Buddhist monk Ven Thupten Gedun was in the city to spread awareness on the Tibetan art of butter sculpture

In a corner of a busy restaurant in Bhavani building in Technopark, sits an unlikely figure, making unlikely objects. Ven Thupten Gedun, a Tibetan monk, is busy sculpting butter, undisturbed by the afternoon rush. Gedun was here as part of a visit and workshop organised by Friends of Tibet, a non-profit organisation based in Mumbai. Passers-by and visitors to the restaurant stand and stare at him working, wonder writ on their faces. Thanks, perhaps, to the discipline of a monk’s life, Gedun can focus single-mindedly on his delicate butter sculptures in the noisy environs. Even as one interrupts him tentatively to discuss this interview, he briefly responds, not wanting to be distracted from his task.

Gedun, who is from the Gyuto Monastery in Tibet and based in Dharamshala, is as unassuming as the sculpture he is making. What does this delicate art mean to him? He says that butter sculpture plays a pivotal role in the worship and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism and that its origin dates back to around 650 years ago. They are offerings central to Tibetan Buddhist spiritualism. The offerings are made to mark the Tibetan Buddhist New Year celebrations.

In India, schools of Gyuto and Gyume preserve the rituals by making these sculptures and passing on their skills. The sculptures Gedun has made are of Buddhist idols and deities and though there are a variety of butter offerings, he enjoys making idols the most, he says, shyly. There is a smiling Buddha, an elephant, flowers, all in a riot of pink, blue and yellow. Characteristic of Buddhist philosophy, the sculptures are destroyed after the rituals so that the sculptor does not get attached to them, explains Gedun.

It is a difficult art, he says, since one has to keep the butter from melting while moulding it into shapes. In Kerala, it is all the more challenging since the temperatures are far warmer than in Tibet or in Dharamshala. He has therefore, mixed it with paint and candle wax to protect it from melting.

Butter sculptures are also part and parcel of Gedun’s routine in Dharamshala where he has been for the last five years. His typical day there starts at 4.30 a.m. Much of the day is spent in worship and teaching the younger lamas who are trained in the mandalas. Their studies include butter sculpture and senior monks are required to pass on this ancient art to the younger students.

So what prompted Gedun to become a monk? Born in Nepal, he was sent to Dehradun for studies at the age of five. At 12, he decided he wanted to be a monk when he grew up. He says unpretentiously, “It’s not like I received a calling or had a vision... a monk’s life seemed interesting to me. And my parents agreed and thought that it would suit me.”

Gedun is thankful to Friends of Tibet who made his visit to Kerala and to Technopark possible. Interestingly, though sitting amidst IT professionals, he says that the monks actively try to keep technology at a distance. Internet and computers, mobiles with touch screens are all banned in the temples. “We need time for worship; a lot of time is wasted on technology,” he says with a smile. Though ironic hearing the words in Technopark, they ring true.