Among the numerous items employed in Tibetan ritual is a genre of miniature painting little known in the occident and rarely spoken of in the liturgical literature translated into western languages. These are the 'Tsakli' or 'Initiation Cards'Tsaklis are small cards of layered stiffened handmade paper or of sized cloth, painted on one side and often with a Tibetan syllable, word, line, or several lines of calligraphy on the reverse. They are assembled into sets and depict specific deities and symbols associated with rituals practiced in Tibetan Buddhism. The rituals may include empowerment ceremonies, transmission of teachings, and funerals and the cards usages may be as substitutes for ceremonial items or as visualization aids.
To facilitate visualization during ritual tsakli are sometimes briefly shown to the initiates by the officiating lama by simply holding the card at arms' length, or they may be held by a stick as part of other ritual items in the altar (fig. 2, right). Sometimes the cards being displayed in an altar are changed gradually over a course of several days as a series of teachings unfold or they may be integrated with torma offerings to form a tridimensional mandala. Tsakli with the guardians of the four quarters may be set up facing the appropriate directions during the construction of a new monastery building. Or they are placed singly within a portable altar called Gau to be carried during a long journey. Tsakli often serve as substitutes for ritual items which are difficult to procure such as precious stones of different colors, or flayed skins of demons.
Tsakli also play a central role in funeral ceremonies guiding the awareness of the deceased through the intermediate Bardo realms. Since Bardo rituals may last for 49 days or less, an effigy of the deceased is set up either in its home or at the home of the local lama. Usually a monochrome tsakli printed from a woodblock represents the deceased and a large set of color cards represents the individual deities and spirits encountered in the different stages of the Bardo journey. Sometimes this funeral set of tsakli may consist of just a handful of cards or it may have the complete mandala of the Bardo deities and their attributes individually depicted, running into eighty cards or more.