Due to their remote location on the Tibetan plateau and the harsh weather conditions they regularly face, the architecture of the Tibetan people has largely evolved to suit the landscape in which they live. These two-storey stone houses tend to be built on elevated sites facing the south and have multiple wide windows to capture the greatest amount of sunlight, since fuel for heating or lighting is in short supply among the barren mountain slopes. Flat roofs help to conserve heat, while inward sloping walls protect against earthquakes. From the outside, their square and white-washed exteriors look rather basic, but their interiors are often lavishly decorated in a constellation of colours, from bright yellows and soothing oranges to burnished reds and sultry blues. This style of architecture is the most typical, but it’s important to note that Tibetan people live in vastly different homes depending on region, with some living in yurts, some opting in fixed abodes, and some oscillating between the two.
With its square buildings, darkened corridors, thirteen storeys, and over one thousand rooms, the Potala Palace is regarded as emblematic of the simplistic beauty associated with Tibetan architecture. It is divided between the outer White Palace, which serves as the administrative centre, and the inner Red Palace, where can be found the main religious halls, shrines, and the expansive sutra library. While monks reside within these grand monasteries and farmers tend to live in fixed stone houses, the nomadic pastoralists on the grasslands continue to utilise mobile yurts made of yak-hair cloth, which are distinctly rectangular in shape and can range from 4 to 15 metres (13 ft. to 50 ft.) in length. These yurts can be easily dismantled and transported, but the durability of the yak-hair cloth means they can withstand inclement weather and retain heat. After all, we can’t think of many more animals that are hardier than the yak!
Inscribed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009, Tibetan opera is widely regarded as one of the finest opera forms in China. In true bucolic fashion, it is performed outside without a curtain or stage, relying entirely on the natural and effortless talent of its practitioners. The themes of Tibetan opera derive from a myriad of sources, from solemn Buddhist scripture and bold historical epics to grand legends and mystical folk tales. These lofty themes are intermingled with features of daily life in order to make each opera relatable to its audience. Even the origins of Tibetan opera itself were born out of purely practical needs!
It is believed that, during the 14th century, an eminent Buddhist monk named Thangtong Gyalpo had planned to build a number of bridges, which would enable people to easily cross all of the major rivers in Tibet. However, he simply couldn’t afford to embark on this noble project without funding. Using religious stories as inspiration, he wrote a number of operatic arias. With the help of seven sisters, he travelled across Tibet and organised performances of these operas to raise funds. In elaborate costumes, the girls would dance and sing while Thangtong accompanied them with a drum. In fact, the Tibetan name for this opera style, which is known as Ache lhamo or simply lhamo, translates to mean “Elder Sister Fairy” in reference to the ethereal beauty of these sisters.
Some of the bridges that Thangtong Gyalpo masterminded are still in use today, but by far his greatest legacy is the 700-year-old tradition of Tibetan opera. You could say he bridged a gap between the past and the present! While he remains credited for the creation and dissemination of Tibetan opera, it also incorporates features from ancient rituals associated with the indigenous religion of Bön, alongside aspects of traditional Tibetan folk dance. Many historians even argue that it was the Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhava who was responsible for the first performance of Tibetan opera. The inauguration ceremony he staged during the 8th century for the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen contained a variety of simple plays, which Thangtong Gyalpo used as the basis for his operas. As they say: bad artists borrow; good artists steal! By the 19th century, Tibetan opera troupes could be found throughout Tibet, and nowadays performances continue to be held, particularly on special occasions such as the Shoton Festival.
Opera costumes are typically made from silk, with royal characters wearing the stateliest outfits and lesser characters donning more modest attire. Hems and borders of clothes may be adorned with simple silk brocades, but the finest brocades are saved for the most important component of the costume: the mask. These colourful masks are bedecked with a sun and moon motif, and are used to identify certain character types. For example, dark red indicates a king; light red denotes a minister; yellow indicates the character is a Buddhist deity or monk; blue masks are for hunters; female characters wear green; ordinary male characters wear white; black signifies a villain; and a half white, half black mask symbolises a double-dealer. If only it were quite so simple in real life!
