Tormas (Skt.: bali) are offering cakes. They symbolize the food
offering. Originally made of
(in Tibet, roasted barley flour is used,) and also sculpted from butter, they have evolved
into elaborately decorated objects. Since making them is time-consuming, people have begun to use clay, wood and more recently, synthetic substances. These include resin modeling products, and at least one
Asian company produces small, injection-moulded plastic tormas.
Symbolic offerings at one time (pre-Buddhism, naturally,) may have been substitutes for living beings.
However, the Tibetan word, spelled gtor.ma, has an etymology that is
especially revealing. Lama Tashi Dondrup once explained that the
word, composed of two parts, stands for "something that is thrown out" +
"mother" (a signifier that is female.) The implication is one of cutting of
attachment combined with care and generosity without limitation.
Although a torma
has specific characteristics that depend upon the deity to whom it is being offered, all tormas have three fundamental elements
to their construction: foundation, body, and
decoration. These symbolize respectively the qualities of body, speech, and mind.
The energies of these qualities are represented by two or three small,
rather flat, discs applied to the front of the conical
body. Usually they are in the form of flowers; the rims can be pressed to
create the scalloped effect of petals.
Finally, one or more dabs of coloured butter (or nowadays, a margarine-wax
mix) known as gyab gyen are
sometimes pressed onto the "back" (Tib. gyab) of the torma. This
action dedicates the offering:
. . . it seals the torma offering so that its essence won't be lost or
stolen before you get a chance to offer it. I've also heard that it's a gesture, as if you were
saying, "thus, I offer." ~ ani Yeshe Wangmo
A torma of elaborate design may be decorative, but it is not as important as
the action of generosity which it represents. The colours reflect the nature of the deity to which it is being
offered, and can also
correspond to traditional yogic principles.
Shalzey tormas (Skt. naividya bali) intended for a personal shrine are
usually between 4 and 6 inches high, but they can be any size. It takes a large
snowball-sized ball of dough to make one that is in the small range with a
three-inch diameter base.
Since the bala or torma is intended for a deity, we take care to keep its
ingredients pure, and the surface on which we are working clean. The hands must
be washed and the maker should avoid
breathing on the project. Any bits that fall to the floor are unusable and
must be discarded.
The ingredients to make sixteen six-inch tormas are as follows. A five-pound bag
of flour without yeast, one cup of butter or shortening (it can be colored with
food dye), and a large pot one-third full of water. First, bring the water to
boil. Next, add the butter. Then add flour. Stir and let boil for three to five
Mix, then let it sit to cool a little. It should be just sticky enough to be
The dough (which may still be hot -- be careful) is removed from the pot and
placed on the clean surface where it is kneaded until it is uniformly soft and
smooth. (If it sticks too much, dust your hands and/or the surface with flour.)
If you intend to use real food tormas, they must be kept intact. If they show
signs of age -- bits falling off, etc. -- then they need to be repaired or
replaced. Tormas made of food are never tossed in the garbage but are left
outside in a clean place for birds and other animals to enjoy.
NB. If you are going to use a synthetic substance instead of
flour, include some grains of rice or other cereal in the torma so that it still
has integrity in the sense of a food offering.
- Hints and suggestions at
the Kagyu email
list include adding olive oil, using beet juice for red colouring and
- Artist Robert Rauschenberg evokes a torma using a fiddle: Tibetan
Garden Song (1986)
Ani Yeshe Wangmo (Mary Young) helped produce a video showing how to work with synthetic products
such as Sculpey or Fimo. Called
Making the Karma Pakshi Tormas with Lama Tashi
Dhondup, it sells for
$25 instructional booklet included.
Butter tormas are usually made by Buddhist monastics for a special occasion.
They used to be made only where conditions were cool enough for them to survive
for a while without melting. The monks had to keep dipping their hands into cold
water to do the modeling. Nowadays, the butter or margarine is mixed with candle wax
before colouring is added. They use aids such as hollow bones or straws for making long
threads, and molds for making the chakras /flowers and leaves that are applied
to the main form. The sculpted forms are often displayed on bats [wooden boards] that
have been gold-leafed.
In Lhasa, for the Losar new year celebration 's Butter Lamp Festival on
the 15th of the first
Tibetan month, all sorts of fantastic figures are made for display
alongside the lamps that traditionally use butter as fuel.
On the 19th, at the end of the festival, the torma and the zur are burnt in
the ceremony, thus burning the evil that has been attracted to them. Though
this is called the torma festival, the actual object to be thrown was called
the zur. The zur was an eight or nine-foot high tripod of sticks . . .
decorated with butter sculptures of flames, clouds, gems and other symbols.
On the top was a big skull from which flames are issued. Many ribbons or
strings are tied to the top of the tripod. Inside the legs of the tripod was
a torma, and depending on the purpose, its size and color varied.
~ Thubten Norbu ("Festivals of Tibet," J. of Popular
Culture 16, #1 (Summer 1982) 126-134.)
- Uses of tsa-tsa
with some speculation on their history
- See also, K. Magnussen (FPMT) Making
Tsa-tsas (moulded votive plaques.)
See also, Offerings.
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