The Unsung Heroes of the Kagyu Monlam

torma1The torma artists are the unsung heroes of the Kagyu Monlam. Every year they labor long hours in relative obscurity, tucked away in a private space far removed from Tergar Monastery and the bustle of other pre-Monlam preparations and activities. This year there were 64 monks and nuns working from dawn to dusk on the butter sculptures and offering tormas (Tib. shalzes) for the 30th Kagyu Monlam.

Arriving at least a month before the monlam begins, the artists make many of their own tools and spend the first couple of days preparing their colorful wax-butter palette. The wax butter is made from a combination of paraffin, Dalda (a brand of Indian margarine), imported pastry margarine, and oil paint. The shalzes or “food offerings for the deities” are made out of a mixture of flour and melted Dalda that has been kneaded for a very long time. Then they are shaped by hand, carved with a knife, smoothed with the convex surface of a spoon, and finally coated with melted ghee.  They stand about 20-inches  high and are decorated with varying combinations of the eight auspicious symbols and the seven articles of royalty that have been sculpted from wax butter and mounted on wooden discs.

torma5The torma artists began on November 16 this year and finished about three and a half weeks later. Every year the senior artists get faster and are able to produce two or three large statues apiece. The junior artists work on smaller statues, or create the decorative motifs that are mounted on the wooden plaques (Tib. gyentras) between and around the statues. Some of the less experienced artists make the decorations (Tib. gyens) for the shalzes. Karma Kagyu monasteries and nunneries throughout India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim send an average of two people each year to participate in the torma-making process. This year, many of them were seasoned professionals with a lot of experience from previous  years but some were new and had to be trained on the spot. The Gyalwang Karmapa is the mastermind behind the designs; he comes up with a different scheme every year and closely monitors the works in progress to make sure they are shaping up according to his instructions.

There are six senior artists who return annually to supervise the process and teach the newest recruits. Lama Sangye, the torma master,  lives at Ralang Monastery in Sikkim, and has completed a three-year-retreat at Pullahari in Nepal. As a youth, he studied statue-making for many years with the two most highly-regarded sculptors in Bhutan. Lama Gelek also completed a three-year retreat and serves as the shrine master (Tib. chöpon) at Bokar Rinpoche’s monastery in Mirik. He is a trained thangka and mural artist. Özer Nyingpo, the Karmapa’s personal shrine master is a very talented sculptor. Karma Samten is also an exquisite sculptor and a thangka painter in his own right. Karma Wangchuk is a great natural artist. As a child he taught himself to draw and as a young adult he learned to sculpt exceptionally well. Besides sculpting statues each year, he also paints the extra flourishes on the finished figures, such as coloring the lips and “opening the eyes” of the Buddhas, lineage masters, and assorted deities. Tashi Tsering has also evolved into one of the most talented sculptors and returns every year.

This year there were twelve large tormas and 32 shalzes. Four tormas were displayed on the two altars in the Monlam Pavlion and eight tormas were set up at the Mahabodhi stupa on December 24th for the last three days of the Kagyu Monlam.

The altars at the Monlam Pavilion were on the uppermost tier of the stage, placed on either side of the large golden Buddha statue. Each shrine featured two gyentras, with shalzes and flower arrangements placed to the left and right and Korean style offerings in cylindrical containers below.

The four tormas at the Pavilion represented the four main transmissions of the sutras and the tantras. In these tormas, there is a connection between the figure on the top and the figure in the middle. The figure on the bottom section of each of the four is a dharma protector whose activity loosely relates to that of other two figures.

So from left to right, in the first torma, Saraha is on the top, the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa is in the middle, and Tseringma of the Five Sisters is on the bottom. There is a close connection between the Karmapa lineage and Saraha because the first Karmapa is considered to be an emanation of Saraha, who was one of the greatest Indian Mahasiddhas.

The second torma features Buddha Sakyamuni on top, Ananda in the middle, and Dzambhala on the bottom. Ananda, the middle figure, received all of the teachings that Buddha Sakyamuni ever gave.

In the third torma, Padmasambhava is on the top, the translator Vairotsana is in the middle, and the protectress Ngak Sum Ekajati is on the bottom. Padmasambhava and Vairotsana are connected in that Vairotsana lived during the time of Padmasambhava, King Trisong Deutsen, and Shantarakshita in Tibet. Besides being one of the greatest Tibetan translators, Vairotsana was one of the three main masters to bring the Dzogchen teachings to Tibet. His emanations have been important tertons and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye is considered to be one of his emanations.

In the fourth torma, the noble Nagarjuna is on the top, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye is in the middle, and Gyu Gön, the protector of the tantras is on the bottom. As for the connection between the top and middle figures, Nagarjuna is considered to be the second Buddha and the holder of the sutric and tantric traditions. And Lodro Thaye is similar to Nagarjuna because in his famous “Five Treasuries” he brought together and preserved a huge array of teachings. So in the sense of the breadth and depth of the teachings he collected, Lodro Thaye is comparable to Nagarjuna. This torma has a special significance because 2013 will mark the 200th anniversary of Jamgon Kongtrul’s birth and his lineage is being commemorated at this year’s Kagyu Monlam.

