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Torma: Ritual Offerings

Torma (གཏོར་མ་) refers to the dough and butter sculptures that are made for religious purposes in Bhutan and the Buddhist Himalayas. Based on the Indian Buddhist concept of bali, a tribute, gift or offering one makes to deities and spirits, the making and offering of torma are common features of Buddhist rituals and practices in Bhutan. Torma culture is also well known in the Bon religion of Tibet. Scholars explain the etymology of torma by explaining that tor (གཏོར་) refers to casting away all impurities and negativities or giving away without stinginess to all sentient beings with the love like that of a ma (མ་) or mother. The syllable ma is said to symbolize the attainment of the experience of emptiness and bliss.

In its origins, torma were essentially food offerings. Food and other pleasant items were made to various recipients in order to placate, worship or honour them. Most tormas are still made for the purpose of offering food to different recipients; however, torma culture evolved with the development of Buddhist rituals to include torma sculptures that represent the Buddhas, deities, and their celestial mansions and those that are used as instruments for spiritual edification and enlightenment. Thus, there are now a wide range of torma commonly made and used in Bhutanese Buddhist rituals.

A torma is made of dough, mixed from roasted barley or wheat flour combined with water. Then, pieces of dough are sculpted into specific shapes according to the ritual purpose. Depending on the ritual, the dough can be painted red using herbal colour suspended in oil, or it is simply anointed with colourless oil or melted butter, which is done if it is supposed to be a white vegetarian torma. Torma associated with rituals of the outer tantra traditions are not painted red, though those associated with inner tantras are. Butter decorations (དཀར་རྒྱན་) are made by mashing butter in lukewarm water, mixing with colour if necessary. Most butter decorations are floral designs although other motifs such as rainbows and flames can also be made. In elaborate ceremonies, sacred figures such as Buddhas or lamas are also sculpted with butter. The colour of the butter decorations often match the colour of the deity and the number of designs are also dictated by the particular deity and ritual. Some designs are stuck directly on the dough structures while other designs are stuck on a flat piece of wood which is then stuck to the dough.

There are many different kinds of torma. Most torma are prepared as offering cakes. The most common torma of this type is known as the zhelzé (ཞལ་ཟས་) in Bhutan and is often seen among the standard set of seven offerings, where it represents delicious and nutritious food. Other forms of offering torma include the chutor (ཆུ་གཏོར་) or torma with water, the chötor (མཆོད་གཏོར་) or torma of offering and gift, lütor (གླུད་གཏོར་) or the torma with effigy, lutor (ཀླུ་གཏོར་) or torma for nāga serpent spirits, lenchag torma (ལན་ཆགས་གཏོར་མ་) or torma for beings with karmic debt, the kangtor (བསྐང་གཏོར་) or torma or making amends, and gektor (གེགས་གཏོར་) or torma for the obstructing evil forces. The last one is commonly seen in Bhutan during most rituals and empowerment ceremonies. It is a white dough sculpture with a butter lamp before it. The evil forces that cause obstructions to one’s spiritual practice are presented with this torma offering and a lamp to show them the path before they are chased away.

The tormas that are gifts or tributes are offered to a wide range of recipients including the four principal categories: the jewel guests who are to be worshipped (དཀོན་མཆོག་སྲི་ཞུའི་མགྲོན་), protector guests with noble qualities (མགོན་པོ་ཡོན་ཏན་གྱི་མགྲོན་), the sentient beings of six realms who are guests deserving compassion (རིགས་དྲུག་སྙིང་རྗེའི་མགྲོན་), and guests who are spirits with karmic debt (ལན་ཆགས་བུ་ལོན་གྱི་མགྲོན་). Furthermore, the guests receiving torma offerings are divided into those who will come when invited, who will not come even if invited, those who come without invitation, and those who should not be invited. It’s believed that most sublime beings and ordinary sentient beings come when invited but most hungry ghosts and spirits flock even if not invited. For those who will not come or who should not be invited, the offerings must be delivered to them through visualization.

