left Sculpture, like painting, is mostly religious in nature. Most of images are of Buddha or Buddhist deities. Many are hollow and have Buddhist sutras or prayers inside. Metal sculptures are made using the lost wax technique. Many Tibetan sculptures are of historical figures or real life religious figures such as past Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In Tibetan Buddhism, the esoteric Tantric vehicle was especially emphasized. Distinctive to their sculptures are double bodies or wrathful expressions. The style was influenced by the Kashmiri manner before the 14th century, the Pâla style from eastern India during the 8th to 12th centuries, as well as Nepali, Khotan, and Tun-huang regional styles. After the 15th century, Chinese art also exerted an influence on Buddhist art. Due to the dexterity of craftsmen and completeness of scriptures, the 14th through 18th century was the liveliest period for Tibetan Buddhism. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

As to how local Tibetan statues were created, according to legend, Guru Rinpoche—the legendary figure who brought Buddhism to Tibet— wanted to localize images of deities so common people could appreciate them better. He then chose some beautiful Tibetan boys and girls to serve as models to adjust the appearance of Buddha statues, such as Arya Avalokiteshvara, Hayagriva, and Tara, whose statues took on characteristics of local Tibetans.

Tibetan Buddhist statues can be categorized into two major schools: 1) exotic statues (from outside Tibet or influenced by outside Tibet); and 2) local Tibetan statues. Both can be further divided into more specific genres. Styles from different schools and periods can be seen at places like the Sakya Monastery, Samye Monastery and Potala Palace. The main exotic styles are East Indian statues, Kashmir statues, Nepalese statues, and Yong Xuan statues (statues prevalent at the Chinese royal court in the age of Emperor Yongle and Xuande in the Ming Dynasty in the early 15th century. [Source: Jegyel Palsang Norbu, expert of the Tibet Museum and Shaka Wangdu, deputy researcher of the Tibet Research Institute of Cultural Relics Preservation, Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

Jegyel Palsang Norbu, expert of the Tibet Museum, said: "With the spreading of Buddhist culture since the 7th century, many schools of Buddhist statues emerged in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Ever since Buddhism was introduced to the Tubo Kingdom in the 7th century, the Buddha statues have been localized consciously or unconsciously to cater to the traditional Tibetan appreciation of beauty."

Websites and Sources: Himalayan Art Resources himalayanart.org ; Buddha.net buddhanet.net ; Conserving Tibetan Art and Architecture asianart.com ; Guardians of the Sacred World (Tibetan Manuscript Covers) asianart.com ; Wikipedia article on Mandalas Wikipedia ; Introduction to Mandalas kalachakranet.org ; Books: “Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet” by M.M. Rhie and Robert Thurman; “The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs” and “The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols” by Robert Beer

Tibetan Sculpture and Eroticism

Tantric sculptures produced for caves and temples are often considered to be too sexually explicit by the Chinese government to be put on public display. During certain ceremonies monks reportedly hug statues of gargoyle-like demons and mother-father spirits known as yabyum and then ejaculate on them. Erotic sculptures seen in Tibetan monasteries show women having sex with oxen.

Ttantric Tibetan symbolism uses copulating deities as part of meditation instruction. Sometimes it is said they dancing rather than having sex. Joseph Houseal wrote in Buddhistdoor: Giuseppe Tucci was the first Westerner to encounter Tibetan religious art, made sense of these coupled deities, describing them as engaged in an “orgiastic dance,” and appreciating them as part of a cosmic understanding of life and death. His brilliance was to notice they were in fact dancing, and not merely engaged in erotic embrace. [Source: Joseph Houseal, Buddhistdoor, December 7, 2017]

“There are three primary ways in Tibetan art in which deities are erotically conjoined while dancing: the dakini has both her legs wrapped around the waist of the male deity; the dakinihas both legs standing on top of the deity’s standing feet; the dakini has one leg extended, matching the deity, and the other wrapped around the waist of the deity. There are variations of course, including those with multiple arms and legs.

