On my recent trip to India, I visited Dharamsala and McLeodganj, where the Dalai Lama established his community in 1959 when he went into exile in India. Gyuto Monastery is a tantric college of the Gelug tradition, based on Tibetan tantric wisdom. It specializes in the study of Tantric meditation, Tantric ritual arts and Buddhist philosophy. The building is really imposing with the bright yellow and brick red colours of its façade.
In addition to its renowned mission to spread Buddhist Tantrism, the temple has two particular points of interest for humble visitors like me. First, the library is a beautiful space dedicated to tantric meditation, buddhist philosophy and ritual arts. The manuscripts and printed books of pothi format are wrapped in a piece of cloth of saffron colour. The titles are written on the short edge of the wrapper or in an additional strip of silk brocade.
Second, there is the temple itself, which is a testament to the devotion of the community. The large Buddha statue is surrounded by a plethora of secondary deities to whom visitors offer mountains of offerings and gifts.
It seems that the monks have a sweet tooth as most of the offerings are sweets and biscuits. However, offering food is one of the oldest and most common rituals of Buddhism. Food is given to monks during alms rounds and also ritually offered to tantric deities and hungry ghosts. Offering food is a meritorious act that also reminds us not to be greedy or selfish.
Oil candles are also burned and water is offered is small metal cups. In Buddhist shrines, typical material offerings involve simple objects such as a lit candle or oil lamp, burning incense, flowers, food, fruit, water or drinks.
But the most interesting offerings are the hundreds of butter sculptures that are displayed before the statues of the deities. Shaped like oil lamps and flowers, they have the advantage of never going out and are not perishable.
When I visited the temple in the afternoon, it was over 30 degrees outside and I wondered how these butter sculptures didn’t melt. Then I met the owner of Kyizom Himalayan Eatery (by the way, I advise you to go there, the food is very tasty) who explained the process. The butter offerings known as torma, are often made by Buddhist monks, nuns, and laity on the occasion of prayer festivals and the Tibetan New Year, also called Losar. They are not made from 100% butter but from butter mixed with candle wax and barley flour. All are melted, mixed well and placed in moulds in the freezer to solidify. They are then carved to the desired design using a few basic tools, with the monks repeatedly dipping their hands in ice water to maintain their cool touch. Throughout the process, the carved figure is regularly put back into the fridge to prevent it from melting. In Tibet and China, the butter of the female yak is used and very sophisticated designs are produced, such as representations of gods and intricate stands reproducing real food offerings, spiritual motives and protective signs. In Gyuto Tantric Monastery, there are only three or four types indicating mass production. However, some are rather large and painted with bold colours. They feature the eight auspicious symbols, multi-petalled flowers and an arrangement of candles on top.