White Ornaments and Colored Butter: The Fate of a Form of Tibetan Monumental Sculpture

Fig. 1 J. F. Rock, Butter sculpture representing the bodhisattva Tchenrezi (1926)
Chone Monastery
© École française d’Extrême-Orient EFEO_CHI07973

Many are familiar with Tibetan butter lamps, whose soft light brings out the golden faces of metal Buddhas and lamas from the darkness of a shrine. Less known, however, is the use of butter as a material for monumental sculpture as part of a long tradition in Tibet. Can these perishable images be displayed in museums, when their creation is linked to a precise context and their know-how is as admirable as it is little known?

Between religious offering and artistic prowess: a long sculptural tradition

Butter sculpture, to date, has not found favor with art history, which is more interested in supposedly more “traditional” (in the European sense) Tibetan materials and techniques—such as metal or painting on canvas. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that butter is a central element of Tibetan culture, both secular and religious. Combined with tsampa, roasted barley flour, it constitutes the basis of the Tibetan diet, to the point of merging with the very identity of its consumers: are not Tibetan people described as tsampa eaters?[i]

In Tibet, butter and tsampa are combined to form the basis for what is called “butter sculpture.” Its origins can be traced back to ancient uses, such as decorating beer bowls with auspicious designs or making torma, small figures that are offered as food or temporary dwelling places to the entities summoned during rituals.

Fig. 2 Thangka representing Tsongkhapa, Central Tibet, 19th century
Pigments on canvas
© Rubin Museum of Art, From the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Warren Wilds

In a study of Tibetan art techniques, Könchok Tendzin distinguishes between the modest “white ornaments” and the more sophisticated “colored butter offerings”[ii] made during the Mönlam chenmo festivities that celebrate the Tibetan New Year, among other occasions (fig. 1). Colored butter offerings are specifically associated with the practices of the great Gelugpa monastic centers[iii]. The Tibetan scholar and lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), founder of the Gelugpa order (fig. 2), presided over the first of these festivities, in 1409 in Lhasa[iv]. In his biography written by Khedrup Jey (1385-1438), we can read about this first festival[v] whose two-week opening period was the occasion to make offerings of an unparalleled variety – gold, silver, precious fabrics, food… – and among which butter already had a place of choice. Indeed, butter lamps took on monumental proportions and motifs sculpted in butter were renewed every day for that celebration.

“…it is no exaggeration to say that butter is a central element of Tibetan culture, both secular and religious.”

Few Western photographical and textual accounts of these festivities precede the arrival of the Chinese communist government in Tibet in 1959. Among them are those of Hugh Richardson (1905-2000), officer in charge of the last British mission to Lhasa (1947), and Joseph F. Rock (1884-1962), who traversed southwestern China and eastern Tibet between 1922 and 1949, for his botanical research.

Fig. 3 J. F. Rock, Setting up a chöpa (1926)
Chone Monastery
© École française d’Extrême-Orient EFEO_CHI08078

On the fifteenth day of the Mönlam chenmo, H. Richardson attended the festival in Lhasa called Chönga chöpa, “the offerings of the fifteenth”[vi]. In the afternoon, monks and laymen erect wooden scaffolding that extend beyond the roof of houses, and then attach pieces of leather to support an elaborate and colorful carved butter decoration with all sorts of characters, creatures and auspicious motifs, the whole forming a chöpa. The photographs taken by J.F. Rock at the Chone Monastery wonderfully echo the description of the British officer (figs. 3 and 4). In the evening, these monumental offerings are exhibited, illuminated by hundreds of butter lamps. In Lhasa, the most beautiful butter creation is chosen by the Dalai Lama in person. The sculptures are then dismantled and the butter distributed[vii].

Monumental butter sculpture is thus linked to a festival of primary importance, established by the most influential monastic order in Tibet since the 17th century and which brings together the largest gathering of pilgrims of the year[viii]. There is nothing anecdotal in this artistic practice which combines a sense of form and color, which does not sacrifice detail over monumentality, and which requires dexterity and self-sacrifice from those whose fingers must remain cold to be able to shape the material.

Fig. 4 J. F. Rock, Butter sculptures mounted on monumental wooden structures (chöpa), (1926)
Chone Monastery
© École française d’Extrême-Orient EFEO_CHI07957

Museum or folklore? The difficult conservation of the perishable

Often what has not found its way into art history books has not found its way into museums either. But should we hope that the Tibetan tradition of shaping and coloring butter will be displayed in museums and taken out of its context of use? One could quite accept the lesson on ephemerality which also commands the realization of mandalas in colored sands or ritual objects in human bone, and which finds an echo in the making of butter images. What we readily call butter “sculptures” remain above all offerings and participate in important social issues. Thus, the torma, which continue to be made throughout Tibet, are destined to be consumed or dispersed (fig. 5[ix]): how can we keep in museums what is meant to be ephemeral? The best thing would be to ask Tibetans for their opinion. It should be remembered, however, that the Mönlam chenmo was twice banned in Tibet, in 1966 and again in 1990, after a brief reinstatement in 1986[x]. With the disappearance of the official character of these festivities, the practice of butter sculpture might cease to exist, at least in its most monumental avatars.

