TIBETAN VILLAGES AND TOWNS
Tibetans have traditionally lived in towns and rural communities near monasteries. Most rural Tibetans live in small agricultural villages scattered around the mountain valleys. Villages are often made up of only a dozen houses, surrounded by fields, that are several hours walk from the nearest road. Some of the people in these villages have never seen a television, an airplane or a foreigner.
Generally, Tibet can be divided into farming areas and pastoral areas. People in the farming areas live in stone houses while those in pastoral areas camp in tents. The Tibetan house has a flat roof and many windows, being simple in structure and color. Of a distinctive national style, Tibetan houses are often built on elevated sunny sites facing the south. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Tibetan settlements and the conditions that people live in are determined by where people live and their status. Those that live in agricultural areas near rivers live in clustered villages while nomads live in tents and monks live in monasteries. Tibetan buildings are ideally built on the southward-facing slope of a mountain in accordance with feng shui and local wind patterns. When a building is completed it is blessed by a lama who circles it twice and casts handfuls of rice in all directions.
Many towns, even villages, have traditionally had monasteries in them. In the monasteries, the main hall also serves as the prayer hall, with stupas (pagodas) of different sizes built in front of the main entrance for burning pine and cypress twigs. There are also quarters for monks. There are numerous prayer wheels, which are to be turned clockwise. A wall of some sort generally surrounds the buildings.
In the forest regions of eastern Tibet, most villages are located halfway up the hillside. People gather raw materials from the local countryside to build their wooden houses, with log walls and pitched roofs covered with wooden tiles. Some villagers migrate to warmer lowlands in the winter. Many stay put in frigid villages in the winter, spending most of their time indoors, doing things like weaving and making clothes and blankets. They and their animals live off stored food. A fire is kept going almost around the clock.
Infrastructure projects like maintaining trails and building log bridges is usually done on a community basis. When a bridge is built over a mountain stream, for example, one family may bring in logs from a far away forest while other villagers donate their labor to build the bridge.
Tibet is developing very quickly. Even small towns with 20,000 to 30,000 people have Guangdong and Fujian exhibition centers and high-rise buildings like those seen Guangzhou or Shanghai.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: Tibetan Poverty Alleviation tpaf.org ; Life on the Tibetan Plateau kekexili.typepad.com ; Tibetan Society case.edu ; Tibetan Poverty Alleviation tpaf.org ; Women, Marriage and Polyandry Center for Research of Tibet www.case.edu/affil ; Tibetan Women Resources kotan.org ; Wikipedia article on Polyandry in Tibet Wikipedia ; Women of Tibet womenoftibet.org ; Book: Women in Tibet Google Books ; Tibetan wedding in Sichuan China Vista
Links in this Website: TIBETAN PEOPLE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOOD, DRINK, DRUGS AND CLOTHES IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN HEALTH AND MEDICINE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN FUNERALS AND DEATH Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN NOMADS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MINORITIES AND TIBETANS ABROAD Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages
Tibetan homes are like small compounds. Sometimes they resemble small fortresses with sloping walls, prayer flags on their turrets and flat earthen roofs pounded with sticks with rocks at the end. Some have yak dung, used as fuel, drying on the walls and stored with firewood on the roof. Others have large courtyards where Tibetan mastiffs are tethered and cows are kept In the living room may be a coal stove and a television and refrigerator covered with a an embroidered cloth.
According to an old folktale called of "Dipper Brothers", in ancient times, seven brothers from the east cut trees, carried stones, and built a giant building overnight to house the common people and to shelter them from the storm. Due to their grand generosity, the brothers were invited to Heaven to build houses for the gods, each of which combined to create the celestial constellation now known as the Big Dipper. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Tibetan houses have traditionally been built depending on the availability of the materials, and accordingly can divided into a few types: stone houses in the valley in southern Tibet, tent houses in the pastoral area in northern Tibet and the wooden structure houses in the forest region of Yarlung Zangbo River drainage area. Most Tibetan houses have flat roofs and many windows. They are often built on elevated sunny sites facing the south. In the city, there are big windows facing south to let sunlight in. In the valley area of south Tibet, many people live in castle-like houses. In the pastoral area in north Tibet, people have traditionally lived in tents much of the year. In the forest area along the Yarlung Tsangbo River people in wooden buildings, which are often very different from each other. In the Ali plateau region live in cave dwellings. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]
Most Tibetans live in houses made of adobe-brick or stone walls and slate roofs or tents made of yak hair or black and white felt. Many homes have no electricity, plumbing, running water or even a radio. Yaks, sheep and cattle are sometimes kept in a stables below the house to provide warmth. Wood is a valuable commodity. It is used mainly as construction material and for making barrels for churning butter or making chang. Because animals live on the ground floor of the house, flies are a nuisance and disease-causing germs are plentiful.
