Dharmapala Thangka CentreTibetan Antiques

Tibetan Zampar Dough Molds


Old Wooden Zanpar Dough Molds also called 'Tsampar' or 'Tsänpa'

Wooden dough molds were used in Tibetan popular rituals to make dough effigies called zan par ["dough print"]. The molds would be carried from a monastery by a trained monk to the home of anyone who wished cure sickness or to deal with various misfortunes.

"Tsampa" [barley meal and yak butter doug] was pressed into the appropriate images of the zanpar stick to produce ritual sacrificial offering for good fortune and protection from malevolent spirits that create disorder and diseases.

Die molds shows humans, mammals, birds, insekts, mystical beeings, weapons or symbols.

Because there were no written records about the content and meaning of these molds, which have hardly been researched so far, the knowledge about them today is very limited.

Preliminary remarks

The spelling of these very special Tibetan objects varies greatly. Apart from the most common form "Zanpar" you will find other like "Zangpar", "Zenpar" or "zan-spar" and many more.

So far Zanpars have been neglected in Tibetan research. There are only a few publications mentioning these forms in passing.

Any closer research of the backgrounds, the meaning and the use of Zanpars is extremely difficult because any written classification of the use of Zanpars in Tibetan monasteries was not usual. Only oral legend existed which led - after the Chinese occupation of the country with the subsequent running down of the Tibetan culture - to present vagueness of this whole matter.

The basis of these exclusively oral legends was also found in the principles of some Tibetan teaching traditions which propagated just oral legends without any written records.



Very often the pre-Buddhist Bon religion is named as the origin of the Zanpars. But there are also other interpretations that refer as origin Iran or India. Even Greek, Jewish, Christian and Phoenician sources are sometimes mentioned. None of these speculations can be verified.

The basic idea of the Zanpar practice, i.e. to copy pictures on form by imprinting is surely true for most cultures & periods. So similar practices outside Tibet do not necessary serve as example. Therefore it is impossible to settle the question of origin definitely.


Zanpar - Tsampa - Torma

These three Tibetan expressions are closely correlated. Zanpars are wooden models used for making prints with Tibetan dough. Tormas are sacrificed offerings on Tibetan Buddhist altars made mostly from butter, sometime also formed from Tsampa and decorated with Zanpar prints.

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The Tsampa - mixture used for making prints from the Zanpar consists mainly of roasted barley flour, water, butter and milk. Wheat flour can also be used. Some texts mention a mixture of four sorts of grain. Seemingly the sort of grain was not so important, changing to the local agrarian conditions. All additions like finger nails, hairs, parts of clothing helps to strengthen the positive effect of the Zanpar rituals, especially of the substitute rituals mentioned later on. Traces of different colors at some motives indicate the use of color powder in some cases.



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 function

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.

This belief is also reflected in an annual ritual formerly performed in Tibet when all the sins of all inhabitants of the village were symbolically transferred to two beggars who were paid for it. The men were clad in goatskin and their faces were painted half black and white. At the end they were driven out of the village with much shouting taking with them all negative features of the village people. This ritual was repeated annually.



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.

Zanpar with humans

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.



In former times wood was a precious material in Central Tibet because it had to be imported from areas with more wood like East Tibet, Nepal or Bhutan. It was used for constructing monasteries or houses, less often for cult figures. Among these wood imports were also smaller branches unsuitable for any constructions but highly suitable for Zanpar forms.

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Zanpar forms can be double-, four, five-, six-, seven- or even eight sided.

The following picture shows a special Zanpar with a kind of step. The lower part served for depositing larger parts of Tsampa dough in order to form Tsampa balls bit by bit.

Zanpar with step



Zanpar forms show a great variety of pictures:

*] Trigrams are found e.g. in astronomy, astrology and geography. They are to be understood as universal model of orientation also containing elements influencing human way of life. Therefor a more conscious self-determination for every human is possible. The cardinal points stand for inner orientation, the organs for certain mental situations [e.g. moods, personally structured]. So the physically qualities always correspond to mental qualities.

More Images

The following cosmological symbols can be found on Zanpars:

It is supposed that picturing Lamas especially in large format with holy places as backgound serves as protection of these holy places.

The seven planets also represent motives from astronomy. But the same symbols can also stand for the seven days of the week:

The following pictures shows some examples:

Image 7
Stupas / Tchörten
Image 8
4 of the eight Lucky Symbols [Dharma Wheel, Conch Shell, Victory Banner, endless knot]]
Image 9
Fish, Amphibien
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trigrams and human figures with animal heads
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Earring of the queen [angular] and king [round]
Image 9
Demons & gods of the Bardo
Image 10

The huge numbers of pictures is caused by the huge number of rituals in which Zanpars are needed.

