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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
are forms made from Tsampa dough and water. In addition to the Tsampa
Tormas there are also butter Tormas which can be found as sacrificial
offerings on Buddhist altars. Very rare are Tormas from wood. Sometimes
Tormas are decorated with prints from Zanpar forms. They serve as
sacrificial offerings or stand for protection deities.
The Torma was not always made by monks, but by the sick person or
a family member of the sick. Then the Torma was laid on a plate together
with food offerings, rest of finger nails, some hair and some parts
of cloth of the person in question.
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.
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.
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
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
the disease similar representations were put up all over the house and
destroyed after the recovery of the patient.
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
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.
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
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.
4 und Picture 5: Zanpar motivs with humans
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
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
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.
Zanpar forms can be double-, four, five-, six-, seven- or even eight sided.
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 and place for Tsampa dough
forms show a great variety of pictures:
in Tibetan writing
with animal heads
Horn of rhinoceros,
coral, the queens earrings - angular, the kings earrings - round,
mirror, tusks of elephant, crossed jewels
Lucky Tibetan Symbols of Buddhism
Pair of Golden
Fishes, Lotus Flower, White Conch Shell, Treasue Vase, Endless
Knot, Wheel of Dharma, Victory Banner, White Parasols
signs of the zodiac
Hare, dragon, snake,
horse, sheep or goat, monkey, bird, dog, pig or wild boar, mouse,
cattle and tiger
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.
The following cosmological symbols can be found
impaled frog - symbol for the earth spirit
square - symbol for the element earth
circle - symbol for water
triangle - symbol for fire
crescent or semicircle - symbols for the air
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:
bundle of wood for Saturn
point of an arrow for Venus
phurba for Jupiter
eye for Mars
hand for Mecur
crescent for the Moon
disc for the Sun
following pictures shows some examples:
Stupas / Tchörten
Eight Tibetan Lucky Symbols
[Dharma Wheel, Conch Shell, Victory Banner, endless knot]
trigrams and human figures with animal heads
Earring of the queen [angular] and king [round]
demons & gods of the Bardo
At both ends often curve pictures
of Stupas / Tchörten can be found.
Stupas / Tchörten picturing at
the end of end eight sided Zanpars
18: Tibetan writing 'sde brgyad' = [eight classes of violent
deities] on a Zanpar
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,
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
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
as mentioned above the texts belonging to the various forms are missing
or did never even exist, only general statements van be made concerning
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.
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.
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
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.