Dharmapala Thangka CentreTibetan Antiques

Tibetan Zanpars



Little known is the fact that Zanpars had a three-fold function in old Tibet. In general the medical aspects of use are always mentioned. But in addition to that there existed also a task no less important that can be described as scapegoat - or substitute function. After all offering cakes are also made from Tsampa dough.

Zanpars in the Tibetan medicine

In the traditional Tibetan medicine Zanpar rituals are not so important. The focus of this medical doctrine - emerged in the 8th century on Indian and Chinese sources - was based on various forms of diagnosis combined with an extensive herbal medicine. Consequently the standard work of Tibetan medicine, the "Blue Beryll", does not have any mentioning of Zanpar rituals.

In the Tibetan medicine diseases are referred to an imbalance of the so-called three humors-bile [tripa], wind [lung] and phlegm [beken]. According to this doctrine the causes of these disturbances are very often referred to the influence of ghosts and demons.

Tibetan tradition has it that there are 360 additional catastrophes like fall from a ladder or a horse, a rock, burnings, casualties by drawn etc. Responsible for these catastrophes are not any demons but the Karma of the concerned person in his former life. Zanpars were also useful in such unfortunate circumstances.

After examining the patient traditional Tibetan doctors [Emchis] very often wrote two prescriptions: one for the medicine and the other with the name of the demon responsible for the disease for the monks. Zanpars were used in the ensuing ritual to exorcise the demon.

The monasteries in old Tibet owned many of these wooden forms. They were applied as medicines to help sick or needy people. The magical treatment of various health problems has little to do with Tibetan Buddhism, rather being based on disordered powers of demons and ghost largely common in popular religion.

So when the monastery was asked for helps specially trained monks selected the Zanpar forms that were mostly suited for this case. A medicine Lama tried by fortune-telling to find out which demon was responsible for the disease and in which form - as an animal or any other object - it could get into the house and remains there.

The suitable carved representations on the wooden form of the Zanpar were pressed in one or more Tsampa balls. This Tsampa piece with the prints was given as medicine or sometimes was deposited on the house altar of this family to heal or at least to ease the aches and pains. This procedure was not only applied to physical pains but also to mental problems.

The identified demon was forced with the help of magical rituals, incantations or circles to take possession of this Tsampa figure. So the demon was exorcised by incantations, prayer or charms and finally the figure was destroyed or burned.

During the disease similar representations were put up all over the house and destroyed after the recovery of the patient.

Substitute functions

The substitute function is closely connected with the use of Zanpars as medicine. So small pieces of Tsampa dough, also with the pattern of Zanpar woods, served as a second usage as a kind of scape-goat or substitute. A characteristic feature of Tibetan popular religion can be noted here: it is the transferability of a human's characteristics to images that adopt the same characteristics as a real human being. They [the images] accepted the guilt of sins of the people in order to appease the evil spirits or to keep them from invading their houses and wreak havoc.

To evils demons Tsampa balls were offered as a substitute for all male and female members of a household whose life and well-being could be in danger

Also the house was sometimes pictured for protection according to the theory it was also possible to add - for better efficiency - various other things of the person to be protected like finger e.g. nails, hairs, parts of clothing.

In case of illness a monk formed - with the help of a Zanpar - a human or an animal picture from clay or dough. Then the Lama forced the demon to leave the ill person and take possession of the figure just created. To this and he drew magic circles an conjured up incantations for some time. After having so caught the demon the lama read some passages from certain books and gave the patient the formed picture for burning of burying.

Also they were prints put up at various parts of the house only to be removed after recovery. In case these methods being unsuccessful and the patient died it was supposed that the disease was a penalty for immoral actions of the patient in a former life.


It is not quite clear whether Zanpars are used as tools in sacrificial rituals. Most of the few publications are positive about this, but others deny it strictly.

Very often the forms are printed with 'Lha-' [demons] and Tsam-figures [Kings] or with animals or Buddhist symbols. Prints of these forms are said to be used at the so-called LhaBsans ritual, where sacrificial offerings were burned on the mountains for honoring the gods.

Such Sacrifices were made to solve the problems of individual persons or whole communities or just to appease gods and demons.

More than thousand years ago also human sacrifices were common in Tibet. This habit strongly contradicted Buddhist doctrines whose wide extension helped abolishing this practice definitely.

Dough offerings by help of Zanpars were an adequate replacement conforming to Buddhism.