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The Cultural Context for a Tibetan Altar

Altar in Ritual Use
A domestic altar in ritual use.
Most Tibetan-Buddhist households have a portion of the house set aside for religious activity. In wealthier homes, one or more rooms may be dedicated as altar-rooms. Traditionally, devout families worship daily at this altar, offering incense, beverages, and foods to the deities they house. For special occasions (such as weddings, religious holidays, or specific ceremonies to bring luck to the family or to cure family members’ illnesses), religious practitioners are invited to a family’s altar room to read prayers and perform rituals. In the past most Tibetan families had relatives who became monks or nuns, thus religious practitioners called for these services were often related to their patrons.

Idols and Icons

Statues, ritual implements, prints, and books are usually placed in the central niches of Tibetan-Buddhist altars. Each item is imbued with specific meanings. For example, necessary components of a consecrated altar include symbols of the Three Gems and Five Senses.
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Physical and Symbolic Offerings

Offerings are placed on or next to Tibetan altars. Water, milk, alcohol, grains, incense, and butter lamps are essential to worshiping the deities believed to live within consecrated images.
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Tibetan-Buddhist ritual use of many religious artworks often necessitates that these artworks be consecrated. Ritual specialists are required to consecrate an object for worship. The methods of consecration vary depending on the object consecrated.
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For example, statues and stupas may be filled with empowered objects, such as paper prayers, incense, and votive plaques.

Amitayus, Bodhisattva of Limitless Life
Amitayus, Bodhisattva of Limitless Life, c. 19th century
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Paintings (lacking a hollow cavity) may be consecrated with inscriptions. The most frequent inscription found on Tibetan paintings are the sacred syllables om ah hum that symbolize the body, speech, and mind of the deity. These syllables are marked at the heart, throat, and head of a figure.

Some figural representations are consecrated through an “eye-opening” ceremony in which the eyes of the statue or painting are colored last as part of ritual consecration. The act of consecration not only blesses the object, but is also intended to make the blessed work a nexus of spiritual power. Devotional adornment, perfuming, lustration, and touching the object further enhances its spiritual potency. Without consecration, the artworks are only reminders of Buddhist elements, rather than empowered active objects. The physical remnants of certain types of oils and soot (from incense, various liquids, and light offerings) signify the Museum's altar was once consecrated, at least through use.