Performances of Tibetan opera typically take place outdoors in public squares, public parks, or temples, although nowadays some are staged indoors with a full complement of accoutrements, including backdrops, stage-lighting, make-up, and an orchestra. Before the performance can begin, a statue of Thangtong Gyalpo must be placed at the centre and the open air “stage” must be blessed. A narrator will sing a summary of the story, and then the performance will start. Talk about plot spoilers! At the beginning of each act, it is the narrator’s responsibility to quickly describe what is going to happen. In the absence of realistic backdrops and props, it is largely up to the narrator to stimulate the audience’s imagination and set the scene.
Once the performance is finished, another ritual blessing is conducted where the statue of Thangthong Gyalpo is honoured and presented with a hada by the performers. The plays vary vastly in length, with the shorter ones lasting several hours and the long ones taking upwards of two to three days to complete! Unlike other forms of Chinese opera, which employ large orchestras, Tibetan opera is usually only accompanied by drums and cymbals. Dance plays a major role in the production, shifting from the elegant to the brisk to the purely acrobatic depending on the action of the play.
Although Tibetan opera is now widely regarded as a secular art form, its deeply entrenched roots in Buddhism mean that many of its stories recount the triumph of good and the punishment of evil. In many ways, these performances serve as tools to teach a wide audience about the significance of morality. Yet the real beauty of Tibetan opera lies in its ability to connect Tibetans throughout the country, promoting unity and encouraging pride in their cultural identity. For centuries, Tibetans have gathered every summer at the Norbulingka in Lhasa to enjoy performances of Tibetan opera as part of the Shoton Festival. We can only hope that they can continue to do so for centuries to come.
Open air operas, joyful dances, and hearty folk songs form just a small part of the rich tapestry that is traditional Tibetan performance. The most iconic of these arts is arguably the Tibetan opera, which is widely regarded as one of the finest opera forms in China. In true bucolic fashion, it is performed outside without a curtain or stage, relying entirely on the natural and effortless talent of its practitioners. The themes of Tibetan opera derive from a myriad of sources, from solemn Buddhist scripture and bold historical epics to grand legends and mystical folk tales. That being said, the origins of Tibetan opera itself were out of purely practical needs!
It is believed that, during the 14th century, an eminent Buddhist monk named Thangtong Gyalpo had planned to build a number of bridges, which would enable people to easily cross all of the major rivers in Tibet. However, he simply couldn’t afford to embark on this noble project without funding. With the help of seven sisters, he organised the first ever performance of Tibetan opera to raise funds. Some of the bridges he masterminded are still in use today, but by far his greatest legacy is the 700-year-old tradition of Tibetan opera. In short, this talented engineer bridged a gap between the past and the present!
Nowadays performances of Tibetan opera continue to be held, particularly on special occasions such as the Shoton Festival. The performers often wear colourful masks, which are used to identify certain character types. For example, dark red indicates a king; light red denotes a minister; yellow indicates the character is a Buddhist deity or monk; blue masks are for hunters; female characters wear green; ordinary male characters wear white; black signifies a villain; and a half white, half black mask symbolises a double-dealer. If only it were quite so simple in real life!
Before the performance can begin, the open air “stage” must be blessed and purified. A narrator will sing a summary of the story, and then the performance will start. Talk about plot spoilers! In the absence of realistic settings and props, it is up to the narrator to stimulate the audience’s imagination as he describes each scene. Once the performance is finished, another ritual blessing is conducted where a statue of Thangthong Gyalpo is honoured and presented with a hada by the performers. The plays vary vastly in length, with the shorter ones lasting several hours and the long ones taking upwards of two to three days to complete! Unlike other forms of Chinese opera, which employ diverse orchestras, Tibetan opera is usually only accompanied by drums and cymbals.
