The highly revered artistic tradition of making Tibetan butter sculptures has been practiced for over 400 years by monks in the monasteries in Tibet. The art of making Tibetan butter sculptures is now being preserved by monks and nuns living in India as refugees.
Tibetan butter sculptures can be huge and impressive or tiny and intricate. They are used as sacred offerings or as part of elaborate rituals and celebrations, particularly during Losar, Tibetan New Year.
It is the practice in Buddhism to offer flowers as a tribute to Buddha statues on altars. However, in winter when no fresh flowers can be found, flowers sculpted from butter are made as an offering. Other popular designs for Tibetan butter sculptures include the eight Auspicious Symbols in Tibetan Buddhism, the four harmonious friends – elephant, monkey, rabbit, and bird – and the sun and the moon.
Butter has always been highly valued in Tibetan culture. Its availability and its malleable quality in the cold climate of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas made it an ideal material for sculpting. Inside Tibet, the sacred Tibetan butter sculptures would be made from the butter of dri which are female yaks.
Preserving the art of Tibetan butter sculptures
Making butter sculptures requires painstaking skill, learned from an excellent teacher and through years of practice. Like the famous Tibetan sand mandalas, butter sculptures are a unique Tibetan sacred art that has been handed down for centuries from teacher to student.
The increasing shortage of well-trained and skilled butter sculptors in Tibet means that it is crucial that in India the nuns learn this religious art as part of their course of studies in order to keep it from dying out.
At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India, nuns have been learning how to make butter sculptures from their teacher Gen. Karma-la. He carefully takes them through all the steps and the significance of each butter sculpture technique. He says the nuns make excellent students, with their keen sense of color and design, their nimble fingers, and their endless patience.
The Butter Sculpture Workshop at Dolma Ling
Creating butter sculptures in the hot climate of India is, as you can imagine, problematic. Several years ago, generous donors funded our project to create a special butter sculpture workshop at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a non-sectarian nunnery that is home to about 250 nuns.
Prior to that time, the nuns at Dolma Ling had been using a makeshift space at the nunnery that got very hot. They were only able to make sculptures during the very coldest months. Now a suitable space has been designated in the nunnery. The.room is cooler and has access to cold water in which to lay the butter and cool the nuns’ fingers.