Torma: The Ancient Art of Tibetan Butter Sculpture, is a feature-length documentary about the unique Tibetan art of butter sculpture. These colorful, radiant forms called tormas are beautiful in themselves and spiritually significant. Torma will focus on the artistic vision of the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who, as supreme head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, is establishing a new torma tradition in his lineage.


In 1985, the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa, was born into a poor nomad family of Lhatok, located in the northern region of Eastern Tibet. In 1992, he was officially recognized and enthroned as the Karmapa. He left his home and journeyed to Tsurphu monastery in central Tibet, the main seat of the Karmapa for centuries, where he lived for several years and carried on the work of his predecessors.

Over time, it became increasingly clear to him that by staying in Tibet he could not receive the necessary transmissions and instructions from his teachers, most of who were living in exile in India. The Karmapa petitioned the Chinese government many times in order to meet with his teachers, but his requests were repeatedly denied. Finally, before New Year’s Day in 2000, the fifteen-year-old Karmapa and his attendants executed a daring and dangerous escape through the forbidding winter terrain of the Himalayan Mountains. In a much-publicized event, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Dharmasala, India, warmly greeted the young Karmapa into exile.


Since 2005, the Karmapa’s sculptures have been showcased at the Kagyu International Prayer Festival held annually in Bodhgaya, India. The main section of the film will tell the story of several monks and nuns chosen by the Karmapa to be specially instructed in the art of butter sculpture. They train for months in advance before they are prepared to carry out the artistic visions of the Karmapa. Finally, they arrive in Bodhgaya about a month before the prayer festival begins and create the sculptures under the Karmapa’s direct supervision.

Torma will show how the Karmapa is transforming the Karma Kagyu tradition of butter sculpture and why this is artistically and culturally significant.


We will document this process by observing the torma makers at work, showing how the artists prepare the tools and materials needed to make their masterpieces and how they sculpt the butter.

The meanings of the stunning and intricate symbols, motifs and myths will be discussed. Interwoven throughout these explanations will be feature stories of the hopes and struggles of some of the key torma artists plus interviews with the Karmapa and other lineage masters.

The film will document this artistic process in its culturally specific context: the purpose of these sculptures is to enhance an aesthetic and religious experience shared by thousands of people. In essence, they are an elaborate art installation to be savored by all of the monastic and lay participants at the Kagyu International Prayer Festival for World Peace.


In addition, we will explore butter sculpture in its ethnographic aspect, examining the roots of this tradition and its relevance to modern Tibetans. Our film will answer the simple question: what is a torma? This will include showing how tormas are used in the daily life of Tibetans. In Tibetan culture before anything of significance is begun, a torma is offered. This is true not only in Tibet, but also Ladakh and Sikkim. For instance, when building a house, the first thing Tibetans do is offer a torma, in order to insure cooperation from local spirits and deities.

(photo by Filip Wolak)


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