Tibetan traditional arts focused on religious worship and included many crafts involved in making religious texts, scriptures, scroll paintings of deities, carved altars, sculpture, altar implements, statues of precious metal inlaid with gems, appliquéd temple hangings, operatic costumes for religious performances, monastic furniture, ritual textiles, and gilt copper figures of animals and gods. Even cairns on pilgrimage trails have been made into works of art. Most of these crafts were made d out by monks in monasteries.

Meanwhile, local peasants produced utilitarian household objects for their own use or purchased them at a local market Tibetan handicrafts and art objects more secular in nature include jewelry, clothing, personal affects, seat covers, bed covers, saddle blankets, daggers, and tents. Bamboo for pens and high quality paper comes from southeast Tibet.

Tibetan quilts are indispensable for Tibetan people's lives. 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: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Religious Crafts in Tibet

Sutra covers are fine example of Tibetan Buddhist religion art. One with décor of lotus petals and the Eight Treasures, made gold-etched lacquerware in the Ming Dynasty during the 15th Century is 72.5 centimeters long, 26.3 centimeters wide and 3.4 centimeters in height. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: There are two rectangular canon boards as a pair of sutra covers. The front piece contains inscriptions etched with gold filling within the lotus-petal shaped niche in the center of the reverse side. The Chinese and Tibetan characters “Lushi jiesin jing di liu pin fenbie jielu pin” on the board annotate: this is one chapter of the set of the bKa’-‘gyur (Ganjur in Chinese), the Tibetan Buddhist canon, which was printed in Peking in 1410 by order of the Ming emperor Chengzu. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]

The surface is curved, higher at the center, and the vertical edges are decorated with an animal mask and floral scrolls. On the surface of the boards, the center is a rectangular shape with edging, decorated with lotus branches and petals, while the outer borders are trapezium in shape. On one board is painted three jewels with outward extending rays upon the central precious vase seat; the seat extends its branches to the left and right to two other lotus seats on each side, on which are placed from left to right a Wheel of Dhama, an umbrella, twin fish and treasure vase. The surface of the other board is decorated with umbrella, treasure shell, lotus and entwining snakes. The outer boarders are decorated with lotus petals and floral scrolls. The lacquer layers are solid, while the gold engraving is neatly done, creating an overall impression of great solemnity. An example of this is

Temple banners depict deities such as Sambara embracing his consort Vajravarahi with an escort of 12 dakinis, deities who represent female wisdom, and have muted colors of gold, rose and blue silk with applique and embroidery.

Tibetan Buddhist Texts as Works of Art

Tibetan Buddhist sutras and manuscripts often contain beautiful calligraphy and painted images that qualify them as works of art in their own right. Manuscripts feature Buddha figures, scrolling motifs, repeated geometrical patterns, calligraphy and formalized foliage. Many of the oldest manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th and 14th century, have been taken apart with individual pages sold at art auctions.

The Tibetan Dragon Canon (or Kangxi Kangyur), a 17th century work handwritten gold-inked Tibetan script, features many art treasures. The manuscript is bound in the accordion style, which originated in the palm-leaf binding of ancient India. Each volume or case is made up of paper leaves with texts and protective accessories such as cover planks and wrappers. Each page is framed with foliage patterns drawn in gold ink, and volume and page numbers are written on the front left-hand side. Each volume consists of around 300 to 500 leaves, the edges of which are decorated with hand-drawn gold-inked Eight Auspicious Symbols. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Buddhist images are the objects of worship and visualization. A total of 756 Tibetan Buddhist deities are painted on the front and back cover planks of the Kangxi Kangyur. All the paintings were rendered in accordance with the proportion, color, and style stipulated in the Zaoxiang Liangdujing (Sūtra of the Scale of Making Buddhist Statues). It is a supreme treasure of Tibetan Buddhist deities. These sacred images can be categorized into five groups: buddhas, bodhisattvas, dharma protectors, great masters, and arhats.

Tibetan Carpets

Handmade woolen rugs have been part of the Tibetan culture for hundreds of years. They are an integral part of the daily life and religion and are known for their double knotting, thick pile and high quality wool which is hand spun and died with natural colors such as walnut, madder, rhubarb and indigo. Tantric carpets from Tibet are used in exorcism ceremonies. They depict flayed elephants, tigers and demons, sometime surrounded by bones and body parts. The carpet industry in Tibet was traditionally based in Gyantse and Shigatse.These days many Tibetan carpets are made by exiled Tibetans in Nepal.

