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The Ancient Art of Tibetan Butter Sculpting Is Melting Away

For the last 400 years, Tibetan monks have been using butter from yak milk to create large and intricate sculptures inspired by stories of Buddha, animals or plants and putting them on display during the annual Butter Lantern Festival. Unfortunately, the long and difficult process of making these exquisite works of art has led to a shortage of gifted lama artists.

The art of butter sculpting was born from the Tibetan tradition of giving Buddha everything they got from their domestic animals. Nomadic tribes with large herds of sheep and yaks regarded the first butter from each dri (female yak) as the most precious one and offered it to Buddhist monasteries, where monks shaped it into beautiful colored sculptures and offered it to the enlightened ones. The tradition was passed on from generation to generation, and even today, dozens of Tibetan monks work for months on a single giant butter sculpture that must be ready before the 15th of January, the climax of celebrations of the Tibetan New Year, as it mark the triumph of Lord Buddha over his six non-Buddhist teachers who challenged him in performing miracles. During the day, people pray in temples and monasteries, and as the night comes they head to Lhasa’s Barkhor Street to admire the hundreds of artistic butter sculptures, ranging from just a few centimeters in size to several stories high. This colorful display attracts millions of tourists both from Tibet and abroad.

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