“Dance is the quintessential symbol of skill. Dancing deities do what mere mortals cannot. That the deity is dancing means the couple sustains the true tantric fullness of energies and exhibits the skill of mastery of forces—a mastery of sexual nature—leading to a transcendence of dualistic apprehension. It is the highest state imaginable, energized at a primal level. “ The tantric gods Chakrasambhava and Vajrayogini are the ones typically shown in erotic embraces. Their erotic union represents yab and yum — the primordial union of wisdom and compassion, — in their fully energized potential, embraced by a transcendent—not reproductive—unity.

Tsha Tsha: Tibetan Clay Figurines

Tsha Tshas are small clay figurines unique to Tibet. They can be made with different all materials and can display characteristics associated with different periods and different monasteries. Their small size made them convenient for early Buddhist pilgrims to take. "Tsha-Tsha" are viewed as small stupas or amulets. The Buddhist artwork found on them was introduced from ancient India. There are relief image versions made out from a one-side mold and round stupa versions made with a two-sided mold. [Source: traditions.cultural-china.com, Tibetravel.org]

Tsha tsha is a Tibetan transliteration of a Sanskrit word. The figures are regarded like clay votive tablet and procured as the fulfillment of a vow or the granting of a wish. They are often made of clay and earth mixed with the bone ash of late Lamas. Whether they are the relief images made from a one-sided mold or are round stupas (domed Buddha shrines) completed by a two-sided mold, all of them are called tsha tsha.

Tsha Tshas feature images of Buddha, Buddhist deities and Bodhisattvas. There are round, square and triangular types usually a few centimeters wide. Some of them consist of a single image while some are comprised of hundreds of images. The most common raw material for Tsha Tsha is clay, which is shaped using concave-shaped mold, and then dried or fired in a kiln. Sometimes colors are painted on them. Wild oats or some sacred objects are embedded into the back at the time of making. Valuable Tsha Tshas are made with precious materials such as pearl, agate and saffron imbedded in them that are viewed as medicines. Such figurines are believed to provide curing properties as well spiritual assistance. The most precious Tsha Tshas are made of the mixture of clay and the ashes and remains of the late lamas. They are like mini stupas and are carried as amulets capable of warding off wickedness and strong magic.

Tsha tshas shaped like stupas are first shaped with a clay mold and then baked. They are typically cone-shaped and come in different sizes. Inside the model, there is a small piece of paper written with Buddhist scripture and a small amount of highland barley. They are usually placed beside a real stupa or a Buddhist statue as an offering. In the Aba district, Tibetans pray for a bumper harvest year by putting small clay stupas at the side of a road or village, or burying them in their fields in hopes that they will kill harmful insects. [Source: Chinatravel.com]

Tibetan monks and lay persons make Tsha Tsha is expression devotion and accumulate Buddhist merit. The completed Tsha Tsha is mainly used to fill the inner shrines of bigger stupas or statues. Tsha Tsha are also used for dispelling illness or praying for good luck. Sometimes they are worshiped at Tsha-khangs—sacred cairns placed at sacred mountain, lakes and caves. Tsha Tshas are often found with prayer flags and Mani Stones.

Tibetan Buddhist Metal Statues

The Shanghai Museum displays a Tibetan “Gilt Bronze Bodhisattva”. According to the museum: This Buddha statue of Tibetan nationality was shaped by its own style and standard. This Bodhisattva named “Bai Du Mu" is the embodiment of Guanyin who is also known as Bodhisattva worshipped by people in the Central Plain. “Bai Du Mu" is characterized by white decoration on the body. Tibetan people sometimes call her “Qi Yan Nv"(a Bodhisattva with seven eyes), who can watch all living creatures clearly. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Describing 51.4-centimeter-tall gilt copper alloy statue inlaid with semiprecious stones from Nepal dated to the 14th century, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Tara, the Buddhist savioress whose name means “star,” guides pilgrims on their journeys to sacred sites and protects them from peril. On another level of meaning, she also guides and protects the adept on his or her jour- ney toward enlightenment. As the female counterpart to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, she is the goddess of compassion. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“She takes many forms. Here she stands in the tribhanga pose, her left hand raised in the teaching mudra. Attached to her left upper arm is a lotus. She holds a small citron or pomegranate in her right hand, signifying her gift of com- passion to the devotee. Note the patterns on her palms. She wears a long floral printed dhoti and shawl which falls down her back. As is typical in Nepal, her jewelry is set with actual semiprecious stones and includes a crown, earrings, necklaces, armbands, wide cuff bracelets, and an elaborate belt. Her skin is brightly gilded.