A typical family of 14 in Bhutan lives in a three-story house with a 726-square-foot living room, 1,134 square foot basement-barn-stables and 726-square-foot storage attic. A two-story house in Dolpo has inward-sloping, mortared-stone walls and stone and air-dried earth bricks. Attached is a shed for tools, food and yak dung fuel. A typical home in Mustang is a two-story, mud-brick structure with storerooms for grain and stalls for animals on the first floor and a living area for people on the second floor with a kitchen, dining room and bedroom all in one dark, windowless chamber. A sheep skull painted by a monk is placed on the front of the house to keep demons away. An altar with statues of Buddha and other deities is kept in the house.
Features of Tibetan Houses
Typical features of Tibetan buildings include: 1) inward sloping walls, made of mud bricks or stones; 2) a layer of smashed twigs below the roof that produce a distinctive brown band; 3) a flat roof made of pounded earth (since there is little precipitation there is a only a small chance the roof will collapse); 4) whitewashed exterior walls. The interior of large buildings is supported by wooden pillars.
Tibetan houses are resistant to cold, wind and earthquakes, and also have patios and louvers built to deal with the harsh Tibetan climate. They often have walls that are one meter thick and built with stones. The roofs are built with scores of tree trunks, and then covered with a thick layer of clay. When it is finished, the roof is flat, due to the dry, sunny and windy climate of Tibet. Steeped roofs are more useful when there is a lot of snow. A flat roof can help Tibetans collect rare rainfall in places where water is scarce.
The Tibetan love of colors is manifested in the way they ornament their clothes and homes. Many houses are brightly colored and decorated inside with colorful things. Many Himalayan people protect their homes from evil spirits by smearing a layer of cow dung on the floor and making balls with sacred rice and cow dung and placing them on top of the doorway. The Mustangese set up demon traps and bury horse skulls under every house to keep demons out. If an abnormally high number of hardships occur at one house a lama may be called in to exorcize demons. Sometimes he does this by luring the demons into a dish, praying, and then tossing the dish into a fire.
In the rural areas of southern Tibet, traditional flat roof houses can be seen everywhere. A passage from the Old Tibetan Annals dating to 11th century that "All houses have flat roofs throughout Tibet."
Rooms and Parts of a Tibetan House
Tibetan houses are generally one, two-, three-, or four-story high. A single-story house sometimes has a guarding wall to keep animals in and outsiders out. In a traditional three-story house, the lowest level serves as a barn for animals or as a storage place; the second level as the human living quarters; and the third story as the worshiping hall or sometimes or grain storage area. The stairs are outside the house and usually made of a single tree trunk going from roof to roof or roof to patio or ledge. Once the ladders are withdrawn, the higher levels become inaccessible. Some house look like small fortresses with small windows that served as gun holes for defensive purposes in the old days.
In traditional Tibetan residences, the scripture hall is in the middle, the living rooms are at the two sides, the kitchen is closely adjacent to the living rooms, and the restroom is at the two corners of the bounding wall far from the living rooms. Windows have eaves, the edges of which are folded with colorful square wood so as to protect the windowsill from rain and at the same time showcase the home’s beauty. The two sides of all residence doors and windows are spread with black paint, which provide stark contrasts with the while walls. Generally, rural area residences’ courtyards include a tool production room, foraged grass storing room, sheep pen, cowshed, and more due to the agricultural lifestyles of its inhabitants. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
The average Tibetan lives in a simple bungalow with a stone bounding wall. Girders are used as framework, and the section of the wood column is round shaped; the upper section is thin and the lower part is thicker. A chapiter, the capital of a column, is equipped with a square wooden bucket and wood pillow, with wooden beams and rafters laid on one by one; then tree branches or short sticks are added and stones or clays cover the surface. Some houses apply the locally weathered "Aga" earth to protect against rain leakage. In rural residences, most houses are U-shaped and single-storied. Around the roof are parapet walls 80 centimeters high, and stacks are made at the four corners. On New Year’s Day according to the Tibetan calendar, each stack table is inserted with tree branches which are decorated with colorful scripture streamers and will be replaced each Tibetan calendar year in hope of prosperous luck.\=/
The living quarters contain living rooms as well as a kitchen with stoves and fireplaces. The common fuels are wood, coal and dung. The furniture is painted in bright colors. The lavatory is usually at the highest part of the house as far away from the living areas as possible to keep the house clear of the smell of urine and feces. There is also an incense burner right in front of the house where sacrifices are offered. As well, there is a small Buddha niche above the entrance door, displaying Kalachakra (the design of Gathering Ten Powerful Elements), which symbolizes Misshu honzon and mandala. These symbols are used to show piety and demonstrate prayer in order to avoid demons and wicked spirits and to help change adverse predestined situations into favorable circumstances.
