In poor rural areas 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 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, 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.

Tibetan Cookware and Shrines

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 (See Below). 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.

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.”

Most homes in Ladakh (a Tibet-influenced area in India) 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.

Tibetan Wooden Bowls

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. Tibetans like their wooden bowls so much that they use them as dinner dishes and for drinking the area's famous milk tea. They are even referred as their lover in folk songs. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

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. There are cultural protocols that need to be followed when it comes to wooden bowls: if a couple visits another family, it is customary to serve the husband with a bigger wooden bowl than the wife. Doing otherwise is considered impolite. Children are also discouraged to use their father’s wooden bowls. Wooden bowls are not only used to hold buttered tea or food. They are also used to hold money and other things. When street singers perform in public, they place their wooden bowls for people to put money.

Wooden bowls are generally made from mulberry, birch or tung and are often fashioned in a set. Each set contains three bowls: two big ones and one small. Although jade and porcelain bowls are now common in Tibetan households, wooden bowls still play an important role in Tibetan culture and Tibetan people’s life. Tibetans carry them on journeys and they have an integral role in ceremonies and cultural protocols. The most common is to drink buttered tea made from tea leaves, butter, water, and salt in a wooden bowl. Tibetans say buttered tea drunk from a wooden bowl tastes better.

According to a legend, in ancient times, Tibetan people used mud bowls. One day a carpenter decided to make a bowl out of wood. On that the carpenter went to forest but broke his mud bowl. He needed a bowl so he made a wooden bowl out of necessity. When he came back from the forest, people found out that the wooden bowl was lighter and more durable compared to mud bowls. So, wooden bowls replaced the mud bowls and since been a part of Tibetan life. 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 that every traveler carries in this pocket is a wooden bowl. It is said Tibetan men liken their sweethearts to wooden bowls, wishing they could take them tied to their waist wherever they went.

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. 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.

Making High Quality Tibetan Wooden Bowls

Traditionally, making a wooden bowl was not an easy task. (this may explain why people in the past usually had only one wooden bowl and kept it for life). To make it, right wood had to be selected. Trunks and knots of birch and tung trees or roots of hard trees were good material sources. Modern wooden bowls are often produced in workshops with machinery but in the past they were handcrafted. Skillful carpenters patiently carved the wood by cutting slices from it and scrapped the wood until it was shaped into a bowl. A high-quality wooden bowl is produced by a five to six step process. The entire bowl is carved from a solid piece of wood. Polishing it is the final step.

The desirability of the bowl is mostly associated with the beautiful patterns on the bowl. Some rich families have wooden bowls with a silver lid, on which are carved patterns symbolizing good luck. Even richer families have wooden bowls inlaid with silver and carved with patterns, with only a spot the width of a finger left in the centre of the bowl to show its wooden base. In rich families, each person has two bowls: one for daily use and one for ceremonies.

The wooden bowls made in Mahma village in the north of Menyu area. are hand-made by the old skilled handicraftsman and known being beautiful and durable. Places known for making wooden bowls include Diqen in Yunnan Province, Nang County and Zayu in Nyingchi Prefecture, Gyaca, Lhunze, and Co Nag in Shannan Prefecture, and Gar in Ngari Prefecture. The Chaya wooden bowls produced in Co Nag and the Duishiu wooden bowls produced in Gar are the most famous. These wooden bowls are made of the roots or stumps of trees. With the fine workmanship, a wooden bowl of upper quality is valued at 10 yaks.

Wooden Bowl Traditions in Tibet

A crack in the wooden bowl is regarded as a a bad omen and 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.

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 body. 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 a 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.

In the past, people had only one wooden bowl. The tradition was “one wooden bowl for a life”. For old Tibetans, a wooden bowl was as precious as his or her lover and they could use only one bowl in a lifetime. Today, young Tibetan may have two or more wooden bowls and usually buy new bowls every year to replace the old ones.

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\=/; 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.

Last updated September 2022

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