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

White Ornaments and Colored Butter

The Fate of a Form of Tibetan Monumental Sculpture

Thangka representing Tsongkhapa, Central Tibet, 19th century Pigments on canvas © Rubin Museum of Art, From the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Warren Wilds
J. F. Rock, Setting up a chöpa (1926) Chone Monastery © École française d’Extrême-Orient EFEO_CHI08078
J. F. Rock, Butter sculptures mounted on monumental wooden structures (chöpa), (1926) Chone Monastery © École française d’Extrême-Orient EFEO_CHI07957
Fig. 5 Torma, Lhasa, Central Tibet © Jean-Baptiste Georges-Picot
Butter sculpture, Xining, Qinghai Province, PRC © Wikicommons

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

[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.

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.

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