The numerous pictures of animals are probably meant to express certain specific powers which - according to some experts - are used for healing sick domestic animals [like substitute procedures of humans].

All the figures carved in the panels and their functions can only be understood by attentive reading of the ritual and by added oral explanations which - as mentioned above - are nearly nonexistent today. And so in many cases just speculations as to meaning and usage remain.

The human figures with the animal heads are abundant in Bardo Thödröl, also in Bardo Thödol [Tibetan book of death]. The Bardo Thödol is a Buddhist writing from the 8th century, discovered in the 14th century in a cavern and is referred to the founder of the Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava.

There you will find this frightening demons and ghosts that encounter the deceased person in this interim period after death and before being reborn. Probably Zanpar prints of these Bardo pictures are made during this 48 day-rituals to ease the passage through this interim period for the diseased. They serve as a kind of guide through this passage. Moreover, the Bardo Thödrol is also an instruction how the diseased can recognize the light of salvation with the help texts read aloud and can leave the cycle of rebirth.

In this interim condition between death and rebirth the spirit of the diseased sees himself confronted with dreadful visions filling him with fear and terror and leading him astray. Therefor it is important to have read the Bardo Trödol to know how to oppose these visions. The spectacle of these various demons gives a vivid impression of the terrible tortures that the soul of the diseased has got to bear in the hereafter.

But there are also pictures of deities and animals and symbols that proclaim something good. But they are a minority, giving protection against enemies and diseases.



The Tsampa - mixture used for making prints from the Zanpar consists mainly of roasted barley flour, water, butter and milk. Wheat flour can also be used.

Some texts mention a mixture of four sorts of grain. Seemingly the sort of grain was not so important, changing to the local agrarian conditions.

All additions like finger nails, hairs, parts of clothing helps to strengthen the positive effect of the Zanpar rituals, especially of the substitute rituals mentioned later on. Traces of different colors at some motives indicate the use of color powder in some cases.



Annotation: as mentioned above the texts belonging to the various forms are missing or did never even exist, only general statements van be made concerning Zanpar rituals.

A ceremony lasted one or two hours and should take place in the evening as after sunset was more probable that the demons would appear. The mantras that were sung come from an astrology book. The instruments used in the rituals were a Phurba [nail for demons], a Vajra [diamond scepter] were used to kill that demons that were pictured at the Torma. The various pictures on the Zanpar resemble the visual forms that which demons or ghosts assume in the dreams of people, even sometimes taken for real in the imaginations of the people. At the end of the ritual the Tormas that had been made by help of Zanpars were thrown in the middle of a way crossing. The demons came from all directions. When the Torma was dropped at a crossing it was secured that the demons were expelled in all directions.

These few hints offer a survey of the complexity of the rituals necessary to solve the various problems of the people such as illness, fate or curses. On a usual day they were many situations that hindered a strict observance of the rules and fulfillment of duties so that the tribute and admiration due to the demons could not be performed as demanded by the rules. So these demanded a compensation for the mistakes done. Therefore it was necessary to have a large assortment of Zanpars. For a part of the demons there were also other ghosts and spirits that would get angry in case of people not paying the respect done to them.

But also in friendly times with no conflicts with any spiritual beings it was advantageous to be on good terms with them.



In general sorts of wood with very fine grain were used for the Zanpars because only with these sorts of fine woods carving with the necessary delicacy were possible for any identification with the pictured motive.

Among other birch wood, wild cherry, hazel and walnut were used. Some Zanpars are red-colored which reminds of the Shorea Robusta which is used in Nepal for very fine carvings.

But the usage and patina of the surface of the Zanpar is mostly in a very bad condition which makes any serious determination of the sort of wood impossible. To ensure a reliable examination a cross section had to be made which would destroy the objects.



The Zanpars were carved by the monks themselves who also carved the sticks for the wood blocks for the Holy Scriptures. But also lay carvers were entrusted with this task.

The copying demanded very precise working which can be seen in the quality of the presented motives. Usually also letters were carved in the Zanpar sticks.

Lay carvers did not possess the education of the monks and very often they were even illiterate. This explains why some writings could not be deciphered and translated. Another possibility is that these texts were written in a dialect or some local speech variation which is hard to translate for modern experts who just know the 'pure' Tibetan language.

About the distribution of work between monks and laymen we do not know much. It can be doubted that the lay carvers were able to carve the very detailed picture alone. Probably the carvers worked under the supervision of the monks.