The copper Buddha figurines were made depicting the physical form of the Buddha with various healing powers, to meditate in front of. The large-scale Buddhas were usually kept in monasteries, whereas the smaller sized ones were for the home. The really small Buddhas made out of sheet metal were very light and easily portable, as was necessary for the Tibetan nomadic way of life.
The copper Buddha figurines have different meanings hidden behind different hand gestures, stemming from the Buddhist iconographic texts and rituals. Every hand posture of the Buddha has a different purpose: health, wealth, medicine, honesty etc. They are used like Thangkas to meditate for achievement. They have varied sizes and are made in different embellishes as per the iconographies as well.
The art of making these Buddha figurines is aimed towards the preservation of Tibetan crafts, the way they have been, since the 7th century BC without any changes, whatsoever. The craft ever since, has been followed with not as much as a hair moved here and there and that is what they want to stick to. There are two reasons why the craft has been preserved the way it actually is, so far-
One is this that Tibetan crafts had to be preserved completely to preserve The Tibetan identity, which has been being lost to the Chinese.
Two that these Buddhas are made for monasteries and household religious purposes, and hence any changes would change the orientation of the following of religious texts.
Buddhism conveys a sense of the sacred and a sense of social and cultural cohesion, without reliance on the concept of a creator God.
The four noble truths, which are followed in Buddhism:
1. The truth of suffering
2. The truth of the origin of suffering.
3. The truth of the cessation of suffering
4. The truth of the path
The Buddha figurines have a particular finishing done. The face of the Buddha, till the neck is painted with goldand then detailing is done with acrylic paints by the Thangka painters and involves a lot of intricacy. The torso of the Buddha, when being beaten out of copper sheets or casted, has the proper outline of the cloth draped over his chest and shoulder, showing distinctive pleats. In spite of this detail, almost all the buyers drape cloth over the figurine to cover the body of the Buddha in cloth. This probably happens because the face of the Buddha is a different colour, due to application of gold and the entire body of the Buddha including the drapery detail, is of the same colour and texture. Hence, to make it simpler for the buyers, the master said that they have been contemplating to come to a solution, which will be a tad bit different than what has been being done to date. There are a few options of solution like, painting the entire face and body of the Buddha with gold except the drapery detail or highlight the folds of the drapery with paint or maybe another metal polishing technique. They are still contemplating because the first solution would take the price up of the figurine to quite a bit due to the use of gold. The second option, though will be easier, will bring a stark difference in the way the Buddhas have been made for so long.
Iconographies: The iconographic myths behind the hand gestures of the Buddha are the prime aspect behind which the Buddha figurines are made in Tibet.
~Gesture of Turning the Wheel of Dharma: The thumb and index finger of the right hand stand for wisdom and method combined. The other three raised fingers symbolize the teaching of the Buddhist doctrine, which leads sentient beings to the paths of the beings of three capacities. The position of the left hand symbolizes the beings of the three capacities, which follow the combined path of method and wisdom.
~Gesture of Meditation: The nerve channel associated with the mind of enlightenment (Bodhichitta) passes through the thumbs. Thus, joining of the two thumbs in this gesture is of auspicious significance for the future development of the mind of enlightenment.
~Gesture of Bestowal of Supreme Accomplishment: The gesture of the right hand symbolizes bestowal of supreme accomplishment. That of the left hand symbolizes meditation. Together, they stand for the Buddha’s power to bestow supreme and general accomplishments on his disciples, while he meditates.
~Gesture of Pressing the Earth: The right hand gestures pressing the earth to bear witness. The position of the left hand symbolizes meditation. Together, they stand for the Buddha’s overcoming of hindrances while meditating. This gesture ‘of touching the earth’ or ‘calling the earth to witness’, commemorates Gautama Buddha’s victory over temptation by the demon Mara.
~Gesture of Turning the Wheel of Dharma while in Meditation: The gesture of the right hand stands for turning the wheel of Dharma, while that of the left hand symbolizes meditation. The two conjoined symbolize teaching the Dharma while in meditation.
Born an Indian prince, the Buddha renounced his royal life to seek release from ‘samsara’: the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
The Buddha was not considered to be God or a supernatural being, but a man who had found the answer to the deepest dilemmas of human life and had made the answer available to others. The earliest representations of the Buddha are symbols or scenes associated with the Buddha’s life, without actually depicting his physical form. Later, his physical form began to be worshipped as a clearer form of expression and meditative push.
When Buddhism came to Tibet, the Tibetans adapted the making of Buddhas into their peripheral of art and native Tibetan crafts.These Buddhas were widely used along with Thangka paintings to meditate in front of. Bon is the ancient religion of Tibet, but has been almost eclipsed by Tibetan Buddhism, a distinctive form of Mahayana and Vajrayana, which was introduced into Tibet from the Sanskrit Buddhist tradition of northern India.
