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Tibetan Butter Lantern Festival and Yak Butter Sculptures

Originated in 1409 during Ming Dynasty, Tibetan Butter Lantern Festival was created by Tsongkhapa in honor of Sakyamuni’s victory over other religions during the debate. Occurring on the 15th day of the first Tibetan month, this festival is fueled with activities including Buddha Dance, puppet show and butter sculpture exhibitions staged by various monasteries, big or small. In daytime, people will steam into monasteries to pray. When night falls, they will stroll along places like Barkhor Street to maze at yak butter sculptures, the man-made wonders.
tibetan butter lantern festival

Flanked with dwarfing flower stands containing numerous butter sculptures, Barkhor Street will draw tens of thousands of people from far-flung towns and villages annually during this festival. When the lamps are lit up, the beauty of these art works will culminate. Barkhor Street will be the most dynamic place in Tibet on this day. It is a time to rub shoulders with the locals, to delve into the authentic local life, to be carried away by the splendid butter sculptures and to peek into their spiritual realm.
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Delicate, divine, diversified and symbolic, yak butter sculpture is a gem sprouting from the fertile religious soil.
These eye-dazzling artworks are created by devout monks or folk artisans in extremely cold temperature. To prevent the butter from melting, they have to soak hands into chilly ice water from time to time to cool down. After several months’ dedicated work, most of them will suffer from frostbite. Hence, yak butter sculpture, the holy gift to Buddha, mirrors the compassion, devotion and loyalty of the Buddhists to their spiritual icon. By representing the Buddha stories in a most vivid way, this awe-inspiring art form bridges the secular world with the divine one.
tibetan buttern lantern festival

Yak butter sculpture comes in various sizes, patterns and themes.
You can identify deities, heroes, gods, animals, flowers and auspicious totems, etc. The biggest will measure over 2 meters tall, while the smallest is no more than 20mm. Embedded into the iron basins, each butter sculpture will be suspended in the mid air. In a big flower stand, dozens of even hundreds of figures sit. The biggest yak butter sculpture comes from Ta’er Monastery( Kumbum Monastery) of Qinghai province, which comprises over 350 figures. It took over 30 monks, more than 3600 kg of butter and 60 days to accomplish it. Seen independently, each is a piece of artwork, viewed as a whole, you will discern a complete story behind its intricate allocation.

Representing the exquisite and sumptuous character of Tibetan Buddhism art, yak butter sculpture has become a totem of the Tibetans. It shares similarity with wax artworks regarding technique, but cannot last for a long time. The best butter sculptures come from Ta’er Monastery (Kumbum Monastery), Qinghai province, which are notable for their time-honored history, peerless craftsmanship, superb designs and innovative combinations.
tibetan butter lantern festival

Origination of Yak Butter Sculpture

About the origination of yak butter sculpture, two versions prevail: one goes that Princess Wenchang brought a Buddha statue prototyped on the 12-year-old Sakyamuni with her as dowry, which is valued and sheltered within Jokhang Monastery. To show appreciation, the Tibetans wanted to present her and the Buddha with a bundle of flowers. Unfortunately, against the harsh winter in Tibet, it was impossible to find a decent thriving plant, not to mention flower. One monk came up with a genius solution: he carved flowers out of the edible butter. Whether Princess Wencheng was surprised by this gift we have no idea, but this practice evolved into a festival and nurtured one of Tibet’s most identifiable art form.
tibetan butter lantern festival

The other version holds that in January, 1409, Tsongkhapa was hosting a grand religious debate in Lhasa which attracted over 100,000 monks. One night, he dreamed that the withered plants burst out colorful flowers, thorns are turned into lamps, and among the blossoms and flickering lamps, countless diamonds sparkle. The scene is simply spectacular and overwhelming. After he woke up, he organized a group of lamas to visualize his dream. The clusters of flowers, pavilions, jewelries these monks created astonished everyone. Since then, this practice has been incorporated into Butter Lamp Festival.
tibetan butter lantern festival

Ta’er Monastery, yak butter sculptures and Butter Lantern Festival

When butter sculpture spread to Ta’er Monastery, no one could foresee that one day this art form will be pushed into the extremity in this spiritual sanctuary. To better represent the dream of Tsongkhapa, Ta’er Monastery’s monks fall into two schools naturally. During the spare time, they seldom talk to each other. As the Tibetan Butter Lantern Festival draws near, they will rival each other to make the best yak butter sculptures ever existed. This competition pushes the monks to strive for perfection and contributes a lot to sharpen their carving techniques. Year in and year out, their works are so impeccable that ten thousands of people will throng into this monastery from Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu, Inner Mongolia as well as foreign countries. One poem was devoted to speak of its splendor: “The moon floats in the sky, the drum beat is sky rocking high, among the flower stands countless butter sculptures shine, whose ever-changing patterns will mesmerize my eye.”
tibetan lantern festival

Coincident with Han Chinese’s Lantern Festival, Butter Lantern Festival celebrated in Ta’er Monastery enjoys great popularity both in China and worldwide. It has become the most influential local festivals.
When the full moon rises above the hill, lamas in Ta'er Monastery will carry basins of butter sculptures to outdoor. Giant fames decorated with colorful ribbons will be erectly to exhibit them. Bathed within the halo produced by tens of thousands of lit-up butter lamps and accompanied by the stately and euphonious Buddhism music, the visual spectacle made of Buddha statues, flowers, birds, insects, palaces, mansions, mountains and rivers will mesmerize and transport you into another world, the world of Buddha.

During the past, all of these sculptures will be burned off after midnight to symbolize the end of Tsongkhapa’s dream. After Tibet’s declare of liberation from the feudal society, all the butter sculptures are treasured within the display rooms for tourists to appreciate them.
tibetan butter lantern festival

How to make yak butter sculptures

Yak Butter sculptures involves four procedures:

First, make frames out of bamboo, sticks, robes

, mingle the butter sculptures of the previous years with grass asses. Pound them repeatedly until they are resilient enough to make a model.

Third, mix the creamy white butter with mineral pigments, and then paint the models. To prevent the butter from melting, one needs to stay in a workshop with freezing temperature and dip hands into the ice water from time to time. This process is so time-consuming, physically challenging and artistically demanding.

Fourth: placing them onto the stands or shelves.
tibetan butter lantern festival


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