Butter sculpture originated from Tibet and was introduced to the Tar Monastery, also known as Kumbum Monastery, in the early 17th century. Many monasteries in China make butter sculptures, but those of Tar excel in technique and scale.
Legend says that in 641, when Princess Wencheng arrived in Lhasa to marry Songtsen Gampo, king of Tubo, she brought a statue in the shape of Sakyamuni, founder of Buddhism.
Following the Buddhist tradition, flowers must be offered as a tribute to the Buddha statue. But it was deep winter and no fresh flowers could be found. So people made a bunch of flowers with butter as an offering.
In 1409, founder of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, who was born in today's Huangzhong County where the Tar Monastery was founded, held the Grand Sermons Ceremony in Lhasa.
He dreamed of thorny bushes turning into bright lanterns, weeds bursting into blossom amid numerous shiny treasures.
When he woke up, the great master immediately asked his followers to make the treasures and flowers as he had dreamed and offered them to the Buddha.
With pure yak and goat milk butter as the raw material, the sculptures are painted with mineral dyestuff. Often the sculptures are part of a series which depict a story, such as the life of Sakyamuni.
As the butter sculpture art entered the Tar Monastery in 1603, two academies devoted to its creation and study have been established. Every year, when the Grand Sermons Ceremony is held here during the Lantern Festival, the two academies bring out their best works
How the scultpures are made
The making of butter sculpture is a daunting task. As butter made from yak or goat milk melts in warm weather, butter sculpture has to be made in the coldest months of the year.
To sculpt butter, lamas must dip their hands in icy water. Only with numb hands can they begin the sculpting.
Over the past centuries, the art of butter sculpture has become very specialized: Making people, animals and flowers has each become a tradition requiring different techniques.
In sub-zero temperature rooms, the elderly lamas and their students first prepare the frame of sculpture with bamboo sticks, ropes and others. Then they mix old butter sculptures with wheat ashes to form black mud, which is used to make the primitive body of the sculptures.
After modifying the base, the lamas will apply colourful butter onto it. The figurines are outlined with gold and silver powder. Finally the small parts are fixed onto the frame with iron wire.
As the creation lasts some three months in winter, many lamas have found their fingers deformed by the time a grand display is prepared