From practice: Construction of a clay statue in Ladakhi technique


On February 12, 2010, Chhemet Rigzin arrived in the Buddhist Center of Braunschweig. According to Chhemet, already one day later was an 'auspicious day,' where we absolutely had to begin the statue, a highest joy statue in union. First, Chhemet read a text in Tibetan, of which we did not understand a word. But at least he told us that the praise had been directed to Guru Rinpoche. We then fixed the size of the statue and looked for a wooden stick to serve as a measuring stick. The statue should have 150 cm in height. Now we had to calculate the small unit, the SOR. These units were transferred to a paper tape by means of a compass. In this way, you can check the proportions in sculptural works.

The dimensions in Buddhist iconometrics are not absolute measurements, such as the generally known centimetres or inches, but relative units of measure. Through the application of the measuring system, the artist can produce proportionally 'correct' figures in different sizes: Both a miniature illustration and an over life-sized painting or statue in the defined dimensions. The size used in practice by Buddhist artists is the sor. A sor is the width at the root of the middle finger. A face (tib. zhal) or a hand span (tib. mtho) is called the large unit. In some Buddha forms, the face measures 12 sor and others 12 1\/2 sor. If one divides the large unit into twelve even units, the small unit results, which corresponds to the sor. A quarter of this small unit is called the basic unit (rkang pa), half of this is called corn (nas). The sculptor divides the desired total height of the statue, which is specified by the client in centimetres or feet, by the fixed units of the respective proportion types. There are different examples about standards for Buddhas, female Buddha forms, protectors and Bodhisattvas. In this way the sculptor calculates the smallest unit for a certain statue. The application of the right proportions is necessary to be able to use the statue or the picture for the meditation.

In contrast to the Bhutanese technique, Chhemet first builds a core from a mixture of sand and clay. After drying, it is covered with cotton. The cotton is either soaked in a glue made of skin and flour or painted with wood glue. The last layer consists of jute fabric. Once this has dried, the clay-sand mixture is removed. Then the statue builder first models with a mix of jute clay and then with a finer mix of cotton, glue and clay. Single parts like the face, hands and also segments of the clothes are modelled separately on wooden boards and afterwards glued to the sculptured body. Recurring, uniform elements such as lotus flowers, skulls and ornaments are drawn, modelled, and moulded in wax or plaster. The negative moulds thereby formed can then be filled as often as desired with the clay mixture. Polishing all forms is a process that should be done with patience. The standing figures are attached by strong iron straps and screws and inwardly fixed to the base. Wire connects the hands to the trunk. The whole construction is extremely stable contrary to its fragile image. The solidity is similar to that of wood.

When all elements are modelled and positioned, the statue is painted in the Ladakhi tradition. Earlier on, mineral pigments were used, today the statue builder paints the statue with bright colours. The statue is coated with clear lacquer for protection. So far, we have not adopted these steps for taste reasons. The use of colour is a long-term research field.