Butter might seem like an unlikely artistic medium. But in some Tibetan Buddhist traditions, sculptors shape yak butter that’s been colored with mineral pigments into flowers, animals, and meaningful symbols such as the dharma wheel. The sculptures, known as torma, are often made by Buddhist monks, nuns, and laity for prayer festivals and the Tibetan New Year, also known as Losar.
The butter art is an essential part of the New Year’s Butter Lamp Festival, when the streets outside Buddhist temples glimmer with thousands of burning lamps, also made from yak butter. The flickering lights are meant to represent the enlightening power of Buddhism and the miracles performed by the Buddha. But they can also be extinguished at any time, symbolizing the impermanence of all things. The same holds true for the dairy-based sculptures. Though artists can mix barley flour or wax into their butter to extend their sculptures’ lifespans, they don’t last forever. At some point, the makers melt their masterpieces or feed them to animals.
Need to Know
It's possible to see butter sculptures year-round, but one of the best times to see them is during the Butter Lamp Festival, which coincides with the Tibetan New Year. Typically held in February or March, the New Year's exact date is determined by the Tibetan lunar calendar. A brief online search will yield the date for a given year's festivities.
Where to Try It
Jokhang TempleBarkhor Street, Chengguan District, Lhasa, 850000, China
Lhasa is a hub for Butter Lamp Festival celebrations, with thousands of lights dotting Barkhor Street and plenty of stunning sculptures on display outside Jokhang.