‹ Past Exhibitions

By the Light of Butterlamps: Himalayan Devotional Painting

This is an exhibition of small paintings, called tsakli (pronounced sak-lee), which are initiation cards that depict specific deities and symbols associated with the rituals of Vajrayana Buddhism. These rituals include empowerment ceremonies, transmission of teachings, purification rites, and funerary traditions. The subjects depicted in tsakli cover a vast range from major deities and protectors to their various power attributes and appropriate offerings.

Tsakli are thought to be a purely Tibetan invention, though their imagery reflects influences from India, Nepal, and Kashmir. The main function of tsakli is to make visible, in an instructive way, symbols that are meaningful to religious practice. To facilitate visualization during a ritual, tsakli are sometimes briefly shown to the initiates by the officiating lama (religious master) by simply holding the card at arm’s length, or they may be held by a stick as part of other ritual items on an altar. The tsakli’s small size and amazing iconographical detail necessitated that the class of students also be small and intimate. Imagine, too, the interior of a huge monastery dimly lit by lamps fueled with clarified dri (female yak) butter.

The creation of tsakli is in itself an act of devotion by artists within or outside of the monastery setting. The highly respected artist was expected to uphold Buddhist ideals and to have received years of religious and artistic education. Lamas and scholars ensured the correct iconography. Tsakli are generally made using primed cloth or a heavy paper stock. Large sets of tsakli were often bound together between wooden covers specially carved to size.

The exhibition has been organized by the Amarillo Museum of Art, Amarillo, Texas.