Dharmapala Thangka CentreTibetan Antiques


Tibetan Tsha Tshas

by Chen Dan - published by China Intercontinental Press

"Tshatsha" originates from the Sanskrit, and specifically refers to the demolded clay statues in Tibetan Buddhism. It is a small Buddha statue or stupa made as follows: Fill a concave mold with the clay tightly, press it into shape and then demold. As said by the Italian Tibetologist Mr. G Tucci in his book entitled Tibet Archaeology. "Tshatsha originates from a word in dialects of central and northern India ancient in ancient times and in the Middle Ages, and is closely related with stupa. The custom of putting 'Tshatsha' in the stupa originates from the Indian custom of storing holy articles in the stupa body made of slab stone." To redeem the vow to Bodhisattva, some pilgrims bought Tshatshas and put them in the places where they thought there was anima. In this way, the small Buddha statue embodying the wishes was taken far away.

It is said that it is just in that way that Tshatsha was introduced into Tibet by Buddhists from India. But later, the development of Tshatsha in Tibet was far better than that in India, because Buddhism gradually declined and disappeared at the end of the 12th Century in India, the origin of Buddhism. But after being introduced into Tibet in the 7th Century, the Buddhism took root gradually and was developed and expanded eventually, despite of several hardships. As an adjunct to Buddhism, Tshatsha became the widespread token in Tibet.

Tshatsha Once Got Lost in Tibet

Tshatsha is the outcome of religion. The development and change of Tibetan Buddhism has greatly influenced formation of its art style. Normally, the age and geographical feature of Tshatsha can be easily distinguished according to certain religious period and corresponding artistic style, but it is not the case. For the small size and portability, mobility of Tshatsha and its mold is great, which results in the mixing and blending. So it is difficult to confirm its geographical feature and style. The experts can only generally sum up its artistic styles and age characteristics.

The Earlier Macro Period of Tibetan Buddhism is the rising period of Tshatsha, ranging from the 7th Century to the 9th Century. During that period, Tshatshas were made of clay. During the period of destruction of Buddhism launched by Langdarma the Zamprogna [King] of the last Tibetan regime lasting from 838 to 842, Buddhism suffered a catastrophe. Almost all the Buddha statues, scriptures and murals were destroyed, so did all easily damaged clay Tshatshas.

During the subsequent 140 years, Tibetan Buddhism almost disappeared, and Tshatshas also disappeared.

From the latter half of the 10th Century to the 13th Century, Tibetan Buddhism began to thrive again, and entered the early Later Macro Period. At the incipient stage of the Period, Tshatsha integrated the shape and style features of Swat in north-western India, Pala in north-eastern India, Kashmir and Gilgit. In the meantime, it, to some extent, was influenced by the arts of Nepal and China. Tshatshas focused on the expressions and postures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. As for the appearance, the simple square, round and other geometric shapes dominated, and its process was relatively simple and rough. While, in the late Later Macro Period, the large-scale production of "Tshatsha" gradually started, indicating the removal of early Indian pattern of mass reproduction, and the formation of style characteristics of localization and nationalization.

The wide spread of Tshatsha in Tibet is because it satisfies faith demands of ordinary people who could enshrine and worship Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and so on by spending a little money; as a convenient belief means, it is more easily welcomed and accepted by the majority of people.

Evolution of Artistic Style

With the rapid development of Buddhism in the Later Macro Period, and the mass production and spreading of Tshatshas, the Indian molds used early became blurred, and were gradually abandoned. From the 14th Century to the early 17th Century, the development of Tshatsha trended to mature. For the absorption and Integration of artistic styles of India, Nepal and other places, plus the improvement of production processes and techniques, Tibetan craftsmen began making new molds. Those new molds owned the distinctive features of localization and nationalization of Tibet, bestowing Tshatshas -the Buddhist artworks with the aesthetic style characteristics of Tibetan culture. The mature Tibetan Tshatshas were spread to Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan, Mongolia and other places, so as to initially enter the development period characterized by slightly different region style. The period is also the period when the Tibetan and Han arts were compatible, learning and absorbing from each other.