Many homes have no toilet or even an outhouse. People and animals piss and shit right outside the door of the house, often not caring if anyone sees them. A typical bathroom in Bhutan is an outhouse in back of the house with wooden walls and roof. The toilet is usually a hole in the ground. People squat instead of sit. Many guesthouses and hotels used by foreigners have Western style toilets.
Inside a Tibetan House
Living area Most Tibetan homes don't have gas or oil heating and kerosene and wood are in short supply. Yak dung is often burned for cooking and heating. Most houses are sealed except for small hole in the ceiling that lets out some smoke but also allows some rain or snow to enter. Many Tibetans develop eye and respiratory diseases from breathing in yak-dung smoke.
Describing a Tibetan home Paula Cronin wrote in the New York Times: "The one-room home for an undefined number of adults and children, including a newborn hidden inside a blanket, was tightly organized as a ship's cabin and centered around the open fire on the floor. Enormous pots simmered over embers of yak dug cakes and juniper branches. Dried yak cheese hung from a line. Heavy blankets were folded far up the walls.”
The most important part of the house is arguably the prayer room. Pankraj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “The Tibetans love color and baroque decoration was on full display on the paneled chests painted with floral designs, and thick frescoed columns the thangkas, representing scenes from the Buddha’s life, sashes hanging from the ceiling, the pile of Tibetan scripture bound in bright-yellow silk, and the row of silver lamps before an extravagantly gilded shrine...On one relatively bare wall was poster, the mandatary picture of Hu Jintao. It was even bigger than the thangka.” Inside one of the paneled chest was a picture of the Dalai Lama.”
Describing a traditional fortress-like Tibetan home in Three Parallel Rivers area on the border of Tibet and Yunnan Province Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic: “In the center is a large, open-to-the-sky atrium, with warm sunlight dropping inside. A wooden railing set with planters for various herbs boxes in the atrium on the main floor, keeping kids from falling to the ground floor, where pigs and chickens live in splendid squalor. Up a hand-hewn ladder is the roof, a flat mud, surface with the atrium cut in the middle. The roof is covered with stores of food and fodder, pine cones piled like pineapples, two varieties of corn, chestnuts spread across a plastic tarp, walnuts on another tray, three varieties of chilies in various stages of drying, green apples in a basket, sacks of rice, slabs of pork air-drying, the carcass of what appeared to be a marmot.”
Most homes in Ladakh have a small chapel on the roof or in a shed-like temple near the home or a shrine or altar kept in an honored place in the home. Inside the chapel there may be some religious texts, a golden Buddha statue or a shrouded statue of Yamanataka, a god that is so horrible that no one should look at his image, especially women. Some shrines are decorated with pictures of lamas. Yak butter lamps are lit and offering are made to Buddha and Yamanataka to ward off evil spirits. Car accidents and illnesses are often blamed houses that are not properly protected against these spirits.
In many parts of Tibet you can find homes without toilets, without even out houses, Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine told the Washington Post he stayed at a house in Tibet as large as his own in the United States: “They could build shelters. But they didn’t build toilets...Went in the barnyard like their livestock.”
Tibetan Stone Houses
In order to adapt to the weather conditions and availability of building material on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, Tibetans have traditionally built stone houses. In the valleys and plateau areas where most people live, village houses are usually constructed from stone slices connected with clay, and with the gaps between the slices are filled with the crushed stone pieces. The result is strong, tidy house. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org] .
A typical Tibetan stone house is usually comprised of three or four levels. The ground level is where livestock, fodder and other items are stored. On the second level are the bedrooms and kitchen. The third level is where the prayer room is situated. As Tibetans are mostly Buddhists, a prayer room for the recitation of Buddhist scriptures is an important part of the house. It is placed at the topmost level so no person is higher than the altar. To create more space in the house, the second level is frequently extended beyond the existing walls. Many houses have additions and annexes, often organized around a courtyard. In this way a hosue can take on different shapes and sizes.
The colors of the Tibetan stone houses are simple, yet well coordinated, and usually comprise primary colors such as yellow, cream, beige and maroon-set against the brightly colored walls and roofs. The walls are created out of coarse stones and have windows of various sizes-in a descending order from the top of the wall. On every window is a colorful eave.