What makes Tibetan rugs and textiles unique is the combination of traditional methods that and qualities about Tibet that can produce items that can last for centuries. Premium quality wool is produced by Tibetan sheep raised at the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau. Traditionally, the wool was hand-spun into brilliant colors made from vegetable dyes and different colors of yarn were woven into traditional motifs, symbols and designs. Beautiful pieces are highly valued and are passed on from generation to generation. In old times young women spent months weaving a set to bring into her new home upon marriage. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

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 covering 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]

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.

Tibetan Metalwork, Gold and Silver

Tibetan metalwork is exquisitely cast. Crafting techniques include hammering, chiseling, carving, hollowing, twisting, and gilding. Many works feature images from the Esoteric sect of Buddhism. Kapala bowls are made by an accomplished lamas. Some are dharma vessels used in the Abhisheka ritual of Anuttarayoga. Composed of the three parts of copper bowl cover, skull bowl, and copper bowl rest, such a work looks is both ominous and beautiful and contains symbols which show the maker achieved the status of Sunyata and removed his obsessions. The Kapala bowl is one of the most common dharma vessel used in Tibetan Buddhism. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Gold and silver wares are also traditional Tibetan crafts. In Tibet they generally fall into two categories: Ornaments, such as bracelets, rings, necklaces, hair decorations, brooches, sheaths and snuff bottles. Household utensils, such as wine pots, wine cups, spoons, chopsticks, bowls and plates. Some are made from pure gold and silver, while others are inlaid or coated with gold and silver. Highly skilled masters can make lively and vivid figures on gold and silver ware, including phoenixes, tigers, or lions. [Source: chinaculture.org]

Tibetan Knifes: Weapons and Crafts

Tibetan knives are essential and indispensable in Tibetan people's daily life. Most Tibetans, male or female, carry knives. Usually, Tibetans wear a waist knife that is used to cut meat, and can double as protection while also serving as an accessory. There are three sorts of knives: long, short, and small. The longest ones are usually more than a meter, short ones are about 40 centimeters, and the small ones are just over 10 centimeters in length. In terms of shapes, there are pastoral styles, kamba styles, and the Shigatse area style. Knives are widely used for chopping down trees, for butchering animals, or even for the sky burial in Tibet. Indeed, knives have become a kind of decoration loved by boys and girls. Tibetan knives designed for men are usually rugged, while those designed for women are typically elegant. [Source: chinaculture.org]

“Made from delicately processed steel, Tibetan knives are typically quite bright and sharp. Handles are normally made of ox horns, ox bones or wood. Some top quality ones are entwined with silver or copper string. Sheathes, wrapped in copper or silver, tend to be more exquisite. Outside of the simple wooden or leather sheath covers, copper or sometimes silver or even gold in nice designs of birds, animals, or grass and flowers can be seen. Some are even inlaid with precious or colored stones, or even jewels. Just how expensive is up to the holder.

“Lhasa, Damxung, Lhatse, Yi'ong and Qamdo are well known for the production of the Tibetan knives. Typical Tibetan knives of the Shigatse area are produced in Lhatse. The Latse knife, with its beautiful appearance, sharp blade, and delicate and expensive scabbards, have long been recognized as an outstanding product. Bright and sparkling, such knives are handmade of high quality steel.

Roles of Tibetan knife: 1) Tools for daily life: To eat meat, Tibetans need knives. In some places, knives serve as plows and sickles. 2) Weapons: In 1904, when the British invaded Tibet, Tibetan soldiers fought with primitive rifles and long-handle waist knives. 3) Adornments: Tibetan knives are adorned with handles made of bull horns, antelope horns, wood or metal. Knife sheaths are made of animal hides, bull horns, metal or wood and are adorned with the "eight auspicious patterns" in gold, silver, copper and iron wire, swastikas, the auspicious pattern of dragon and phoenix, or are inlaid with corals, agates, peals peals and jade.