After the mid-17th Century, the court of Qing Dynasty [1644-1911] always adhered to the basic national policy of maintaining the Mongolian and Tibetan areas under its rule and ensuring the security of Northwest and Southwest border areas. In addition, the court handled the relationship with Tibetan Buddhism prudently and properly, and greatly promoted the development of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhist art. With the increasing exchange between Chinese and Tibetan cultures, a large number of Chinese culture elements were introduced into the religious art of Tibet in the later period. At first, the pattern of blending exchanged between Chinese and Tibetan cultures, and later, with the gradual increased impact of Chinese culture, the Tibetan painting entered a formulaic stage. The formation of specifications on the Tibetan Buddhist painting provided a uniform Standard for the statues in murals, Thangka, sculptures and Tshatsha molds, providing the basis for artists to learn and practice, and thus making the art level of Tibetan Buddhism reach its peak. The development of Tshatsha began to enter the period of art treasures. Tshatshas during this period featured rigorous design, neat layout, delicate Image, iconography with serious expression, and flat background. Many refined art treasures of Tshatsha were produced in this period.

However, the molds created by some folk artists were relatively plain, natural, vivid, füll of folk temperament and interest, and free from constraints.

Guge Tshatsha

Throughout the whole development of Tibetan artistic style, one place named Ngari must be mentioned because it has played an important role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism and art.

in the westernmost region of Tibet, the Tholing Monastery and Guge ruins of Zada County, Ngari, still retain the murals with the style quite different from those in other parts of Tibet, and with obvious characteristics of Buddhist art in India: The Bodhisattva in the mural was characterized by showy curves, gentle and lovely shape, round and high breasts, composed and free expression, random gesture such as the semi-side position, and not being particular about the symmetry and norm of pictures. Such kind of painting works is very contagious, making people feel the freedom and creativity of painters. In this period, Tshatsha iconography was influenced by the arts of painting, architecture and sculpture, and the arts of neighbouring countries south to Tibet were also integrated. The iconographies of Buddha have vivid postures, rich expressions. Many decorative elements have been used to make Tshatsha molds, and the works implied the styles of India, Nepal and Kashmir.

The material used to make Guge Tshatsha includes a kind of off-white fine clay, which can not only depict the soft and delicate features of character iconography, but also show the fine feature of scriptures and paternosters. Besides iconographies of deities, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, there are many Tshatshas made in the shape of stupa, and various Tshatsha Stupas, which is thought-provoking.

Five Kinds of Tshatshas

Tshatshas in Tibet are of hierarchy. Experts generally classify Tshatshas into five categories according to material, function, preciousness of holy article contained, and popularity of producer, etc.

The most common kind of Tshatsha is made of common clay, with low cost, and widely spread among the people. The better clays include daub clay, pot clay, white clay and so on. During the production, producers embed the highland barley or other mascots containing the happy life wishes into the back of Buddha statue. Some will be burned after being demolded for water-proof brick nature. Some will be burned again after the color decoration, which is more particular.

"Relics Tshatsha" is one of the rarest kinds of Tshatshas. According to the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, Panchen Erdeni and some other grand Living Buddhas will be buried in the stupa after the Parinirvana. Before the burial of Living Buddha's body in the stupa, the long-time, meticulous and strict anti-corrosion and shade-dry treatment should be carried out, with details as follows: Blot up the blood inside the body by using the salt, saffron crocus and other valuable drugs, mold it into gold body after being dried up, and then put it in the gold or silver stupa body for people to worship. The Buddhists in the temple produce the "Relics Tshatsha" by mixing the salt soaking with the blood water of relics of Living Buddha or other drugs with the clay. It is the most valuable Tshatsha, and mainly used as amulet. Tibetans believe that the owning Relics Tshatsha as the amulet can withstand all evils, ensure the safety and make them invulnerable. Moreover, Relics Tshatsha also has the medicinal effect. When unable to get medication, devout Tibetans would cut a little off the Relics Tshatsha and eat it because they believe it can cure all the diseases, and many similar examples have been spread among the people. But it is really difficult to get the Relics Tshatsha, which could only be accessed by the relatives of masters, officials and aristocrats.