Many houses have colorful curtains that hang above the windows and doors. In most Tibetan houses, wooden parts around the doors and windows were painted black color with the colors of nature used to decorate the doors and windows. In Tibet, sunlight is very intense, wind is powerful and there is a lot of damaging dust and grit. ThusTibetans use curtain-like cloth over the doors and windows. The exterior curtains have traditionally been made of Pulu, a traditional Tibetan wool fabric, which are famous for its fine texture and resplendent patterns. Some curtains have religious symbols such as umbrellas, golden fish ,treasure vases, lotuses and endless knots. [Source: Explore Tibet]
Different Tibetan Housing Styles
In different areas, there are also some difference in housing style. The outer walls are usually painted white. However, in some regions of Lhasa, there are also some houses painted the original yellow color of the earth. In Shigatse, to distinguish themselves from the Sakya region, some houses are painted deep blue with white and red stripes. Houses in Tingri County in another part of this region are painted white, with red and black stripes around the walls and windows. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]
In Kham area, wood is widely used for housing. Horizontal timber beams support the roof which in turn are supported by wooden columns. The interior of houses are usually paneled with wood and the cabinetry is ornately decorated. Building wooden house requires excellent skill. Carpentry is passed from generation to generation. However, because of the increasing use of concrete structures, this skill is threatened.
The wooden houses in Nyingzhi are mostly composed of a living room (doubling as a kitchen), storage room, stables, outer corridor, and lavatory, with an independent courtyard. The room is square or rectangular, made of smaller square units on the base, and the furniture and bed are put around the fireplace. The building is 2 to 2.2 meters high. Due to much rain in the forest area, most are built with sloped roofs; meanwhile, the space under the sloped roof can be used for storing foraged and miscellaneous articles. People in the forest regions draw on local resources, so their buildings are mainly wooden structures. Walls are made from stone, slate, and cobblestone, as well as lumber, thin bamboo strips, and wicker strips. Roofs are covered closely with wooden tiles held stable by stones. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
In the Kongpo area, houses usually have irregular stone walls. Generally, they are 2 stories high with a wooden ladder leading to the upper storey. The inhabitants usually live upstairs and keep their livestock downstairs. The main room is behind the entrance door, with a cooking range of 1 square meter in the middle; the whole family will have their meal around the cooking range and warm themselves at the same time. Indeed, the cooking range is the center of activity for the entire family. Guests also enjoy tea and talk there. \=/
In Ali, houses are usually separate from their neighbors. The houses are built with earth and wood and reach as high as two stories. In summer, people live on the second floor, and when winter sets in, they move down to live on the first floor since it is warmer than the above floor.
Some Tibetans still live in cave dwellings. Cave dwellings are frequently built by the side of a hill or mountain, and they take many shapes such as squares, rounds, rectangles, and so on. The majority of are square with an area of 16 square meters, a height of 2 to 2.2 meters, and feature a flat ceiling. Cave dwellings are certainly a special form of residential building on the Tibetan plateau.
Tibetan Castle-like Houses
Many houses constructed with earth, stone, and wood in Lhasa, Shigatse (Xigaze), Chengdu, and in their surrounding villages resembles Western medieval castles and are thus colloquially called "castles" by the local people. This kind of house is the most representative of Tibet, with adobe walls as thick as 40 to 50 centimeters, or stone wall as thick as 50 to 80 centimeters. Also, the roofs are flat and covered with Aga earth. These kinds of houses are warm in winter and cool in summer, suited for the climate on the plateau. Castle-like homes are primarily stone-wood structures of primitive simplicity, though they look dignified, and their strength makes them good for taking shelter from the wind and cold, but also for defense. Another important variable to consider is the slope on which the house lies. The inward-sloping walls provide extra stability in case of tremors and earthquakes, and the walls built closely next to the hillside remain vertical for stability. Such kinds of houses are usually 2 to 3 stories high with a circular corridor built inside and rooms separated by columns. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
The ground floor, low in height, is very stable and often used as a storeroom. The lower story is also usually used as the barn for animals while the upper stories are reserved for the human living quarters. In this way, humans are free of the smell and disturbance of animals. The second floor is the living quarters with a living room (larger one), bedroom, kitchen, storage room, and/or stairs room (small one). If there is a third floor, it generally serves as a prayer hall for chanting Buddhist scriptures or as a space for drying clothes. There is always a well in the yard, with the lavatory situated in the corner. In the rural area of Shannan, people often add a sliding door to the outer corridor so as to make full use of room due to their fondness for outdoor activities, a feature that makes their buildings quite distinctive. For most farmers, not only do they spend much energy and thought designing the living room, kitchen, storage room, and yard, but they also spend efforts to arrange their animal barns and the location of the lavatory in order to make them exert their functions to the full extent. \=/
Overall, these buildings have such distinguishing features as a square living room, composite furniture, and low ceilings. Most living rooms are composed of 4 2 meter-by-2 meter units with a total coverage of 16 square meters. Furniture includes a cushion bed, small square table, and Tibetan cupboards that are short, multifunctional, and easy to assemble. The items are often arranged along the walls so as to make full use of the room and space. \=/
Subsidies for New Homes in Tibet
About 1.2 million rural Tibetans, nearly 40 percent of the region population, have been moved into new residences under a comfortable housing program.