Fig. 5 Torma, Lhasa, Central Tibet
© Jean-Baptiste Georges-Picot

The tradition seems to be maintained in places where the weather does not lend itself to it, such as Tibetan monasteries in Nepal and India. The practice also continues in the People’s Republic of China, where the images, called “butter flowers”, are certainly still spectacular but at the same time take on a much more Chinese appearance (fig. 6). The risk being of course, as is the case each time the economy is developed through tourism, to engage in a process of folklorization that modifies the authenticity of the original practices.

How can we keep in museums what is meant to be ephemeral?

Museums have shown interest in less canonical forms of cultural heritage and are now able to conserve, when they have the means, perishable materials: the Mucem in Marseille, for example, has in its collections a striking model of the Mézières town hall made of saindoux (lard) at the end of the 1930s. Still, it is necessary to be aware of the issue, even in museums likely to host this type of objects, and especially to be in contact with Gelugpa monastic centers that perhaps maintain the practice of butter carving outside Tibet. If the aesthetic argument is needed to overcome the last resistance, let these images speak for themselves, their beauty rivaling that of their metal, wood or canvas counterparts.

Fig. 6 Butter sculpture, Xining, Qinghai Province, PRC
© Wikicommons

We would like to thank Jean-Baptiste Georges-Picot, doctoral student in Tibetology, for his valuable comments and bibliographical recommendations.


Donnet Pierre-Antoine, Privat Guy, Ribes Jean-Paul, 1992: Tibet : des journalistes témoignent, Paris, l’Harmattan.

Dorje Gyurme, Tsering Tashi, Stoddard Heather and Alexander André, 2010: Jokhang, Tibet’s most sacred Buddhist Temple, London and Bangkok, Edition Hansjorg Mayer.

Kapstein Matthew, 2015: Les Tibétains, Paris, Les Belles Lettres.

Pommaret Françoise, 2002: Le Tibet, une civilisation blessée, Paris, Gallimard.

Richardson Hugh, 1993: Ceremonies of the Lhasa Year, London, Serindia Publications.

Tedzin Könchok, 1994: bZo gnas skra rtse’i chu thigs [On different technological aspects of traditional Tibetan arts and crafts (śilpaśāstra)], Pékin.

[i] Pommaret 2002, p. 13.

[ii] Tedzin 1994, pp. 219-221. Thanks to Jean-Baptiste Georges-Picot for the translation of the pages dedicated to butter sculpture. One wonders to which of these two categories the torma belong.

[iii] The Gelugpa or Gelukpa, “the virtuous”, sometimes improperly called the “yellow hats”, is a monastic order created around the beginning of the 15th century thanks to a synthesis of three previous traditions, those of the Kadampa, the Sakyapa and the Kagyüpa, accomplished by the lama Tsongkhapa. They emphasize monastic discipline, philosophy and debate, while the most tantric texts and practices are reserved for an elite group of graduates, thus redefining a gradual spiritual path. The Dalai Lama, nominated by a system of reincarnation, is at the head of this order, before becoming also the temporal head of Tibet in 1642 under the action of the “Great Fifth”, the fifth Dalai Lama Lobzang Gyatso (1617-1682), until the middle of the twentieth century. Kapstein 2015, pp. 207-272.

[iv] The future capital of unified Tibet in 1642 and seat of the Dalai Lama.

[v] For a summary of this story, see Dorje, Tsering, Stoddard, Alexander 2010, pp. 187-189.

[vi] Richardson 1993, pp. 27-30.

[vii] For another type of festivity, this time more related to oracles and the “exorcism” of the past year, involving monumental effigies of butter to be set on fire, see Richardson 1993, pp. 68-70.

[viii] Donnet, Privat, Ribes 1992, p. 37.

[ix] In this photograph, the torma on the left represents the terrible offering of the five senses, represented by the organs themselves (eyes, tongue, nose…). This iconography, the dominant red color and the sharp contours of the forms indicate that the offering is intended here for an angry deity. In this particular case, substances such as blood may have been added to the butter and tsampa. Details provided by the author of the photograph.

[x] For photographs of the event in 1986, see Dorje, Tsering, Stoddard, Alexander 2010, pp. 182-183.

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