The Tibetan settlement of Dharamshala began in 1959, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet and the Prime Minister of India allowed him and his followers to settle in McLeodGanj (in Upper Dharmshala), a former colonial British summer picnic spot. There they established the “government-in-exile” in 1960. Dharamshala had been connected with Hinduism and Buddhism for a long time, many monasteries having been established there in the past, by Tibetan immigrants in the 19th century.
The copper Buddha figurines are largely of two kinds. The sheet metal figurines are very time consuming, skillfully intricate and have to be made, producing one piece of the figurine at a time. The finishes are endless and the perfection levels are above perfect. They are lightweight and hollow and are embellished beautifully. These form the expensive range because of all these characteristics.
The casted brass Buddha figurines are very less time consuming owing to the mould in which they are made. They are also perfectly finished and embellished but they are solid metal, making them heavy and requiring less skill. This also brings down the prices, almost half as much as the Sheet metal Buddhas.
They are all painted in gold from the forehead to the nape of the neck with much intricacy.
The Buddhas have matted spoked hair, because it symbolizes the unison of body, mind and spirit, and helps the meditator to focus better. It is said that the immunity of the meditator improves and helps to stay calm and healthy.
The sizes of the sheet metal Buddhas vary from 7 inches for home purposes to 27 feet tall, as the one in the monastery. The casted Buddhas however are all between 4-8 inches tall because with the size the weight of the solid metal would also increase and the purpose of the Buddha would get spoil.
The Buddhas are expensive products, owing to the top quality of everything that goes into them. To be knowledgeable about this fact, can easily save someone from getting fooled in the market, as most places sell their Buddha figurines as made by the Tibetans or finished by them. They do not take market orders from anywhere and hence it is impossible to find truth in what stores claim. Buddha figurines are made almost everywhere these days, but the ones made by these Tibetan artisans at Norbulingka have just one major counterpart- The Brass Buddha figurines which are made by Nepalese settled in northern belt of India, mostly Himachal, Uttaranchal and some parts of the north-east. The raw materials, process, techniques, craftsmanship and finishing differ from the Buddhas at Norbulingka, starkly. These Buddhas are always not proportional and are casted in brass. They are very heavy and are often not finely finished. The facial expressions, the hand gestures of the Buddhas give away the truth of their making and origins. But, tourists often prefer these as souvenirs to Norbulingka, is because these Nepalese Buddhas are very inexpensive as compared to the other. The difference in quality is visible when a figurine of the same size in Norbulingka is exactly five times the price as is in the market.
The copper Buddha figurines are a product supremely exclusive to Norbulingka, and hence to Tibet. The raw materials, the techniques, the execution and the finishing – are so fine that flaws are non-existent.
The raw materials required for making sheet metal Buddhas include:
Lac: the scarlet resinous secretion of a number of species of insects.
Copper Sheets: 4X4, 10 kg sheets.
Sora: lead, brass and silver powder mixture for soldering
Gemstones: pearls, rubies, emeralds and other semi precious stones
Color: Gold, Silcer, Indigo, etc
They use a variety of tools, which include dozens of different punches of various shapes and sizes, dozens of chisels, hammers, pliers and filers. They also have an iron stand, in the shape of a cross with a pointed edge, which faces the artisan. There are tools of various shapes, which fit into the pointed edge, and the intricate beatings of the copper sheet into the Buddha are done on these tools. Every artisan has his own separate set of tools, which he gets made from the local blacksmith. These are wrought iron tools and according to the artisan’s personal requirement and comfort are custom made. These include all the tools from the punches to the chisels, hammers, pliers and filers. The cross hammering stand is the same for every artisan thought the resting tool varies per artisan.
The artisans cannot drink alcohol or submit to sexual intimacy while the making of a figurine is in process. They meditate for about a fortnight and then choose an auspicious date to begin with the next sculpture.
The copper Buddha figurines are a product supremely exclusive to Norbulingka, and hence to Tibet. The raw materials, the techniques, the execution and the finishing – are so fine that flaws are non-existent. They are not available in the open market. They are made on orders for monasteries and just for their own shop, inside the Institute itself.
1) The first step to learning the craft comes with sketching and when students come here, they are taught how to sketch out of the Tibetan book of proportions for over a year and a half. That is how they begin the making of each and every figurine. They sketch it out of the book of proportions, on a large sheet of paper. The sketching involves a lot of technicalities and uses the help of grids of particular measurements. This is where the proportionality comes from in this craft, which is one of the major qualities of this craft.
2) Once the sketch is put up on the soft board, the figure is drawn onto the copper sheet, following the proportions. With a sharp tool, the outline is punched lightly as to get an impression on the other side. Once the punching is done, the sheet is reversed and hammered. This leaves the outline for the artisan to further detail it. This is known as the ‘repoussÃ©’ technique. They then cut out the outline from the sheet in different parts, i.e. the face, the torso, the back etc.