‘since 2006, the Tibetan government has mandated that Tibetan farmers, herders and nomads use government subsidies to build new homes closer to roads. New concrete homes with traditional Tibetan decorations dot the stark brown countryside. But the base government subsidy for building the new homes is usually $1,500 per household, far short of the total needed. Families have generally had to take out multiple times that amount in interest-free three-year loans from state banks as well as private loans from relatives or friends.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]
“Though the government assures that villagers have not borrowed beyond their means, many villagers around Lhasa have expressed pessimism about their ability to repay these loans, suggesting that the degree of debt for the new houses is beyond what they are comfortable with, said Emily Yeh, a scholar at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has researched the program. This should become clearer over the next few years as loans start to become due.” [Ibid]
“In the model village of Gaba, right outside Lhasa, residents leased out their farmland for eight years to Han migrants to pay back the loans, which mostly ranged from $3,000 to $4,500. The migrants grow a wide variety of vegetables to be sold across China. Many of the Tibetan villagers now work in construction; they cannot compete with Han farmers because they generally know how to grow only barley.” [Ibid]
“Renting out the farmland was suggested by the bank, said Suolang Jiancan, the village head. It would be a guaranteed income to pay back the loans. Among the Han, it is not just farmers who are profiting from the land. Large companies from other parts of China are finding ways to tap Tibet resources.” [Ibid]
Kitchen In Dolpo many homes don't even have chairs or tables. People sit barefoot on quilts placed on the floor. Oil lamps are used for lighting. Wooden bins are used for storing grain and salt. Yak butter statutes made from dirt and flour paste protect the house from lightning and evil spirits.
The possessions of a typical family in Bhutan include a butter lamp, nine hoes and cultivators, a basket for winnowing grain, baskets, bags of rice, a ladder for reaching the attic (made from a tree), a clay pot for water, pantry cabinets, three storage chests, three blankets, a treadle-style sewing machine, a pitch fork, butter churn, cooking pots, 11 storage baskets, built-in altar, built-in earthen stove, rice milling machine, battery-operated radio, woodpile, yoke for bulls, four cats, two dogs, many chickens, dart game and candles.
The parent's most prized possession is a religious book. One of the one daughter's most treasured possessions is her jump rope. The majority of the possessions have a religious purpose: two bumpas with peacock feathers (used in water purification rituals), two jeles (double-reeded ceremonial clarinets), 14 choeps (metal bowls used for water offerings), a book of Buddhist teachings, a chodom (a table used by visiting monks), a troe (a bronze ceremonial vessel), a statue of Nämtose (god of wealth), Buddhist statues with silk robes, wind socks for temple decoration, and five rugs (for the altar room).
As one travels further into the remote countryside beds, hot water and Western toilets are replaced by cots, cold water and outhouses and then by dirty blankets, no water and behind the bushes. Men sometimes carry a knife and flint to make firesand light their pipes with burning yak dung.
Weisang: Sacred Smoke
Weisang is a Tibetan household’s custom of burning offerings to make cloudy smoke and is viewed as a kind of praying or smoke offering. “Wei” means simmer in Chinese. 'Sang' is a Tibetan 'ritual fireworks'. Material for Weisang includes pine, juniper and cypress branches and leaves of herbs such as Artemisia argyi and heath. It is said that the fragrance of the the smoke produced by burning pine, juniper and cypress, not only cleanses unlucky and dirty things it also aromatizes the palace of mountain god who is pleased after smelling the aroma. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]
Weisang is an ancient and widespread Tibetan custom. According to the traditional Weisang ritual: first cypress and juniper branches and herbs piled up and lit. In the fire and smoke roasted barley flour or grain is placed along with a few drops of holy water. Weisang is done on many occasions, such as to celebrate a bumper harvest, ward off attacks by enemies, defeat an opposing team, bring peace and prosperity, attract good luck to a weddings or funerals, ensure safety on a road trip, and ward off illnesses. As an everyday act of worship, Tibetans commonly burn some cedar or juniper branches with herbs outside temples and monasteries and in front of the gates at their homes to eliminate the evil and purify the air.
