, about monkhood, about how it is to live as a monk, how a person becomes a monk, their day to day activities. The interesting four days spent with Ven Thupten Gedun gave me more insight into the life of a monk, about which I would be writing in my later columns.

Butter Sculpture is one of the traditional art forms of Tibet. More than a piece of art, it has religious implications which is in line with Buddhist teachings. Monks at the monasteries learn for years together to learn and sharpen their skills in sculpting Butter Sculptures. A form of meditation, the monk works for days together to achieve the perfect butter sculpture. The size of the art form created varies from a few inches to many feet in height.

The theme often revolve around traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings, beliefs and symbols.  The eight auspicious symbols: Right-Coiled White Conch, Precious Parasol, Victory Banner, Golden Fishes, Dharma Wheel, Endless Knot, Lotus Flower, and Treasure Vase are found in various forms in the sculptures made.

Traditional colours are mixed with butter. The sculpture thus made would stand the test of time!

In the name of Cultural Revolution, religion, religious forms and traditions were thrashed along with the religious institutions. His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, who was forced to seek refuge in India, in 1959, emphasised to his people that the Tibetan way of living, their traditions and art forms be practised and established, while in exile.

While a massive destruction of the culture, art forms, institutions, monasteries and a strategic brainwashing was taking place in Tibet, in India it was being recreated.

In the ancient art form, butter from Yak’s milk was being used for sculpting. Each Tibetan family used to have a wide variety and a large number of livestock which included Yaks and huge lands were used for cultivation. As part of tradition the Tibetans offered everything they received from the domestic animals to Buddha, the enlightened one. The first butter from the female yak was considered auspicious and this was offered to Buddhist Monasteries. The butter so received was sculpted by the Tibetan Monks into colourful, beautiful stories of Tibetan Buddhism and was offered to Buddha. It’s the responsibility of senior monks to pass on the knowledge of making Butter sculptures to junior monks, and this tradition is being followed for centuries, and it continues, now, in exile.

Off late the ingredients used have changed, for obvious reasons. Now Dalda is being used to make sculptures and are coloured using modern ink.

At the venue, for four days, Ven Thupten Gedun was in meditative silence creating art forms unwary to the buzzling crowd of the techies. It was a new experience for the young generation, most of whom had not even heard about Tibet. It was an eye-opener.

There were many, who lined up trying to find if the sculptures were for sale. Many tried to negotiate! But everyone were surprised, some sad.

It was difficult to accept or to understand the spiritual significance of the art form or appreciate the inner beauty of it. At the end of the fourth day, Ven Thupten Gedun washed away the beautifully crafted sculptures. A crowd was formed trying to dissuade him from doing so. They were pleading with him that they be allowed to take home the sculptures and some promised that they would take care of it with all devotion. But the monk was firm. This introduced me to an important learning of Tibetan Buddhism: Non-attachment.

Let Go!

©Eswar Anandan

Photo Courtesy: Friends of Tibet, the Net, Eswar Anandan.

Eswar Anandan

Eswar Anandan

Eswar Anandan’s mother's traverse with Cancer opened his eyes and thoughts about the life outside the glass cubicles. In his own words: "Strong emotions gave way to words, words took poetic form, and I found a new purpose..." His first book, 'Seasons' is a dedication to her.He is currently working on ‘Thoughts in Silence’ and ‘Story of a Nation’. Eswar is an entrepreneur and Friends of Tibet Campaigner.
Eswar Anandan