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Butter Sculpture Tradition Melting Away

Tibetan New Year, Losar, falls on February 28, and Tibetans across the country have started preparing for the celebrations. They whitewash houses, clean silver and bronze wares, and paint good omens on beams and pillars.

To Tibetans living in northwest China's Qinghai Province, their warm-up for the celebration has started even earlier this year, as they could go to Tar Monastery for its annual display of butter sculptures which started on February 12.

The monastery has been famous for its three representative arts: butter sculpture, fresco and duisui embroidery.

The festival attracts 100,000 locals and tourists each year, but elder lamas in the monastery worry that this tradition, which has lasted some 400 years, is endangered as fewer and fewer young lamas are willing to learn the complicated art.

Butter sculpture originated from Tibet and was introduced to the Tar Monastery, also known as Kumbum Monastery, in the early 17th century. Many monasteries in China make butter sculptures, but those of Tar excel in technique and scale.

Long history

Legend says that in 641, when Princess Wencheng arrived in Lhasa to marry Songtsen Gampo (born circa 609-613 and died 650), king of Tubo, she brought a statue in the shape of Sakyamuni, founder of Buddhism.

Following the Buddhist tradition, flowers must be offered as a tribute to the Buddha statue. But it was deep winter and no fresh flowers could be found. So people made a bunch of flowers with butter as an offering.

In 1409, Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), founder of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, who was born in today's Huangzhong County where the Tar Monastery was founded, held the Grand Sermons Ceremony in Lhasa.

He dreamed of thorny bushes turning into bright lanterns, weeds bursting into blossom amid numerous shiny treasures.

When he woke up, the great master immediately asked his followers to make the treasures and flowers as he had dreamed and offered them to the Buddha.

With pure yak and goat milk butter as the raw material, the sculptures are painted with mineral dyestuff. Often the sculptures are part of a series which depict a story, such as the life of Sakyamuni.

As the butter sculpture art entered the Tar Monastery in 1603, two academies devoted to its creation and study have been established. Every year, when the Grand Sermons Ceremony is held here during the Lantern Festival, the two academies bring out their best works.

This year, the butter sculptures in the monastery featured two stories: Tara, the most beloved female deity of Tibetan Buddhism, saves humans from eight calamities; the Indian prince brothers Donyo and Dondrup overcome all sorts of troubles with their fraternity to become kings.

Like previous years, the grand display drew some 100,000 locals and tourists. Some local farmers went to the monastery in the morning just to wait for the display, which would begin at night.

Under the lanterns, the protagonists of the stories appeared alive among the delicate flowers and woods, mountains and architectures. Buddhist believers throng to the sculptures to offer tributes for good luck in the coming year.

Daunting task

For the visitors, the colourful and fragrant sculptures look as glorious as ever. But the lamas of the monastery feel their works are not as good as before.

In the past, the elderly lamas would lead the younger students to create new works featuring fresh technique each year, according to Rabgye Gyaltsen, a 41-year-old lama specializing in making butter sculptures.

But as the older generation passed away, the middle-aged and younger lamas have only been able to following the old rules strictly. Making breakthroughs has been very difficult, said Gyaltsen.

In addition, very few lamas have shown the willingness to learn the technique. The lack of young students will surely hinder the future development of this ancient art.

Shakabri, a lama with the monastery, said there are less than 40 lamas specializing in butter sculpture. But in the past, the two academies once had over 100 lamas working on the butter sculptures.

Shakabri and Gyaltsen explain that as the elderly lamas passed away, the present lamas have yet to fully understand the ancient art before they can make creations easily. The young novices also have few teachers to turn to when they have questions.

On the other hand, the making of butter sculpture is itself a daunting task. As butter made from yak or goat milk melts in warm weather, butter sculpture has to be made in the coldest months of the year.

To sculpt butter, lamas must dip their hands in icy water. Only with numb hands can they begin the sculpting.

Over the past centuries, the art of butter sculpture has become very specialized: Making people, animals and flowers has each become a tradition requiring different techniques.

In sub-zero temperature rooms, the elderly lamas and their students first prepare the frame of sculpture with bamboo sticks, ropes and others. Then they mix old butter sculptures with wheat ashes to form black mud, which is used to make the primitive body of the sculptures.

After modifying the base, the lamas will apply colourful butter onto it. The figurines are outlined with gold and silver powder. Finally the small parts are fixed onto the frame with iron wire.

As the creation lasts some three months in winter, many lamas have found their fingers deformed when a grand display is prepared.

The administration committee of the Tar Monastery, where Shakabri is a member, is trying to improve the skills of the lamas and attract more novices. One of the measures is to hold a contest of butter sculptures made by the two academies.

In addition, the Tar Monastery is applying to list its butter sculpture as an intangible cultural heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. With more people's attention, it is hoped that the beautiful flowers of butter sculpture will melt people's hearts, rather than melt away.

(China Daily February 21, 2006)

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