While Tibetan opera requires a degree of organisation and skill to perform, Tibetan circle dancing is popular in the countryside thanks to its simple, rural charm. A group of people arrange themselves in a circle and hold hands, with the circle itself being split into two teams. One team sings the song, while the other team joins in at the chorus, with both teams stamping on the ground in time with the rhythm. Normally this type of dance will take place in open ground or farming ground on the edge of villages and the songs are easy to remember, so many people can take part. During festival occasions, people have been known to dance from morning until night!
Other popular dance styles include Duixie or Tibetan tap dance and Zhuoxie or Tibetan drum dance. The Tibetan tap dance is marked by its quick and fancy footwork, with performers deftly changing their movements after every third step. The Tibetan drum dance is typically performed by men, who wear vibrantly coloured traditional clothes and a string of small bells tied around one ankle. A flat leather drum is attached to their hip via two strips of silk, one tied to their thigh and the other around their waist. Using a pair of small hammers, the performers rap the drum while dancing vigorously. As the rhythm builds and the performance continues, the drummers will start singing and eventually perform some acrobatic feats, which are sure to send the crowd into a frenzy of excitement.
While these styles of dance can be performed by anyone, the spectacular Cham dance is exclusively performed by Buddhist monks. Cham dances are considered to be a form of meditation and also a way to appease the gods. The performers dress in elaborate costumes, complete with strange face masks, and attempt to re-enact the behaviour, attitudes, and gestures of Buddhist deities in order to offer moral instruction to all those watching the performance. With their lively steps and fantastical costumes, Cham dancers truly are the lords of the dance!
The Zhuang have a rich literary tradition, both written and unwritten. Folk stories often take the form of songs and are passed down orally. They can be myths, legends, historical poems or even simply chants. The Zhuang have a written language known as Sawndip or Old Zhuang Script, which they use to transcribe their literature and other important documents such as contracts. Most of these folk tales are written in verse and some of them are over a thousand years old!
One of these ancient legends has garnered much attention in recent years and is known as “Dahgyax Dahbengz” or “The Orphan Girl and the Rich Girl”. This is essentially an early version of the Cinderella story and has been found in old Zhuang opera scripts. Several written versions of the story date back to the 9th century, although it could be even older! Songs like these are often refined over a period of several years. For example, the “Song to Tell Others”, which is a philosophy on life, originated during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) but its final form wasn’t set until the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Many of these songs have their roots in superstition, such as the “house raising” song which is sang after a new house is built. This song consists of two parts; the first describes the construction of a traditional stilt house; and the second is customarily believed to ward off evil spirits from the new home. Like many ethnic minorities, they are a deeply superstitious people and their customs reflect this. For example, in some Zhuang communities they love to eat dog meat, while in others there is a taboo on eating dog meat because, according to legend, the dog helped mankind in their time of need.
The legend states that long ago there were no grains and the people were forced to eat wild plants. The only grain seeds were in Heaven but it was forbidden to bring them to earth. One day, a trusty dog decided he would go to heaven and procure the seeds for his beloved masters. Back in ancient times, dogs had nine tails so when the dog got to heaven he placed his tails on the ground and many of the seeds stuck in his fur. However, while he was collecting the seeds he was spotted by a guard. Before the dog could get away, the guard managed to chop off eight of his tails. He managed to get back to earth with one of his tails still intact and he gave the seeds to his human masters, allowing them to grow grain. In other versions of the legend, the dog is replaced by an ox and this may explain why some Zhuang communities happily eat dogs.
These superstitions play a focal role in Zhuang funerals, as they believe that the souls of the deceased enter the netherworld but continue to assist the living. Ancestor worship is common and their burial rites are particularly unusual, as the dead are buried twice. The deceased is first wrapped in white cloth and, after three days, they are buried in a coffin along with a few of their favourite things. A Taoist priest or local shaman will preside over the funeral, depending on the family’s beliefs. Families will sometimes even arrange what is known as a “spirit marriage” to appease the souls of those who died unmarried!