3) The lac is molten with mustard oil and ‘gheru’ and then poured into the cavities to avoid the sheet metal from breaking and they also use lac to fix the pieces down so as to detail them without them moving.
4) Then with different types of hammers and an unending set of tools, they complete the fully detailed figurine, in different parts. The process of chasing does the finer detailing. This is the process in which they refine the design by beating it from above with a light hand in order to smoothen it completely. This process is preferably done in good sunlight owing to the fine detailing that the human eye can miss in lack of light.
5) The small parts of the figure like the hands, legs and fingers of the figure are made using investment casting and later fixed to the rest of the body. When it comes to joining the different pieces of the figure together, they trim the extra edges to the correct size and then using soldering put everything together. Soldering is the process of adding mixture of materials having a lower melting point than the copper sheets and then exposing them to direct flame till the components in the mixture melt and find their way in to attach the two pieces. The soldering mixture they use in Norbulingka is called ‘sora’ which has brass, lead and silver. If after soldering, they find any holes or gaps, which are faults, they fill it with this mixture of components, put mud in the area around it and expose it to the flame, so as to just affect the faulty area. The mud saves the rest of the figure from getting exposed. They then, by the same technique attach the figure to its base. Often when the base is replaced with an animal body or another element, rivets are used as well. After joining everything together, they use sandpaper for removing the marks left from hammering and for smoothening the surface. Sandpaper gets rid of the marks and once the marks are removed, they use finer numbers of sandpaper eventually for smoothening. This is their process of pre-finishing.
6) Finishings: Finishings of the sheet metal figures are of two types, one of which is a process rather unique and rare.
a) The most commonly used finishing is this one. The figurine is first drowned in nitric or sulphuric acid and then brushed all over with a solution of reetha in water. It is then exposed to the flame for about three to four minutes, when the figurine changes from the reddish tinge of copper to a dull greyish metallic colour. If cavities are found, as faults, they are filled with the soldering mixture (lead, brass and silver) and mud is applied in the surrounding area for coverage from the heat and then it is entirely exposed to the flame. The faulty area, now fixed is then hammered on the cross stand. It is then dipped in nitric or sulphuric acid again and then brushed with the reetha solution and exposed to the flame again for further finishing. This is the process used for finishing everyday products, as it is handy and less expensive.
b) The second method is a process banned almost everywhere in the world, because of environmental hazard. This process of mercury gilding is being practiced from the 7th century BC and is a very expensive and time consuming process of finishing, which is now practiced in Norbulingka only on orders and special figurines, like the 22 feet tall Buddha in their monastery. In this ancient process, mercury is first mixed with gold after being burnt in a pot together and then applied to the various pieces of the figurine before being assembled or to the assembled structure using a brush, made with pig hair. Pig hair brushes are used owing to the strength and durability of the material and hence can be used three to four times. It is also applied with cotton on the less detailed areas. As soon as the mixture is applied, it is rubbed with saw dust and then instantly mercury is blown off the figurine using a blowtorch otherwise, if it is made to stay, it would react more and would not give the desired finish. Once the mercury is burnt off, it leaves a dull gold finish on the surface. The process of polishing that follows is also an extensive one. First, the gilded surface is rubbed with a scratch brush of brass wire, until its surface is smooth.
c) It is then covered with gilding wax, and again exposed to fire until the wax is burnt off. Gilding wax is composed of beeswax mixed with some of the following substances: red ochre (merch branch), verdigris, copper scales, alum, vitriol, and borax. By this operation the colour of the gilding is heightened, and the effect seems to be produced by a perfect dissipation of some mercury remaining after the former operation. The gilt surface is then covered over with potassium nitrate, alum or other salts, ground together, and mixed into a paste with water or weak ammonia. The piece of metal thus covered is exposed to heat, and then quenched in water. By this method, its colour is further improved and brought nearer to that of gold, probably by removing any particles of copper that may have been on the gilt surface. This process, when skilfully carried out, produces gilding of great solidity and beauty.
d) These Buddha figurines are casted as well, but the casting is done in Aligarh and the Institute just works on its finishing. The younger artisans file the pieces to perfection and then the pieces are sent to the Thangka section for their face finishing. The hair of the Buddhas is coloured in blue acrylic paint and the face is painted in gold. The gold is in the form of pulses and it is mixed in water and kept to blend in it for over a month, and water is kept being added to the mixture and left to blend. Gold worth 3100 is used up to paint faces of two pieces. Each piece is recoated 4-5 times after the previous coat dries. The Thangka painters highlight the eyes and the lips with acrylic paint, after which the pieces are sent to the shop for sale. These figurines are way cheaper than the figurines made in sheet metal because these are way easier to make and require less efforts and are also cheaper.
List of craftsmen.