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Butter and Beauty in Tibet

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Spring Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(1) page(s): 7, and 29


Butter in Tibet? Flowers, too? You will find them if you visit the Sichuan-Tibet or Qinghai-Tibetan plateau and other regions in the Tibet Autonomous Region and elsewhere where Tibetan people live. You find them because they practice their own religious traditions. Along with them you’ll find tsampa, buttered tea, beef, mutton, and various dairy products; most of the latter made from yak milk.

For those who never saw a yak or know little about the foods of this culture, see the hard copy of Flavor and Fortune in Volume 8(4) on pages 15, 16, 17, and 18. That animal looks somewhat like a cow but is usually larger. Many are the size of a buffalo; and their bodies are covered with long hair. Its meat is tasty, though a mite chewy, and it has considerable fat. Yak milk is delicious, and as to the butter made from it; it is consumed and used in a variety of ways.

A large amount of yak butter is used in special ways before the New Year. It makes its way to the Tar and other monasteries to be one of Tibet’s three wondrous beauties. These include their magnificent frescoes (that are not made of butter, but of ground stones and sand), their embroidery (also not of butter but of silk and yak hair), and their butter-flower sculptures. The latter are really made out of butter. To make them, one needs a lot of butter, and old and new used together to make this unrivaled thing that goes by the all inclusive name of butter-flowers, but it is a lot more than just flowers.

The term butter-flower began, the legends tell us, when Princess Wencheng married Songtsan Gambo, the Tubo king. To the wedding and for life thereafter, she took along a statue of Sakyamini from Xian (then spelled Chang’an); and she had it enshrined in the Jo Khang Monastery. After a monk named Tsong Khapa completed his Buddhist studies in Tibet, he started a service to demonstrate reverence to the founder of Buddhism. Unfortunately, at that time there were no flowers in this rather cold region, so he carved some out of butter and set them before the statue of his holiness.

Here you see the origin of these flowers, that some years later were continually carved at the Tar and at other monasteries. This art-form expanded to include Buddhist figures, many different kinds of plants besides flowers, animals, even pagodas and entire pavilions. Later still, buildings were carved that were six to ten feet tall, some even taller. They also made Bodhiisattaves and Door Guardians and many Buddhist characters from famous Tibetan legends such as the story of Xiangbala of Zuowa Sangmu, the life of Sakyamuni, or Princess Wenchang and when she entered Tibet.

The Tar Monastery, one of six major monasteries of the Gelug Sect of Buddha, at Butter-flower Lantern Festival time, celebrate on the 10th day of the first month of the year and at the end of New Year festivities. It is here that these butter-flower-designed items are raised to new heights. Through the efforts of the Jiezong Zengzha or Upper Flower Academy and the Gongmang Zengzha or Lower Flower Academy, there is now a competition to prepare them. It starts about three months or more before the festival day. Each group designs and prepares their contribution in isolation before they are presented to Buddha and his people. Then, they are shown and for the first time, each sees the efforts of the others. Religious and lay people get to see them, too.

Who are the carvers, and how do they use yak butter to make phenomenally gorgeous huge masterpieces made of butter? Not all the carvers are Tibetan. Some are Mongolian, Han, and Tu folk, but all are believers who join monks and work together. A few are apprentices as young as twelve or thirteen, others are five or six times older than that.

The protocol is that first they confer in their academy only with members, then they design their sculpture on paper. Next comes building a frame of wood and wires to hold the sculpture. After that, application of the butter, a mixture of last year's and newly added butter. Then they carve it and attach items carved off the frame. Finally, they paint their combined efforts. Smaller items are mounted on these or attached frames; all on wheels, to be taken to the monastery at the appropriate moment.

Before all of this, the reused butter which is quite hard by now, is mixed with new. Hot ashes and grass are mixed in and this and the butter are mixed, then rolled together. When this combined butter softens, they pound it to get any hard pieces expelled, then they knead it until it is soft and pliable. These sheets are adhered to the framework layer by layer, as and where needed. These they then carve and apply color and additional items to match their original conceptions. New warm butter fills in places where needed. New yak butter is white and often a layer is put over the old because it takes color easily.

Why does it not melt, you ask. Think of where it is, and realize also that these days they keep these huge sculptures in refrigerated rooms, the temperature close to the freezing point. One report indicated that in years gone by, blocks of ice were in these rooms with monks fanning them to make the rooms stay cool. The carvers do all their work in these well-chilled rooms, even keep their hands cool by constant dipping in basins of water with blocks of ice floating in them.

Before these phenomenal wired butter-covered efforts are shown, they are prepared for their trip and their moving to what is called the First Month Prayer Service at the Tar Monastery. These grand sculptures make their first public appearance that evening. They are brought to the candle-lit monastery along a candle-lit route. The next morning, monks build a tent to exhibit them for the public, and it is lined with the aforementioned silk and other thread embroideries. The western side of the tent is left open for the viewers to see these huge butter-flower creations. They are sitting around a six to seven foot butter statue of Buddha. He sits there with a bronze mirror, a potted plant, flowers, and peacock feathers at his feet. The monks have scattered five cereals on the statue before ordinary folk are allowed to see them. The last task of the carved efforts of the academies is to paint Buddha’s eyes. When he can see, worshipers are allowed in to see him and the other butter-flower sculptures.

Originally, this display was only kept for a few hours. More recently, they remain on display for several weeks. Nowadays, the sculptures are exhibited for months in exhibition halls outside the monastery. So should you go there to see them, keep in mind that both outside and inside the exhibition hall, it is cold. Dress warmly to view these Tibetan folkloric creations, for in Xining where the Tar Monastery is, you are at seven thousand feet above sea level. On a warm day in July, I determine that sweaters are in order. They keep you warm in the hall, and make you comfortable outside, too, as you view this Tibetan wonder.

                                                                                                                                                       
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