After three years, the deceased is disinterred and the bones are cleaned. They are then placed in a pottery urn and sprinkled with a red mineral called cinnabar. The urn is deposited in a cave or grotto until an appropriate burial site has been chosen in the clan cemetery. Once this has been done, the deceased is officially classed as an ancestor and can be worshipped at the ancestral shrine.
However, the Zhuang believe that anyone who died a violent, untimely or accidental death could become an evil spirit if not buried properly. They must be cremated while a local necromancer or Taoist priest chants scripture. The remains are carried over a fire pit, which the necromancer or priest must jump over! It is believed that this process “changes” the ashes from those of an evil spirit into a benevolent ancestor spirit.
Nowadays, most Mongols live in modern apartment blocks or fixed residences. However, you’ll still find plenty of Mongol people maintaining their nomadic heritage and living on the grasslands in a type of portable domed tent known as a ger or yurt. Some people even alternate between the two; living in urban housing for part of the year and then shifting to a ger in order to tend to their livestock. The use of these unusual abodes dates back to the time of the mighty Genghis Khan, roughly around about the 12th century. With their bright white exteriors and perfectly rounded shape, these magnificent gers look like glittering pearls scattered across the jade-hued grasslands.
They are made by first erecting a series of wooden lattice frames into a circular shape and then securing them with rope. This forms a self-supporting cylinder that is approximately head height. A door frame is then fitted at the front, while roof poles are used to give extra support. Finally, a canvas typically made from sheep’s wool is drawn across the wooden skeleton and the ger is complete. To give the ger additional stability during inclement weather, a heavy weight is suspended from the centre roof pole.
The ger is ideal for both warm summers and harsh winters, since it is spacious, well-ventilated, but also well-insulated. Its conical roof is perfect for shedding rain, its white exterior is designed to reflect the sunlight during the peak of summer, and its ground-hugging base protects it against strong winds. Smaller gers are typically designed to accommodate up to 10 people, while larger ones can house over 20! Skilled Mongols can erect a ger within half an hour and dismantle it just as quickly, making it the ideal home for the wandering nomad. Once packed up on the back of a yak or camel, it can be easily transported to the next destination. In short, it’s the original mobile-home!
According to tradition, the door to the ger should typically face south and the interior layout should be separated into approximately eight sections: the north, northwest, west, southwest, northeast, east, southeast, and centre. In the northern quarters, there is usually an eight-legged table that is used for keeping cosy quilts, exquisite rugs, and other clothing items. Men’s clothes must be placed above women’s clothes and it is considered taboo to put the neck of any piece of clothing facing the doorway, as this is a practice reserved for the deceased.
The northwest is a holy area reserved solely for Buddha. It is resplendent with shrines and niches, all containing Buddhist statues that have been safely locked away. During religious festivals, the occupants of the ger will light candles and make offerings to these statues while praying for wealth, longevity, and good fortune. The wild western quarter is designated as the man’s private kingdom, full of guns, knives, saddles, and wrestling gear.
The southwest is where yoghurt tanks and more saddles are kept, while the northeast houses cases of women’s clothes and jewellery. The eastern quarter acts as a sort of makeshift pantry, with meat, vegetables, fruits, and cooking utensils arranged into tiers on a special rack to keep them separate. The southeast is a much more flexible area, as it can be utilised in a number of ways depending on the season. In spring, it is filled with water buckets and dried cow’s dung, which is burned as fuel. During summer and autumn, a yoghurt tank and various clay utensils are added for the making of milk products. Under emergency circumstances, it is sometimes even used as a shelter for newly-born calves!
Finally the centre, arguably the most significant section of the ger, is reserved for the fire stove. After a ger has been erected, the first thing that the occupants must do is decide on the position of the stove. Fire is the lifeblood of any Mongolian household, as it provides the means to boil water for tea, cook family meals, or simply keep the ger warm. For this reason, it is of paramount importance that the stove is positioned correctly within the ger.
