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Butter Sculptures

Time:2008-10-08   Source:

Offerings molded from butter, or butter sculptures, are central to spiritual development inTibetanBuddhism. As a unique sculptural art in Tibetan culture, the art has an origin in Tibetan Bon religion and is considered one of the exotic flowers in the treasury of Tibetan art.

Origin of Butter Sculptures

In 641, when Princess Wencheng of theTang Dynastywas married to the then Tibetan king Songtsan Gambo, she brought along a sculpture of Sakyamuni, which was later enshrined and worshipped at the Jokhang Temple. To show their respect, the Tibetan people presented offerings in front of the Buddha. According to the traditional customs observed in India, offerings to Buddha and Bodhisattvas were divided into six categories: the flower,Tuincense, divine water,Waincense, fruit, and the Buddha light. By that time, however, all of the flowers and trees had died, so the Tibetan people made a bunch of flowers from butter instead.

Butter sculptures are a kind of butter-molded craftwork where the major raw material is butter, a creamy food among the Tibetans in China. The solid material, which is soft and pure with a faint scent, can be molded into vivid, bright and exquisite craftworks.

In the beginning, butter sculptures were simple and the techniques were rough. Later, two institutions were set up in the Taer Monastery to train monk artists specializing in this art. With a passion for Buddha and the arts, the monks worked hard and learned from each other to overcome their own weaknesses, thus enriching the art in terms of pattern and content.

The Making of Butter Sculptures

The making of butter sculptures is rather unique and complex: Since butter melts easily it is modeled by hand in cold conditions (usually on winter days) by monk artists.

To make the butter more smooth and delicate, it is soaked in cold water for a long time to remove impure substances; then, the butter is kneaded into the shape of ointment. Before sculpting, monk artists must wash and take part in a religious ritual. Then, they begin to discuss the theme of the butter sculpture. After setting the theme, they elaborate on the concept, planning and layout of the butter sculpture. During this process, the work is distributed among the monks respectively. When all of the preparatory work is complete, the artists enter rooms at a temperature of 0℃ and begin their sculptures.
The first procedure is to set up a basic frame for the butter sculpture. This is executed using some simple tools, such as soft leather, hemp rope and hollow truncheon.

In the next procedure, modeling, two kinds of raw materials are employed. The first is a black mixture made from the used butter sculptures and ashes from burned wheat straw to mold different shapes on the frame. This process greatly resembles flour sculpting and clay sculpting. Then, the body must be revised and examined before the model is finally set up. The second raw material is a mixture made from the creamy butter and many colored minerals. These are painted onto the surface of the body, and golden and silver powder is used to draw the outline of the sculpture. This process concludes the modeling of colored images. In the last step, the butter sculptures are affixed onto several slates or a special basin as in the original design. The layout can create a flower image or a story called "frame of butter flowers."

Contents of butter sculptures

Ways of expressing butter sculptures vary greatly, covering a wide range of contents. Mostly, they center on Buddhism, historic stories, personal biographies, birds and beasts. As time goes on, they are imbued with the trends of the times. For example, the butter sculpture "The Story About Sakyamuni" not only enriched the traditional style of butter sculpting, but also reflects real life. In this way, the former single method has evolved into a multi-method system, including a combination of stereoscopic sculptures and reliefs -- a combination of single sculptures and multi sculptures.