“The overall effect of this figure is one of elegance, refinement, and other- worldliness created by her adornment, her swaying pose and slender, graceful body, and the serene expression on her face. The effect is enhanced by light reflecting off the smooth gilt-copper surfaces. Such images were placed in temples. Nepali sculpture was greatly influenced by the sculpture of India. However, Tara’s anatomy is somewhat less volup- tuous than her Indian counterparts (compare image 18), and her wide face with large, partially closed eyes, pursed mouth, and arched nose is purely Nepalese, as are the elaborate foliate swirls in the crown.

Tibetan Stone and Rock Carvings

Tibet is in rich repositories of culturally significant stone and rock carvings. When you are travelling in Tibet, you will find stone and rock carvings everywhere. Images include those of animals, human figures, gods, plants, utensils, buildings, symbols and natural objects. About 80 percent of old rock carvings of animals and hunting scenes and the daily life of the nomadic people. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

Ritu Rock Carving Site, Yaowangshan Rock Carving Site and Zaxi Cave Rock Carving Site are three Tibetan rock carvings sites. Ritu Rock Carvings site in the Ngari area boasts hundreds of rock carvings, whose contents include hunting activities, war and fighting, religious ceremonies, and dancing scenes. The major color there is red. The style is characterized by simple compositions drawn using simple techniques. Yaoshanwang Rock Carvings site is in the Yaowangshan Mountains near Lhasa. The rock carvings have been produced mostly in modern times. The images are mostly religious figures. Zaxi Cave Rock Carvings are found on the east side of Namtso Lake in the Nagqu area. These carvings are found in eight natural caves. Most of the carvings are colored in red. There are images of animals, human, sun and pagodas.

Black stone can be found in the homes of many ordinary Tibetans because it is seen as a propitious stone capable of driving away evil and attracting good fortune. Such stones are not very expensive as they are carved by machine. The most common rock carvings are Mani stones. See Religion. The subjects of Mani stone carvings are usually sutras, designs, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Sometimes the images are carved at the request of the relatives of the dead people to release souls from purgatory. Usually, the contents are decided by a Shaman. Mani stone carving differs significantly from place to place. Those from western Tibet are said to have an elegant flavor, while those in eastern Tibet have an air of antiquity.

Tibetan Butter Sculptures

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Butter sculpture

Tibetans make incredibly detailed yak butter sculptures and friezes of Buddha, religious characters, landscapes, pavilions, animals, trees. flowers, temples, human figures, animals and god and goddesses. They are made of a mixture yak butter and tsampa (roasted barley) applied on a wooden frame. They are often placed in monasteries at festival time and left there afterwards. One of their purposes is to symbolize the impermanence of all things. Butter sculpture from Qinghai Province's Taer Monastery boasts high artistic quality and unique style with various dimensions and rich contents. The art form is said to have its origins in Tibet’s Pre-Buddhist Bon religion

Butter sculptures are constructed as offerings. The height of some of the butter sculptures can be as much as 10 meters, and depict everything from Offering Goddesses and butter mandalas, through to flowers, animals and auspicious symbols of Buddhism. Each butter image is assembled to create a tableaux or 'torma'. The display of butter offerings are described as 'butter ornaments', 'butter flowers' or 'offering of flowers'. [Source: Gyuto Monks, gyuto.va.com.au ^^]

Unlike other sacred arts, the butter sculpture is associated with both play and competition. Because of the competitive aspect, the techniques are carefully guarded, and a monk must show genuine interest and commitment before he can find a willing teacher.Great pride is taken in making the offerings as attractive as possible. For example, before 1959, in Lhasa, Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama would inspect the work of the great monasteries of the city and award a prize to the best tableaux. ^^

