Sacred decorative sculptures and puppets originating in Tibet. While the puppets are not as common as they once were, both traditional art forms are still maintained by monks in monasteries across Asia.
Butter sculptures are made of yak or goat butter which has been mixed with flour, kneaded smooth, dyed and then moulded using tools or fingers and hands that have been dipped in cold water. The most common motifs are flowers, fruit, animals, jewels, auspicious symbols, bodhisattvas, Dharma protectors and their divine residences, which are assembled into tableaux and referred to as torma (gtor ma). Particularly popular torma are The Seven Royalties (a tableaux of a queen, minister, general, horse, elephant, wheel of law, and jewel of wealth), The Four Harmonious Friends (an elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird), and the Five Offerings Made to the Five Senses.
Butter sculptures are typically made and displayed as part of the Himalaya Buddhist New Year celebrations known as Losar. They are presented at night on the fifteenth day of the first Tibetan lunar month, which is celebrated with the Butter Lamp Festival called Cho-nga Chopa (chos lnga mchod pa or Offering of the Fifteenth Day). This festival is held on the last day of the Great Prayer Festival, called Monlam Chenmo (smon lam chen mo), which celebrates the victory of Buddha over false teachers and includes Buddhist mask dances called ’cham. The display of butter sculptures is often accompanied by percussive music of cymbals and other instruments. The flickering light of the butter lamps is said to lend a sense of animation to the fixed figures. It is also reported that the heads of animals in the torma may occasionally be mounted on springs to add a lifelike effect.
In addition to historic and contemporary Tibetan accounts, Régis Évariste Huc (Évariste Régis Huc) of the French Vincentian missionary described a celebration incorporating butter sculptures at Kumbum Monastery in 1846. Furthermore, in 1938 the German ethnographer Ernst Schäfer described the widespread use of butter sculptures. In his account, Schäfer mentions seeing a play, “The Oracle”, which featured moulded figurines of monks and other characters. Despite their small size (about 30 centimetres), Schäfer reported that some were articulated with strings that allowed them to make simple gestures. Apparently the manipulators were located below the proscenium space, hidden behind a screen. Both “puppeteers” and craftsmen were monks. According to the Russian academic Inna Solomonik, puppet shows in butter were presented once a year before the temples, after which the puppets were destroyed. The figurines were melted and the remaining butter could be used to cure. (This supposition, however, needs confirmation.) Solomonik sees analogies between the sacred use of butter sculptures and performances of the Nativity in Europe as in the Polish szopka, the Ukrainian vertep or Belarusian betleïka.
Jamyang Norbu discusses attending the Cho-nga Chopa festival (part of the Monlam Chenmo or Great Prayer Festival) in the early 1970s in Dharamsala, India. The butter sculptures crafted by the Upper Tantric College, Gyutö (rgyud stod), were one of the festival’s main attractions. However, he also describes a performance of which he refers to as sangtak (sang thag) or “secret string” theatre, presented by the Lower Tantric College in Lhasa known as Gyumé (rgyud smad). Norbu notes that, in spite of its votive purpose as an offering (an “Offering of the Fifteenth”), the presentation was “hugely entertaining” and used varied techniques for its effects. The small proscenium stage was lit by an electric bulb (in old Tibet it would have been butter lamps). There was no real plot or story line, rather the performance, as Norbu describes it, “consisted of a series of beautifully staged tableaux. A tiny monk appeared on the roof of monastery and beat a gong to wake up the monastery. A congregation of monks filed into the assembly hall. This was done with a row of figures on hidden springs, all rocking back and forth in a convincing manner. An oracle went into a trance and beat his secretary with a stick – and so on. At the end of the show the curtains were closed and children cried out, “cheonga choepa lao sangthag chik thenrok nang chopa la’o sangtak chik tenrok nang” or “O ‘Offering of the Fifteenth’, please pull a secret string” till another show started.”
While Norbu does not say so, a monk from the Gyumé Lower Tantric College recently confirmed (2013) that the sangtak figures are not made of butter, but rather of fabric with papier-mâché heads. They are maintained by monks from the college and brought out for the annual performances.
- Huc, Régis Évariste. Souvenir d’un voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet et la Chine pendant les années 1844, 1845 et 1846 [Memories of Travel in Tartary, Tibet, and China during the Years 1844, 1845, and 1846]. Vol. II. Paris, 1850.
- Norbu, Jamyang. “The Happy Light Bioscope Theatre & Other Stories (Part I)”. Phayul Online. http://www.phayul.com/News/Article.Aspx?Id=26605&T=1. 12 Feb. 2010. Accessed 28 July 2012.
- Schäfer, Ernst. Fest der weissen Schleie [Feast of the White Veil]. Munich, 1954.
- Solomonik, Inna Naoumovna. “Tibetskii teatr maslyannyh kukol” [Theatre of Tibetan Butter Puppets]. Sovetskaya Etnografia [Soviet Ethnography]. No. 4, 1991. Rpt. in Inna Naoumovna Solomonik. Traditsionnyi teatr kukol Vostoka: Osnovnye vidy teatra ob’omnyh form [Traditional Marionette Theatre of the Orient . . . ]. Moscow: Nauka, 1992, pp. 208-220.