The altar arrangement at the Mahabodhi Stupa was vast and beautiful, spanning the width of the entire front area beneath the Bodhi tree. Besides the usual shrines for the butter sculptures, offering tormas,  flowers, candles, and Korean-style offerings of candies, nuts, dried fruits, and platters of fresh fruit, there was a smaller shrine placed in-between, featuring a large framed photo of Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche, in honor of his passing earlier this year.

The two shrines on either side of the Bodhi tree held four gyentras each. Facing the Mahabodhi Stupa, the main theme of the tormas on the left side were the four great deeds of the Buddha. On the right side, the Kagyu Lineage masters as well as the four main lineages of Tibet were featured.

Regarding the tormas on the left, each gyentra featured a deity on top, a representation of one of the Buddha’s four great deeds in the middle, and an offering goddess underneath. In the first torma from left to right, Buddha Sakyamuni is on the top, the deed “Demonstrating Miracles” is underneath, and the White Goddess of the Eternal Knot named “the One with the Lotus” is on the bottom.

In the second torma from the left, Chenrezig is on  top, the deed of “Becoming Enlightened” is in the middle and a white goddess carrying a wheel named “She Who Creates Fear” is on the bottom.

In the third torma from the left, the protector Achala, blue holding a sword is on top, the deed of “Turning the Wheel of the Dharma” is in the middle and a blue offering goddess holding a lotus, named “The One of Light,” is on the bottom.

In the fourth torma, Tara, the deity who eliminates obstacles is on top, in the middle is the deed, “Buddha Descending from Tushita Heaven,” and on the bottom is the blue goddess holding a victory banner called “the Victorious One.”

The upper section of each torma on the right hand side shows one of the four main lineages of Tibet; the middle sections contain the great masters of the Kagyu Lineage, and the bottom sections contain four more offering goddesses.

torma3So in the first torma on the right, in the upper section is Sakya Pandita, representing the Sakya Lineage, in the middle section is Marpa Lotsawa, and on the bottom is a red offering goddess holding an umbrella, called Dangchenma, “the One of Radiance.”torma2

In second torma, in the uppermost section is Longchenpa, representing the Nyingma Lineage, in the middle is Jetsun Milarepa, and on the bottom is a light red offering goddess holding a vase called, “the One with the White Skirt.” She is called this because she wears a diaphanous white skirt.

In the third torma, Je Tsongkhapa is on top, representing the Gelukpa, Lord Gampopa is in the middle and on the bottom is a green goddess holding a conch shell called “the Stainless One.”

torma4In the fourth torma, Dolpo Sherab Gyaltsen is on the top representing the Jonangpa  lineage. The Jonangpa is not usually considered to be one of the four main lineages, but here, instead of putting a Kagyu Lineage master, they have put the founder of the Jonang Lineage. Incidentally, Dolpopo Sherab Gyaltsen lived at the same time as the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje and the two masters shared a dharma connection. It was said that before Dolpopo became famous, Rangjung Dorje prophesized, “You will have a very special [philosophical] view,” indicating that he would develop the Shentong view.

The middle section shows Pakmo Drukpa, and on the bottom of this torma there is another green offering goddess called ‘the Supremely Attractive One’, who holds two golden fish. Pakmo Drupa is featured here because he was Gampopa’s main student and the younger Dagpo Kagyu lineages descend from him.

In these four tormas, there is no  particular relationship between the figures on  top and the ones in the middle, but by including the Jonangpa, Dolpopo and  Pakmo Drupo, all of the elder and younger lineages of Tibetan Buddhism are represented in the tormas of the 30th Kagyu Monlam.


Article reprint courtesy 30th Kagyu Monlam.

More beautiful torma examples.

Interested in Tormas?

On the weekend of April 26 – 28, 2013, Lama Yeshe Wangmo will present a weekend workshop and teaching on ‘The Spiritual Significance of Tormas’.

Learn about their complex history, rich symbolism and important function in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Experiment with making simple tormas that can enhance your daily practice, and view footage from a film about butter sculpture, including torma explanations by great Kagyu masters.

Check out Torma Movie Facebook page.


4 thoughts on “The Unsung Heroes of the Kagyu Monlam

  1. … Thank you for elaborating this blog. It is a great way to keep us informed. The tormas are really exquisite and a great inspiration to all of us practitioners. Please let us know with plenty of time -since we live in Caracas, Venezuela- if this technique can be learned at the KTD. Thank you again.

  2. Maria, the next Torma workshop will be April 26-28, with Lama Yeshe Wangmo, “The Spiritual Significance of Tormas”. See for more information, or call 845-679-5906 ext. 3. Lama Yeshe will be teaching about the history, rich symbolism and important function in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The class will experiment with making simple tormas that can enhance your daily practice.

  3. … Thank you for your reply. Please consider the possibility of recording the activity. This way people like us, in Caracas, could have access to the material and translate it into spanish so that many can benefit.

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