If you happen to be visiting a ger, there are a number of customs and taboos that you should be aware of. One must not approach a ger by automobile or on horseback within a certain radius. Touching the entryway or the centre roof poles of the ger is deemed impolite. Never step on or over a saddle, as the Mongols’ have a deep-rooted reverence for the horse and damaging or disregarding a saddle is considered highly disrespectful. Similarly, you shouldn’t sit in front of or near Buddhist shrines out of respect for the Buddha. Lastly, you should only take a seat after being invited to do so by your host, with male and female guests sitting separately. Remember, while the Mongols are renowned for their warm-hearted nature, these are the descendants of Genghis Khan, so the last thing you want to do is offend them!
Different Miao communities celebrate different festivals and, in some cases, celebrate the same festival but at different times. However, the Miao New Year, the Sister’s Meal Festival and the Lusheng Festival are considered the most culturally significant and are celebrated by almost all Miao communities.
Miao New Year
The Miao people celebrate a different New Year’s Day to that traditionally adhered to in China. It falls sometime during September to October according to the their lunar calendar. However, there is no exact date for the New Year’s Day each year and the official date is only announced two months prior to the festivities. In southeast Guizhou, the Miao community celebrate their New Year Festival on the “Rabbit Day” or the “Ox Day” of the lunar calendar according to ancient Miao tradition. During the New Year festival, women will wear traditional clothes and there will be large parades. The locals will celebrate by beating drums, dancing to the music of the lusheng, horse racing and sometimes horse fighting or bull-fighting.
The Sister’s Meal Festival
The Sister’s Meal Festival is considered to be the oldest version of what we know as Valentine’s Day. It is a favourite festival among the Miao communities in the Guizhou counties of Taijiang and Jianhe. It is celebrated from the 16th to the 18th of March according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Before the festival, Miao girls will go to the mountains to gather wild flowers and leaves, which are used to make coloured dye. This dye is used to make glutinous rice known as “sister’s rice”. When the festival begins, the Miao girls will adorn themselves in their finest silver jewellery and meet by the banks of a river to make “sister’s rice”. They dye the rice blue, pink, yellow and white to represent spring, summer, autumn and winter respectively.
Finally the men will arrive. They will each single out the woman they love and sing to them. The woman responds to these songs by giving the man a cup of rice wine and the sister’s rice, which is wrapped in a handkerchief covered in symbols. If the rice is offered with a pair of red chopsticks, it means the woman returns the man’s affection. If only one chopstick is offered, it is a polite refusal. If a piece of garlic or a red chilli is placed on the rice, this indicates a flat refusal. Pine needles scattered on the rice means the man should present silks and colourful cloths to the girl and she will wait for him to woo her. This festival is particularly important in terms of courtship, as it is one of the few occasions when men and women from other Miao villages are able to mingle freely.
The Lusheng Festival
The Lusheng Festival is considered the most significant of all the Miao festivals and is celebrated widely throughout Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan. It is celebrated from the 16th to the 20th day of January according to the Chinese lunar calendar. During the Lusheng Festival, Miao people from surrounding villages will all come together in traditional dress and the men will all bring their lusheng. The men will play the lusheng whilst the women dance. They believe that this ceremony will bring a good harvest and good health to the people in the coming year. However, the festival is not simply about playing the lusheng and also features other activities typical of the Miao, such as singing, bullfighting, and horse racing.
Although you can catch the Lusheng Festival in many Miao villages, the grandest one is considered to be the one held near Kaili in Guizhou. If you visit Guizhou in March, we recommend you visit Zhouxi Town, which is about 16 kilometres from Kaili city, where they hold a magnificent Lusheng Festival. If you miss it then there’s no need to worry! In Huangping County, about 75 kilometres outside of Kaili City, there’s another Lusheng Festival in November.
In Yunnan, the Miao people also celebrate a festival called “Stepping over Flower Mountains”. Childless couples often repeat their vows to the fertility god at this time of year. As part of a religious gesture, they will offer wine to the young people in their village. The young people will then dance under a pine tree which has a bottle of wine hanging from it. It is said that many young men and women fall in love during the festivities and childless couples hope that this will help bring them children.