According to the legend, Weisang came from the ancient tribal custom of welcoming brave fighters returning in triumph. In order to clean off the dirt and dust—and perhaps traces of fighting and death—people burned herbs and a pile of cypress and juniper branches, which were dipped in water, then waved on the fighters. Over time this custom was adopted as a kind of sacrifice to the gods, a prayer for peace and victory, and means of communicating with gods.
After a woman has given birth, people burn yak dung in front of gate to inform they are not supposed to enter and to get rid of the polluting atmosphere produced by procreation. Then people pile up a scree pile. If a boy is born, people pile up more chalk scree. If a girl is born, people use other kind of scree and light Wei-Song nearby. At New Year’s time Tibetans burn mulberry branches to keep evil from entering the house.
Tibetan Quilts, Cushions and Carpets
Tibetan quilts are indispensable for Tibetan people's live. Made of local wools, they are soft, delicate, warm and durable. A common quilt can be used for at least eight years, while a high- quality one can be used by two generations. The material for a high-grade quilt is made from from pure, thin wool, which is soft and warm. Tibetan quilts are usually divided into four types: twin-, three-, and four-thread woven and high-grade quilst, respectively weighing 5, 7, 8 and 12.5 kilograms. It is said that Nanggarze is a birthplace of Tibetan quilts. Tibetan quilts are mainly made in Lhasa, Shigatse and Shannan. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]
Tibet has a long history of making rugs from Tibetan highland sheep's wool, called changpel. Tibetan rugs are used for many purposes ranging from flooring to wall hanging to horse saddles, though the most common ones are “sadian” (carpet for covering floors) and “kadian” (puff, a plush mat for coving cushions). The knotting method used in Tibetan rugmaking is different from that used in other rug making traditions. Some aspects of the rug making have been supplanted by cheaper machines in recent times, especially yarn spinning and trimming of the pile after weaving. However, some carpets are still made by hand. The Tibetan diaspora in India and Nepal have established a thriving business in rug making. In Nepal the rug business is one of the largest industries in the country and there are many rug exporters. Tibet also has weaving workshops, but the export side of the industry is relatively undeveloped compared with Nepal and India. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org] tibetan rug
By size, carpets larger than 18 square feet are called sadian, and the others are called “kadian”. Kadians are widely used as cushions. They are usually about 0.9 meters by 1.8 meters in size -- this size fits the function as both a seating area and small bed in many Tibetan houses. Ka of Kadian means "above" in Tibetan. This is because the Kadian is placed up above the seat. Traditionally, Kadian, made of colorful cashmere and felt, wears well. It is used for sitting or sleeping on, rather than for spreading out as floor coverings. It can be used to keep warm, and is waterproof. It is not only comfortable bedding but also a beautiful adornment.
The felt produced on the Tibet plateau is hard but flexible, and contains long fibers, which makes it good raw material for Kadian. Kadian is produced all over Tibet. The ones from Gyangze of Shigatse area are special. The area of Gyangze, with a history of 600 years in rug-making, has long been famous as 'the home of Kadian.' In Gyangze, every family knows how to make carpets. Gyangze is well known for not only its singular weaving technique, but its especially bright colors. All the dyes are made from local leaves, the roots of herbs, and mineral stones, except for red and black. These colors are very bright and colorfast. Kadian of Gyangze is not only famous in China but also has a big market in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]
Tibetan Tableware and Cookware
According to Tibetan tradition, wooden bowls are the most common tableware in Tibet. Tibetan wood bowls are usually made of birch by cutting and polishing. The wooden bowls are firm and beautiful with dedicate patterns. The process of making wooden bowls includes: choosing the wood, drying the wood, cutting and carving, polishing and coloring. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]
Wooden bowls in Tibet can be classified as big bowls, small bowls, bowls with covers, troughs, etc. Wooden bowls can be used for drinking buttered tea, eating tsampa, and storing food, spices and condiment. Wooden bowls can be carried easily. Apart from wooden bowls, Tibetan people also use jade, gold and silver tableware. But these are not used in ordinary families.