Another precious Tshatsha is made of the bone ash of Living Buddha together with clay. Eminent monks in Tibetan temples will usually be cremated after Parinirvana. The cremation is one of the top-hole Tibetan funeral rituals, only inferior to tower burial. Generally, cremation can only be enjoyed by Living Buddhas and eminent monks. After the cremation, the stupa shall be built, and then the Tshatsha made of bone ash and clay shall be put in the stupa. In this way, the "Buddha body" can also bless the human world. Such a kind of Tshatsha is called "Ashes Tshatsha", and is very precious.

Another kind of Tshatsha is made of different valuable medicinal herbs, such as pearls, agate, saffron crocus and other Tibetan medicine and can be used for medical treatment. It is very precious because it not only plays the role of spiritual sustenance, but, most importantly, has the practical value. It helps holders ward off evils and can also break off one piece to cure a disease when experiencing physical discomfort. "Medicine Tshatsha" is basically similar to general Tshatsha in terms of shape, but only slightly different in color. In addition, there is another kind of Tshatsha named "Celebrity Tshatsha" which is made personally by the Dalai Lama, Panchen Erdeni, some other eminent monks or celebrities. On the back of this kind of Tshatshas, there are seals, fingerprints or marks of the masters. Among the Celebrity Tshatshas, there are also Medicine Tshatshas which are more valuable because people e usually think they have more remarkable effects for being made by celebrities.

From the shape, Tshatsha can be divided usually into two kinds: one is brick-shaped, with a variety of relief Buddha statues on one side, in the shape of round, square, triangle, etc. The screen size ranges from one Buddha statue at least to over one hundred statues. The other is three-dimensional stupa, with Buddha statues or various changes. The minimum Tshatsha diameter is less than 1.5 cm, and the largest is more than 30 cm. Stupa Tshatsha is probably the smallest ancient stupa preserved in the world. Some only 2.1 cm Stupa Tshatshas have eight small stupas representing eight Interpretation of Sakyamuni on the surface. What is more, on the surface of a 2.5 cm Stupa Tshatsha, there are not only eight different stupas, but also two copies of Tibetan mantras.

Miniature Buddhist World

Tshatsha subjects are mostly Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other iconographies and stupas, mantras. Tshatsha seems probably rougher than a variety of copper iconographies, but regardless of materials, iconography rituals remain same stringent, because the holy things for blessing of Tibetan Buddhism are inviolable. Tshatsha, generally popular among people, always together with Mani stones, prayer flags, often appear at stupas, holy caves, holy lakes, Mani Stack and circumanbulation. The common performance of Tshatsha includes high reliefs, bas-reliefs, and round carving, which are extruded with concave molds, then dried, and used directly in most occasions or after burning or painting. It was first used as filler inside the abdominal cavity of stupas or Buddha statues, so that stupas and Buddha statues were considered to have Buddha aura.

In Tibetan customs, Tshatsha has a wide range of roles: removing trouble, blessing, protection... in addition, there is a purpose: Whenever a Tibetan is sick or dies, his family will invite monks for chanting, and based on the patient or the deceased's birthday, figure out the Buddha and Tshatsha to remove misfortunes, so the family will make a certain number of Tshatshas, for offering on the circumambulation to holy mountains, halls and temples or in holy lakes, in order to pray for family prosperity, fulfilment of a promise and removing the evil.

With the development of Buddhist culture, the image of Tshatsha was enriched, including gods, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Yidams, Dharmapalas, etc. Tshatsha function was greatly expanded and the original monotonous content varied gradually to form a unique miniature world of deities.

At the crossing of Tibetan holy mountains and lakes, there are many dedicated maisonettes built to store Tshatshas, usually about one person high, called the Tshatsha Temple. After a temple is filled with Tshatshas, enclose it with walls, and leave only a small opening, in order to let circumambulators add new Tshatshas, which may reach tens of thousands in number over time. Tibetans believe that a turnaround such a temple, is equivalent to numerous ceremonies to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and countless chanting, to reduce their sins and increase reward.

