Torma & Tsa-tsa

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Tormas (Skt.: bali) are offering cakes.  They symbolize the food offering.  Originally made of dough (in Tibet, roasted barley flour is used,) and also sculpted from butter, they have evolved into elaborately decorated objects.  Since making them is time-consuming, people have begun to use clay, wood and more recently, synthetic substances.  These include resin modeling products, and at least one Asian company produces small, injection-moulded plastic tormas. 

Symbolic offerings at one time (pre-Buddhism, naturally,) may have been substitutes for living beings.  However, the Tibetan word, spelled, has an etymology that is especially revealing.   Lama Tashi Dondrup once explained that the word, composed of two parts, stands for "something that is thrown out" + "mother" (a signifier that is female.) The implication is one of cutting of attachment combined with care and generosity without limitation.

Although a torma has specific characteristics that depend upon the deity to whom it is being offered, all tormas have three fundamental elements to their construction:  foundation, body, and decoration. These symbolize respectively the qualities of body, speech, and mind.

The energies of these qualities are represented by two or three small, rather flat, discs applied to the front of the conical body.  Usually they are in the form of flowers; the rims can be pressed to create the scalloped effect of petals.  

Finally, one or more dabs of coloured butter (or nowadays, a margarine-wax mix) known as gyab gyen are sometimes pressed onto the "back" (Tib. gyab) of the torma.  This action dedicates the offering:  

 . . .  it seals the torma offering so that its essence won't be lost or stolen before you get a chance to offer it.  I've also heard that it's a gesture, as if you were saying, "thus, I offer." ~ ani Yeshe Wangmo

A torma of elaborate design may be decorative, but it is not as important as the action of generosity which it represents.  The colours reflect the nature of the deity to which it is being offered, and can also correspond to traditional yogic principles. 

Shalzey tormas (Skt. naividya bali) intended for a personal shrine are usually between 4 and 6 inches high, but they can be any size. It takes a large snowball-sized ball of dough to make one that is in the small range with a three-inch diameter base. 

Since the bala or torma is intended for a deity, we take care to keep its ingredients pure, and the surface on which we are working clean. The hands must be washed and the maker should avoid breathing on the project. Any bits that fall to the floor are unusable and must be discarded.

The ingredients to make sixteen six-inch tormas are as follows. A five-pound bag of flour without yeast, one cup of butter or shortening (it can be colored with food dye), and a large pot one-third full of water.  First, bring the water to boil.  Next, add the butter. Then add flour.  Stir and let boil for three to five minutes. 

Mix, then let it sit to cool a little. It should be just sticky enough to be easily kneaded.

The dough (which may still be hot -- be careful) is removed from the pot and placed on the clean surface where it is kneaded until it is uniformly soft and smooth. (If it sticks too much, dust your hands and/or the surface with flour.)

If you intend to use real food tormas, they must be kept intact.  If they show signs of age -- bits falling off, etc. -- then they need to be repaired or replaced.  Tormas made of food are never tossed in the garbage but are left outside in a clean place for birds and other animals to enjoy. 

NB.  If you are going to use a synthetic substance instead of flour, include some grains of rice or other cereal in the torma so that it still has integrity in the sense of a food offering.

  • Hints and suggestions at the Kagyu email list include adding olive oil, using beet juice for red colouring and using marzipan.
  • Artist Robert Rauschenberg evokes a torma using a fiddle: Tibetan Garden Song (1986) 

Ani Yeshe Wangmo (Mary Young) helped produce a video showing how to work with synthetic products such as Sculpey or Fimo.  Called Making the Karma Pakshi Tormas with Lama Tashi Dhondup, it sells for $25 instructional booklet included.

Butter Sculpture

Butter tormas are usually made by Buddhist monastics for a special occasion. They used to be made only where conditions were cool enough for them to survive for a while without melting.  The monks had to keep dipping their hands into cold water to do the modeling.  Nowadays, the butter or margarine is mixed with candle wax before colouring is added.  They use aids such as hollow bones or straws for making long threads, and molds for making the chakras /flowers and leaves that are applied to the main form.  The sculpted forms are often displayed on bats [wooden boards] that have been gold-leafed.

In Lhasa, for the Losar new year celebration 's Butter Lamp Festival on the 15th of the first Tibetan month, all sorts of fantastic figures are made for display alongside the lamps that traditionally use butter as fuel. 

On the 19th, at the end of the festival, the torma and the zur are burnt in the ceremony, thus burning the evil that has been attracted to them. Though this is called the torma festival, the actual object to be thrown was called the zur. The zur was an eight or nine-foot high tripod of sticks . . . decorated with butter sculptures of flames, clouds, gems and other symbols. On the top was a big skull from which flames are issued. Many ribbons or strings are tied to the top of the tripod. Inside the legs of the tripod was a torma, and depending on the purpose, its size and color varied.

~ Thubten Norbu ("Festivals of Tibet," J. of Popular Culture 16, #1 (Summer 1982) 126-134.) 


  •  Uses of tsa-tsa with some speculation on their history
  • See also, K. Magnussen (FPMT) Making Tsa-tsas (moulded votive plaques.)

See also, Offerings.

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