Decorations on Tibetan Arms and Armor

Donald LaRocca of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: The materials and techniques used to decorate arms and armor from Tibet cover a broad range. The primary structural materials are iron and leather, frequently used in combination with gold, silver, copper alloys, and wood, and often incorporating turquoise, coral, yak hair, and various textiles. The techniques most often employed to decorate objects made principally of iron include damascening, inlay, engraving with gold and silver, pierced work, chiseling, and embossing. These techniques can be used alone but are more frequently combined. The degree of ornamentation and the range of symbols found on Tibetan arms and armor can vary considerably, but generally the same decorative motifs found on other Tibetan objects and works of art, such as furniture, ritual implements, sculpture, and paintings, are seen on arms and armor. [Source: Donald LaRocca, Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

“Damascening (also called overlay) is by far the most common technique used on iron in Tibet. It is done by scoring or crosshatching an iron surface with a pattern of fine lines, usually within the borders of an engraved design. Gold or silver wires are then laid over the crosshatching and rubbed with a burnishing tool to adhere the wires to the iron ground. Wires laid side-by-side and properly burnished can produce the effect of a continuous sheet of gold or silver. Inlay involves inserting gold, silver, or copper wires into the grooves engraved into the surface of the iron for that purpose. True inlay, however, is rarely found on Himalayan ironwork, damascening being the preferred technique. Engraving consists of incising a design into a metal surface using punches, chisels, or other specialized engraving tools.

“Mercury gilding (also called fire gilding) is frequently used for applying a thin layer of gold to objects made of silver, bronze, or copper alloys, but seems not to occur before the late nineteenth or early twentieth century on Tibetan objects made of iron. In mercury gilding, a paste (called an amalgam) is made from gold mixed with mercury. This paste is applied to a metal surface that has been coated with a thin layer of copper or copper sulfate. The surface is then heated until the mercury evaporates, which fixes the gold to the surface. In a relatively rare variation on this technique, an iron surface is damascened with a layer of silver, and then mercury gilding is applied over the silver.

“Pierced work refers to intricately pierced patterns created in an iron surface with punches and files. It is used on relatively flat panels and on very complex surfaces such as saddle plates, and is often combined with chiseling and damascening. Leatherworking techniques include painted and tooled leather and leather appliqués. Most impressive, however, is the use of gold leaf and pigmented shellacs applied over leather to simulate the appearance of lacquer, which is used to great effect on horse armor, leather arm defenses, and on bow cases and quivers.

Symbols on Tibetan Arms and Armor

Donald LaRocca of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: The degree of ornamentation and the range of symbols found on Tibetan arms and armor can vary considerably, but generally the same decorative motifs found on other Tibetan objects and works of art, such as furniture, ritual implements, sculpture, and paintings, are seen on arms and armor. While these motifs can have deep religious or iconographic significance, on secular objects they usually serve simply as protective and auspicious symbols, and as signs of Buddhist piety. [Source: Donald LaRocca, Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

“The most prevalent form of decoration consists of a wide variety of scrollwork, which can range in appearance from leafy tendrils to stylized clouds to flame patterns. Scrollwork can be used as the sole design feature, but it more often serves as the background for other motifs, particularly dragons, which are perhaps the single most frequently used motif (1999.118). Nearly as popular as the dragon is a type of monster mask known in Tibetan as tsi pa tra or by its Sanskrit name kirttimukha. It is found throughout Tibet, China, India, and Indonesia, where it is used as a sign of good fortune and to ward off evil. A closely related motif has a very similar mask, but joined to the body of a winged creature, which represents the khyung or garuda, a mythical bird that protects against serpents and illnesses.

“Other important and frequently encountered designs come from the group known as the Eight Auspicious Symbols, which consist of the endless knot, lotus, umbrella, conch shell, wheel, victory banner, vase, and pair of golden fish. These can appear individually or in groups, as central design features or as subtle accents on virtually any type of Tibetan object, from the most humble utilitarian item to the most elaborate ritual object or painting. Also frequently used is a motif resembling a flaming jewel, which generally takes one of three forms: three distinct orbs representing the Three Jewels; a cluster of elongated shapes representing the Precious Jewel or Wish-Granting Jewel; and a single flaming jewel or flaming pearl. Other popular individual motifs are the thunderbolt (rdo rje or vajra), the swastika, and the whirling emblem. Less common motifs also occur, such as the "dry skull," a symbol associated with ritual offerings to the wrathful deities.

“A less common but highly evocative type of decoration on armor and weapons is the use of lettering. This usually takes the form of Lantsa (also called Ranjana), an ornamental alphabet derived from ancient Indian scripts, which is used for sacred texts and individual symbolic letters called seed syllables, or bija. In a few instances, more conventional Tibetan scripts are also incorporated into decoration or used for inscriptions.”

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]

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.

Image Sources: University of Purdue, Kalachakranet.org, CNTO; Mandala images, Univeristy of Liverpool, Harvard Education Review

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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