Some tormas are named after the duration of their use such as tüntor (ཐུན་གཏོར་) for the torma used during one session of the practice, dator (ཟླ་གཏོར་) or tormas kept for a month, and gyüntor (རྒྱུན་གཏོར་) or tormas which are kept continuously as long as they last. The torma for offering is also classified into external torma (ཕྱི་ཡི་གཏོར་མ་), which includes offering of food, drinks, flowers, and other external objects of sensory pleasure, the internal torma (ནང་གི་གཏོར་མ་) comprised of offerings of the internal body, values and achievements, secret torma (གསང་བའི་གཏོར་མ་) which include substances used in esoteric tantric practices, and ultimate torma of reality (དེ་ཁོ་ན་ཉིད་ཀྱི་གཏོར་མ་), which is abiding in the state of ultimate reality.

In case of all offering tormas, the dough sculpture that forms the basis of the offering is blessed by the three syllables Oṃ Aḥ Huṃ (ཨོཾ་ཨཱ་ཧུཾ), through which the ordinary material substance is transformed into immortal nectar which manifests as a myriad of offerings. Sometime, the syllables Raṃ Yaṃ Khaṃ (རཾ་ཡཾ་ཁཾ་), which represent the essential nature of fire, air, and water, are used to purify, transform and multiply the items for offering. The person conducting the torma ritual would also visualize him- or herself as a Buddha and chant mantras associated with the Buddha to make torma offerings.

While many tormas are offering items, some are representations of the sublime deities who are the recipients of such an offering. These types of dough and butter sculptures are used as representations of the Buddhas and deities and thus treated with deference. The shape of these tormas also vary from one to the other depending on the deity the torma represents. This type of torma includes sub-categories such as yidam torma (ཡི་དམ་གཏོར་མ་) representing enlightened deities, chökyong torma (ཆོས་སྐྱོང་གཏོར་མ་) representing protector deities, and zhidak torma (གཞི་བདག་གཏོར་མ་) representing local territorial deities. Some of these torma, especially when they represent the tutelary protector deities, are kept hidden in the shrine. Many are made for the particular ritual and discarded at the ritual conclusion when the priests bids farewell to the deities. The main tormas made during the annual lochö ceremonies are good examples of tormas representing the deities that are invited for the thanksgiving ritual of offering and then bid farewell. The tormas are discarded on the rooftop as a mark of the deities’ departure.

The tormas created to represent important deities during major festivals and ceremonies are often made with the figures of the deities carved on them. They are very large in size and bear immensely intricate and exquisite butter decorations. Bhutanese priests in particular excel in making very refined and beautiful butter sculptures. The torma during the annual druchö (སྒྲུབ་མཆོད་) ceremony at Punakha is one of the largest and most elaborate tormas made in the country. Some priests are well known for their expertise in preparing the dough, butter, and the colours and in sculpting the components from dough and butter. Some elders claim that the Bhutanese tradition of making tormas, their size, proportions, colours, etc. was introduced by Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1594-1650) after he unified Bhutan and established the State Monk Body. Even today, the main state monasteries appoint a senior monk who is an expert in the torma sculpture as the master of torma (གཏོར་མའི་སློབ་དཔོན་).

Other tormas are labeled according to the instrumental roles they play in religious practices. These include wangtor (དབང་གཏོར་), the torma that is used by the lama in the process of an empowerment, or the tshetor (ཚེ་གཏོར་), a longevity torma used particularly during rituals to enhance lifespan and often identified with the Buddha of Longevity. The zortor (ཟོར་གཏོར་) is an example of a torma used in a ritual based on a wrathful Buddha. It is made with the terrifying face of a deity and hurled at the enemy during rituals of exorcism, in order to get rid of obstructing forces.

With economic developments and higher standards of living, the art of torma making in Bhutan continues to thrive. Very impressive tormas can be seen during the religious rituals and ceremonies in Bhutan. While some are kept in temples for long periods, most are discarded at the end of the ritual or ceremony.

 

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.

Torma: Ritual Offerings
Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)

An introduction to torma, or ritual cakes, including lists of their various types and functions.

Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Ariana Maki
Year published 2017
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