Butter's quality of impermanence and nourishment has long made it a sacred part of many cultures. From the Ancient Fertile Crescent to today, butter has come to symbolize health and life-giving energy. For Tibetan Buddhists, butter is also a prime ingredient used in the art of sculpture. Butter edifices, often as high as thirty feet, are created as offerings for Buddha and depict intricate designs of sacred flowers, animals and goddesses. After being created and used ceremonially, these sculptures were often purposely heated and left to melt to show that all is illusion. Seeing or creating butter sculptures allow you to learn that all things, no matter how beautiful, must be allowed to change form.
Before adding the most important ingredient, Tibetan monks create frameworks for the sculptures out of soft leather, rope and bamboo chips. Then butter is mixed with straw ash, which makes it suitable for molding. Traditionally yak butter is used, but in exiled Tibetan communities, as the weather is usually warmer, they are made with ghee, fat, and wax. To add brilliant colors, white butter is mixed with mineral colors. The actual sculpting takes great patience and varied skill as sculptors must be able to mold both towering pavilions and tiny images of birds and insects. The artists must also dedicate much time to the task, traditionally beginning in the tenth month of the Tibetan calendar and working for three full months.
Butter sculptures are displayed on altars and shrines in monasteries or family homes. They are traditionally made every Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and for the Butter Sculpture Festival, part of the Great Prayer Festival, or "Monlam Chenmo" that is held soon after Losar. After being displayed, the beautiful sculptures are invariably destroyed, teaching those who have appreciated the artistry that all things must pass on, even those things we cherish most.
The butter sculptures in Ta'er Monastery enjoy the highest reputation Tibet. The monastery has a butter sculpture museum housing a collection of fine butter sculptures.