Production Process

During the production of Tshatsha, first sprinkle highland barley on a smooth panel, divide clay into several small groups to attach to them-barley on the back must be in an odd number, because Tibetans believe that an odd number is auspicious, some people put some scripture text, clothes or other prayer materials into them.

Brush the mold with a little oil for better smooth, then put the mold onto the clay, knock the copper mold with a thick stick, and open it carefully.

The newly demolded Tshatshas need to be dried in the shade, because sunshine will make them crack. They may be burned to the quality of brick, or even colored and glazed. When Tshatshas are accumulated to a certain number, invite monks for chanting and consecration, and then put into Tshatsha Temple for best wishes.

Because of small size, it is easy to carry Tshatsha mold, which can be made anytime anywhere with no technology or special materials, but a little soil and water. Therefore, Tshatshas, as a kind of Tibetan Buddhist sculpture, are most widely distributed in the largest number among sacred objects for oblation in Tibet. In Tibet, those producing Tshatshas are usually wandering monks, or Buddhist pilgrims living in poverty, they are making Tshatshas all day at circumambulation or holy land piously, as a way of life, and also to accumulate merits. People passing by donate money or food to show their good will.

Mold to Make Tshatsha

A precise mold consistent with iconography measurement is the first condition to produce a fine Tshatsha. Currently, the texture of ancient Tshatsha mold found consists of ceramic, wood, stone, iron, copper, and, in few occasions, ox horn and pulp. The mold-making process is as follows: first, make a prototype exactly the same as the Tshatsha to be produced, and produce one or several molds opposite to the prototype to shape Tshatsha directly. The Tshatsha mold common among Tibetan monks and laymen is called "Cashigong" in Tibetan. Most ancient Cashigong handed down are bronze, brass and other metal products, and pottery, paper, wood and early brass Cashigong are rare.

The quality and shape of mold depends on craftsman's skills. In Tibet, some folk craftsmen may also make molds, and those austere and lovely Tshatshas with strange proportions are mostly made by folk craftsmen. While, high-quality mold makers are usually skilled monks or gurus in temples, their superb artistic expression contributes to precise and appropriate depiction on even the slightest nuances. The mold materials may be metal, pottery, stone, wood, or even clay.

Tshatsha mold consists of solo mold [also called flat mold] and dual mold [also called double-leaf mold]. Most of the products by flat molds are reliefs, line engraving works. There are also small round carving works like Babao Stupa. Tshatshas produced by dual mold are three-dimensional round carving works, which are commonly Sakyamuni statue, Padmasambhava, Tsongkhapa, Amitayus and Tara statues. Such Tshatshas are relatively complex in large size, so they must use dual mold to fulfil the three-dimensional design. Only by combining two molds can the entire three-dimensional body be produced. Of course, there is a kind of Tshatsha specifically for amulet in flat shape, but it's printed with clear patterns on both sides, and Tshatsha can be considered complete only with two different patterns. This type of Tshatsha is extremely rare and valuable.

Tshatsha molds are usually cast with hard metal, such as copper, brass and iron, and a small amount of stone and ceramic molds, so a mold can be used by several generations, and make numerous Tshatshas.

About the author
Chen Dan was a graduate from the Department of Journalism of the China School of Journalisrn and Cornmunication, and furthered her study of the Chinese culture in Tsinghua University, She went to cover the cultural activities in Tibet for a dozen times, and once stayed in Lhasa for over a year. Her experience made it possible for her to write good books or articles on Tibetan culture. Beginning in 2009, she wrote for China's Tibet magazine columns of Tibet Handicrafts and Tibetan Art Collectors. Cashing in on her stay and work in Tibet, she has taken thousands of photos of great value, and many of these were used for her works which run to some 1 million words. Her illustrated works already published include:

- Tibetan murals
- Arts and Crafts Unique to the Snowland
- Tibetan Handicrafts and Ancient Road for Tea-Horse Trade
- Places Covered by Caravans