Featured Object: Butter Lamp overview image

Featured Object: Butter Lamp

  • Post Date7/14/2016
  • AuthorCheryl Sullivan
  • Reading Time2 minute read

This small metal lamp, under 8 inches high and weighing less than 2 ounces, was once one of a set of 5 or 7 lamps for use on a home altar. In Tibet, Buddhist homes have an altar with several lamps that burn constantly, even in the tents of nomads. The lamps are filled with yak butter, a wick is inserted, and the lamps are lit.

Burning butter as a fuel is a practical response to the harsh conditions of the Tibetan mountains where resources are scarce. Yaks are used as beasts of burden and also provide many other essentials: their hair is used for rope, wool for clothing, hide for leather, dried dung for fires, meat for nourishment, and milk for cheese and butter. The butter is often made into a high-calorie tea that is a staple of the nomad’s diet. It is also burned as a fuel in lamps.

The design etched on the bowl of this lamp is a stylized version of the Chinese symbol for longevity. This can also be interpreted as a lotus flower, one of the 8 auspicious symbols of Buddhism, symbolizing enlightenment. The concept of enlightenment may also mirrored in the transformation of the mundane substance (butter) into light.

  • butter lamp full picture

This lamp is part of a large collection of artifacts from Asia and Africa donated by Robert C. and Donna M. Spina Helmholz to the Spurlock Museum in 2012.