Cookware in Tibet is usually made of pottery. Pottery in Tibet has a history of over 4600 years. A butter barrel is another indispensable kitchen item in Tibet. A butter barrel usually is comprised of two parts, a barrel body and a blender. Tibet butter tea is a necessity food for Tibetans. With a butter barrel the butter tea mixture can be easily and properly made. To make it Tibetans put some tea-leaves into the tea barrel first, and then add the yak butter, salt and some spices, push the stick up and down until all the ingredients are mixed well. The finished product is Tibet butter tea.
Tibetan Pottery Wares
Pottery in Tibet has a more than 5000-year history. Neolithic pottery pieces and unbroken pottery wares unearthed at Karub ruins in Qamdo are the earliest pottery ware crafts ever discovered in Tibet. The patterns were of the objects were made by pasting, carving and drawing. They are mainly woven patterns, labyrinth-patterns, water streaks, lozenges and straight lines, appearing on the middle part of the body of the ware. The pottery jars with either single ear or double ears were beautifully built and finely worked. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]
Currently the main pottery making centers in Tibet are in Gyantse, Maizhokunggar, Lhunzhub, Mangkang, Chanang, Chagyab, and Sog. Styles include coarse sandy wares, glazed pottery, red pottery, black pottery and painted pottery. Among the types are urns, jars, olla, post, bowls, basins, incense holders and cups. They fall into two broad categories according to their functions and purposes: 1) those for religious purpose and 2) those for everyday life use.
Religious utensils have traditionally been used for worship, consecration and being buried with the dead. Especially in the early days, they were not only the containers for offerings to the deities, but also the symbols of the wealth and power, which were only used in great rituals and events. Today, religious pottery wares are generally painted black and white with a red background. The shapes mainly are jars and bowls for things live making offerinsg and lghting incense. Patterns include lotus flowers, the eight auspicious symbols such as the treasure banner and shell. Pottery wares used in everyday life are generally not painted.
Tibetan Wooden Bowls: Their Uses and Beliefs About Them
Wooden bowls play an important role in Tibetan culture and Tibetan people’s life. In Tibet, every family has wooden bowls. There are always two wooden bowls in a common Tibetan family, a big one and a small one, the former for the father and the latter for the mother. Even to this day, the father's bowl is larger than the mother's. If a couple happens to visit another family, the latter is sure to serve the wife tea in a smaller bowl than her husband; otherwise, it is considered impolite. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]
A crack in the wooden bowl is regarded as a sign of bad luck, and the bowl must be replaced. Now that china bowls have become popular, every family uses them as spares for guests. If the edge of the china bowl is clipped, it is also regarded as bad luck and cannot be used, especially by the guests. Tibetans also try to avoid drinking tea from a cracked bowl. If they accidentally do so in the morning, they believe taboo has been broken and they must stay at home the whole day just to avoid disaster.
Traditional Tibetan leather robes and pulu woolen garments have a belt around the waist, and when the belt is fastened, the front part becomes a hollow pocket in which one can put many daily necessities. One dispensable article in the pocket of every traveler is a wooden bowl, as it is very important to use one's own bowl. An average wooden bowl is cheap but good, and common people can afford it. In Tibet, everyone who leaves home for a trip carries a wooden bowl in this way. The wooden bowls of the balladeers are the largest and "can hold 4.5 kilo of butter tea." Whenever the balladeers perform in the open at fairs or in marketplaces, they place their wooden bowls at the side, asking for tips. Then, the wooden bowl has an additional use, to hold money or other things.
Monks also use wooden bowls. People who know the monasteries well can tell which monastery the monk is from based on the shape of the bowl. The iron-club lamas always move the bowl from one hand to the other playfully, which is quite dazzling. In religious meetings, when the iron-club lama keeps order, his wooden bowl is an emblem of authority that is used to knock the head of those who do not observe the order. Clergy and laypeople making obeisance to the Dalai Lama in the morning were usually awarded three bowls of butter tea. While they listened respectfully to the Dalai Lama or the prince regent, they sipped the butter tea from their bowls constantly.
When a person dies, the other family members fill the wooden bowl that he or she used for butter tea and place it before the corpse. On the seventh day after the sky burial, the family as well as relatives and friends follow the priest in charge to the bank of the Lhasa River to hold a ceremony wishing the dead person's spirit safety and peace. In the ceremony, they lay the wooden bowl in front of the dead person before them and repeatedly fill it with tea to wish the person a good voyage. Finally, they pour the tea out of the wooden bowl, clean it, and give it to the priest. After that, the bowl belongs to the priest. This is a rule in the burial custom: The priest in charge of the celestial burial possesses the bowl every time after the dead body is buried. If the family wants to keep the dead person's wooden bowl as a memento, they must buy it from the priest.
