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Colors and Motifs of the Altar

The choice of colors and subject matter that adorns the Museum's altar demonstrates worldly themes, such as auspicious wishes for longevity, financial prosperity, and domestic happiness, as well as invokes local Tibetan protector deities.


Red is an auspicious color in Tibet and often denotes a religious context. Red is the color of temple wall exteriors and the color specified for clothing of Tibetan-Buddhist monks and nuns. Red borders always frame Tibetan paintings and often decorate parts of sculptures.

In general, Tibetan-Buddhist art thrives on a rich variety of contrasting colors. For example, the vases that decorate the altar niches alternate between blue and green, while the center petals of the flowers on the lower panels of the Museum's altar alternate between red and orange.

Paint colors made from precious and semi-precious stones and metals usually retain their color without fading over time while paints colored with vegetable dyes fade as they are exposed to light.


Lotus Vase Detail
The lotus is one of the most important motifs in all Buddhist art. Rising from the mud above a pool of water and unfolding suspended in the air, the lotus is a symbol of purity and often indicates sanctified space or a sacred individual. A lotus decorates each of the protruding and receding notches on the altar’s lintel. A single row of multi-colored lotus petals frames each of the three components on the top of the altar and a single row of red-and-gold lotus petals subtly separates the upper and lower sections of the altar. An intricate notched and painted border frames the center of the altar in a design named after a lotus, chutchi pem. The entire lower portion of the altar also is decorated with stylized lotuses and curling tendrils. Even the partitions between the niches are each decorated with a lotus that emerges from a vase. Alternating between blue and green, these vases represent endless wealth. Raised work called khungbur in Tibetan also decorates many of the panels on the upper part of the altar. Like the treasure-vase motif, the golden raised work and golden borders signify the wealth of the altar’s owners, and is believed to attract additional wealth.