SACRED CRAFT DWINDLES
For most people, Tibetan Buddhism calls to mind images of grand temples and exquisite prayer wheels. Few are familiar with the tsa-tsa, a miniature figure in the otherwise vast world of Buddhism.
Tsa-tsa figures are votive clay images that are deposited as offerings within stupas, holy caves and monastery altars in the Himalayas and other sacred places. Impressions in the clay are made with a metal reverse-image engraving of a hallowed deity or sacred symbol. The stamped images are dried in the sun and in some cases fired into the hardness of pottery.
Tibetans buy tsa-tsas especially during festivals such as Tibetan New Year, the Yogurt Festival and the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar. she knows, and she chooses to do it as a way to make a living. She hopes her two children can get a better education than she had.
She said her work is hard, and she hopes her children do not follow her in her career.
“This work is almost as hard as work on a construction site. But we do it because we love it,” she said.
Losang and her colleagues each create an average of 200 to 500 tsa-tsas a day.
“The work is done only during good weather with sunshine, because it’s easier for the clay to keep its shape,” said Lhamo, 22, another tsa-tsa maker.
Different tsa-tsas show different deities, images of Buddha and stupas in five colors — blue, white, yellow, red and green, representing sky, cloud, earth, fire and water.
“Most Tibetans order Tse Lha Nam Sum — the Three Divinities of Longevity, which are Amitayus, White Tara and Namgyalma,” said Losang.
She said people offer divinities of longevity because they want all sentient beings to stay healthy and enjoy a long life.
Tsa- tsas sell for one to 10 yuan (16 cents to $1.60) each. If a customer cannot afford the price, there is always a room for negotiation.
Lhamo said materials include Tibetan rap oil, grain and red clay. “Normally, tsa-tsas have seven different shapes, such as square, triangle, round and spiky,” she said.
“Most of our customers are Tibetans, but an increasing number of tourists have become our buyers in recent years,” she said.
Pilgrims to the Nechung Monastery place tsa-tsa tablets in a tsa-khang — a giant natural grotto — on a hill behind the monastery.
Italian Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci’s book on stupa says the Sanskrit root of the word tsa-tsa points to India as a place of origin.
From there, it went to the Middle East and represents a survival of an extremely ancient practice going back perhaps several thousand years, Tucci wrote.
But members of the new generation, even very young ones, see other options in modern times.
“I don’t want to learn how to make tsa-tsas. I want to go to school,” said Tenzin Norbu, Losang’s 5-year- old son, who is in kindergarten. Contact the writers at palden_ firstname.lastname@example.org.