rightTibetans have traditionally lived in towns and rural communities near monasteries. 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.

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.

Al Jazeera reported from Sichuan: “The sun rises over holy Mount Yala, imposing and jagged at 5,820 metres. Student nuns and monks begin their prayers at the 1,400-year-old Lhagang Monastery in Tagong, a town in the mountain-ringed grasslands of the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The people of the town emerge from their stone winter houses to tend to their yaks. When the mild summer arrives at the Tibetan highlands, the semi-nomadic herders who live in the town will set off to roam the grasslands with their herds and tents as they have done for centuries. Tagong is a frontier town of about 8,000 people on the 2,142km-long Sichuan-Tibet Highway. [Source: Al Jazeera]

Tibetan Villages

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.

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.

Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups

Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups (300 kilometers north to 150 kilometers west of Chengdu) were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in.2013 These building and villages are scattered over a fairly large area in the mountains north and west of Chengdu.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups display the great adaptability and creativity of the local people, as well as their cultural traditions, in the severe natural environment of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which bear a unique testimony to the Tibetan and Qiang societies and history... The nominated property includes 225 Diaolou buildings and 15 villages owned by the Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups, which cover the mixed area where Tibetan and Qiang people dwell in the upper reaches of the Dadu River and the Min River in the north of Hengduan Mountains, with a cultural diversity of ethnic groups, languages, geographic conditions, religions and others.

Tibetan Homes

leftTibetan 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]

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."

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]

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

20080228-house4 living area purdue.jpg
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.”

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.”

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]

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]

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. \=/

Relocations and 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.”

“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.” 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.”

One village near Lhasa was built by the Chinese government was built to relocate people living thousands of meters above sea level, to a lower area. Sonam Choephel, a former local vice chair of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which is an advisory body to the government, told Reuters he was glad for the move. "Yes, I'm willing to be relocated to the lower ground. Firstly, I need to consider my health. I was living on the high altitude so I'm concerned about my health. Secondly, there were a lot of wild animals at the high altitude and there were lots of conflicts between human and wild animals."” [Source: Reuters, October 15, 2020]

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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