Making Tibetan Butter Sculptures

The making of butter sculpture in Tibet has similarities and differences with techniques used by artists and chefs in the West. The butter is modeled, not carved; and is dyed before use, not painted afterwards. In this respect, the methods perhaps best resembles the icy of a cake and modeling cake decoration. Many tools are used in the sculpting and modeling: wooden needles, hollow bones for making long threads, molds for things like leaves and flowers and many types of spatulas. [Source: Gyuto Monks, gyuto.va.com.au]

The making of butter sculptures is unique and sort of complex: Since butter melts easily it is modeled by hand in cold conditions (usually on winter days) by monk artists. To make the butter more smooth and delicate, the monk artists soak it in cold water for a long time to remove impure substances; then, they knead the butter into a smooth yet greasy preparation. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 17, 2005]

Before sculpting, monk artists must wash and take part in a religious ritual. Then, they begin to discuss the theme of the butter sculpture. After setting the theme, they elaborate on the concept, planning, and layout of the butter sculpture. During this process, the work is distributed among the monks respectively. When all of the preparatory work is complete, the artists enter rooms at a temperature of zero and begin to sculpt.

The first procedure is for the artist to set up a basic frame for the butter sculpture, using some simple tools, such as soft leather, hemp rope, and hollow stick. In the next procedure, modeling, the artist employs two kinds of raw materials. The first kind is a black mixture made from the used butter sculptures and ashes from burned wheat straw to mold different shapes on the frame. This process greatly resembles flour sculpting and clay sculpting. Then, the body must be revised and examined before the model is finally set up. The second raw material is a mixture made from the creamy butter and many colored minerals. These are painted onto the surface of the body, and golden and silver powder is used to draw the outline of the sculpture. This process concludes the modeling of colored images. In the last step, the butter sculptures are affixed onto several slates or a special basin as in the original design. The layout can create a flower image or a story called "frame of butter flowers."

Priceless Tibetan Buddha Statue Looted by Nazis Carved from Meteorite

In September 2012, The Guardian reported: “A priceless Buddha statue looted by Nazis in Tibet in the 1930s was carved from a meteorite which crashed to the Earth 15,000 years ago, according to new research. The relic bears a Buddhist swastika on its belly — an ancient symbol of luck that was later co-opted by the Nazis in Germany. Analysis has shown the statue is made from an incredibly rare form of nickel-rich iron present in falling stars. [Source: Mark Taylor, The Guardian, September 28, 2012]

The 1,000-year-old carving, which is 24cm high and weighs 10kg, depicts the god Vaisravana, the Buddhist King of the North, and is known as the Iron Man statue. It was stolen before the second world war during a pillage of Tibet by Hitler's SS, who were searching for the origins of the Aryan race. It eventually made its way to a private collection and was hidden away until it was auctioned in 2007. [Ibid]

The new owner approached Dr Elmar Buchner of University of Stuttgart to unlock the secrets of the unusual carving's past. Buchner's team of researchers from Germany and Austria dated it to a specific event in astronomy history when the Chinga meteorite fell in the border region of eastern Siberia and Mongolia between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. Tests proved the icon was made of a rare ataxite class, the rarest meteorite type found on Earth. Gold prospectors discovered debris from the Chinga crash in 1913, but the fragment from which the statue was carved was collected centuries before. [Ibid]

Meteorites have long been heralded as acts of God across many cultures, and early knives and jewellery were often carved from the remnants of space rocks. But tracing their exact origins has proved difficult for scientists. "We were quite astonished by the results," Buchner told the online journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science."If we are right that it was made in the Bon culture in the 11th century, it is absolutely priceless and absolutely unique worldwide," Buchner said. "It is extremely impressive, it was formerly almost completely gilded — there is a great mystery represented by it."

Image Sources: University of Purdue, Kalachakranet.org, CNTO; Mandala images, Univeristy of Liverpool, Harvard Education Review

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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