Tibetan Monks Transform Butter Into Art

The most popular design for butter art is the flower. (Photo: yowangdu.com)

If you've ever eaten at a fine dining establishment, chances are you've seen butter in delicate shapes arrive with your warm loaf of bread. Sometimes, the designs are so pretty that you dance around it, trying not destroy the art before you slather it on your slice.

Those fancy little flowers and circular designs may seem impressive, but they pale in comparison to the intricate artwork of Tibetan monks, who painstakingly create tsepdro, art made from butter.

Tsepdro is the ancient tradition of monks creating religious symbols out of butter during Losar, the Tibetan New Year.

The butter art is constructed on a flat piece of wood and neatly stacked in piles inside a wooden box. (Photo: yowangdu.com)

According to the Yowangdu Tibetan cultural website, The most popular symbols created are flowers, tashi dargye (eight auspicious symbols), norbu kagyi (precious jewel), thunpa punshi (four harmonious friends — elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird), tsering drukor (six elements for longevity — old man, river, crane, deer, tree and cliff) and nyima dawa (sun and moon).

The butter sculptures are placed on altars in Tibetan homes and monasteries during Losar as blessings for family, friends and the community.

Gyuto monks create tspedro carefully by hand. (Photo: yowangdu.com)

The process for creating each sculpture is tedious and delicate. The monks use only their hands to mold the butter into the forms. Since butter can easily melt, monks work in a cold room and repeatedly dip their hands in ice water while shaping the butter. Once the design is complete, they dye the butter and let it set.

The monks have to continuously dip their hands in cold water to make sure the butter doesn't soften or melt. (Photo: yowangdu.com)

The monks use yak butter mixed with barley flour; the butter will typically last for a few weeks. Then, the sculptures are typically left outside for animals to enjoy after the New Year.

Tsepdro is traditionally made during Losar, Tibetan New Year. (Photo: yowangdu.com)