Tibetan Nomad Tents and Possessions
Many nomads live in four-sided or eight-sided tents made from black yak hair or wool and held up with wooden poles. There is a slit to let out smoke. In the old days some had a bearskin front. Sometimes Tibetans live in yurts.
Every nomadic family has several yak hair tents that can be easily dismantled and moved. In hot weather, the loose wool weaves let wind blow through, keeping the air fresh and cool inside. On cold weather, the tent weaves become tight, keeping wind, cold and rain out. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]
There are two kinds of tents: black yak wool tents and white cloth tents. People in pastoral areas are used to living in yak wool tents. In agricultural areas some people still use Tibetan cloth tents. The black yak tents generally have no adornment, but whenever people raise a tent, they hang prayer flags to bless the grassland and their animals and other living creatures with enough food. The black yak tent is viewed as a huge sky mastiff (sky spider) resting in the vast plain. At the top of the tent is a smoke escape symbolizing the highest mountain’s tallest gate.
The smaller and elegant white tents have traditionally been used by Tibetan girls. Pastoral people generally have a couple of these lighter white cloth tents. They are good for traveling and multitudes of them are set up at religious or racing gathering. Elders, teens, and guests usually stay in these kind of tents. The fireplace is usually outside the tent. There are big hexagonal tents, well decorated with religious signs, set up around monasteries or for the use of religious occasions.
Nomad tents and other possessions are carried by horses or yaks or by truck. Inside the tents is an altar dedicated to various Buddhist deities and protector gods. Next to the altar is a box for jewelry and other valuables. Other possessions include a cooking stove, sheepskin sleeping mats and yak-hair blankets. Because there is so little rain they often sleep outside. A nasty dog is kept around to keep away predators.
Making and Erecting Tibetan Nomad Tents
To make a black yak wool tent, people use yak wool to make big ropes first, and then tie the ropes together. A good size tent, which covers about 28 square meters, requires about 90 kilograms of wool. The tent is square at the base with a window at the top that let smoke out and sunlight in. On snowy and rainy days, the window can be shut. The front part of the tent is split into two pieces to make a door. There are generally no beds, chairs or furniture inside the tent. People sit on carpets and cushions. In the middle of the tent, a stive is set up. Behind is yak dung fuel.
Nomads traditionally have spun the yak hair into threads and weave it into striped cloth, then they sewed the cloth into a square tent of 2 pieces, which are joined by 10 ouches or so to form a completed tent. This kind of tent is usually square-shaped supported by 8 upright pillars. On one end, more than 10 strings of yak hair are tied to the pillars at the top of the tent, while the other end is tied to the poles about 3 meters away, making the tent flat and firm. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
To pitch a tent, people first use sticks to make a frame as high as 2 meters, and then they cover it with black yak felt, leaving a chink in the middle with a 15 centimeter width and 1.5 meter length. This split lets smoke out and sunlight in. As well, the 4 sides of the tent are secured to the ground with yak wool ropes.
Inside a Tibetan Nomad Tents
A Tibetan tent is about 20 square meters in area and 1.7 meters high with a ventilating slit at the top to let out smoke and heat when opened and to keep the tent warm and protected from wind and rainwater if covered. In the front of the tent there is a string tied to the door curtain which can be drawn to control the opening. On hot days, the door curtain can be propped up to let air in making the inside cool and comfortable. The yak hair material is instrumental to the success of the tent, making it wearable, thick, and durable enough against strong winds and snowstorms. Meanwhile, it is also convenient to be dismantled, put up, and removed, fitting for nomadic life. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Inside, people build a 50 centimeter high wall made of grass-earth blocks, earth blocks, or stones, on which barley, butter bags, or yak dung (used as fuel) are usually placed. The tent is typically poorly furnished, without many household items. In the middle (near the door) of the tent, an earthy fireplace is set up, and behind is a worshipping place equipped with Buddha statues. People often spread a sheepskin rug on the floor for rest or sleep.
The tent is divided into two quarters. Males occupy the left half, and females the right half. The inner part of the left side is the worshiping place equipped with Buddha statues, scripts, and lamps. The right side is for utensils and food storage. Outside the tent, sometimes people build a wall of sod or dung to guard the animals or protect them against cold wind.
Adults and children share the space inside the tent. They usually each have their own area and gather around a fire made of yak dung and juniper branches in an open hearth the middle of the tent. Yak cheese hangs from the walls above piles of heavy blankets. Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2015