Other commonly celebrated Miao festivals include the Dragon Boat Festival (national holiday), the Flower Mountain Festival (May 5th), the Tasting New Rice Festival (between June and July), the Pure Brightness Festival, and the Beginning of Autumn Festival.
The Zhuang ethnic minority have their own indigenous religion known as Moism or Shigongism, which is an animist faith based on their prehistoric beliefs. The polytheistic nature of the religion means they worship many things, from giant rocks and old trees through to dragons and birds, although the main focus is on ancestor worship. And, when it comes to Moism, three is the magic number!
They believe that the universe is tripartite, with all things being composed of three elements; heaven, earth, and water. People are believed to have three souls after they have died; one that goes to Heaven, one that goes to the cemetery, and one that comes back to protect the deceased’s family. A complete family is seen to have three parts: the descendants, the clan graveyard, and the spirits of the ancestors. With all these ancestral spirits flying around, three is never a crowd for the Zhuang!
Furthermore, this means that the souls of the dead can enter the netherworld but can continue to assist the living. The ancestral spirits are believed to protect the family but also have the capacity to punish them, so most Zhuang families will have an ancestral shrine at the centre of their home where they can worship their ancestors as well as other deities.
Buluotuo, the God of Morality, is one of their shared ancestors and is believed to have created the world, as well as being responsible for the establishment of moral order. In the Zhuang language, “bu” is the epithet for honoured elders, “luo” means “to know a lot”, and “tuo” means “to create many things”. He is married to a goddess known as Huapo or the Flower Mother, although some Zhuang communities believe that she is his mother. At least no one thinks she’s both! She was born out of a flower at the beginning of the world and is the Goddess of Reproduction. She is usually depicted guarding a large garden full of golden and silver flowers, with the golden flowers representing boys and the silver ones representing girls.
Upstanding moral villagers will be rewarded with good flowers (i.e. good children), while those who are immoral will receive withered flowers (i.e. bad children). When a baby is born, a plaque in Huapo’s honour and a bunch of wildflowers will be placed near the baby’s bed. If the baby becomes sick, the mother will offer gifts to Huapo and water the wildflowers. The goddess’ birthday takes place on February 29th according to the peasants’ almanac and on this date women will pick flowers and pray to her for conception.
The Zhuang epic Baeu Rodo is a poem about how Buluotuo created the world. It is a staggering 10,000 lines long and over 1,000 years old! Originally it was passed down orally but was transcribed sometime during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The epic is split into four sections, all of which can be read independently. The first is an introduction; the second is about the creation of the world; the third is about the creation of leaders; and the fourth is about the establishment of morals and ethics. The Zhuang people will often sing it at worshipping ceremonies and it is widely regarded as a religious text.
Other deities in the Zhuang canon have been borrowed or adapted from Han Chinese folklore. These include Tudigong, who protects the village boundaries; She Shen, who protects the village itself; the Mountain Spirit, who resides on a sacred mountain that is not to be farmed; the Dragon King, who protects the village during natural disasters; the Land God, who controls drought, flood, pestilence and disease; and a number of other spirits, such as the Kitchen God, the Water God, the Rice God, and the Sun God. In fact, there’s pretty much a god for everything! They sacrifice to these deities on a regular basis as they believe this will protect their livestock, their crops, and their families.
There are two types of religious figure in Moism: female diviners and male shaman or necromancers. The female diviners treat the sick and can communicate with the spirit world when in a trance. They have no teachers or students, nor do they read from any scriptures or religious texts. They are normally asked by families to contact the spirit world and pass on messages to deceased relatives. They also contact spirits or even deities to inquire about the future, particularly with relevance to fortunes and disasters. While they are divining, they will use a special ladle called a “ding” as a musical instrument and may also shake small bells.
The male shaman or necromancers serve at an altar and are able to read and write Sawndip, the Zhuang’s writing system. Thus they are the only members of the community that can read certain texts, which usually relate to mythology, history, geography, and astronomy. They are sometimes called great masters and can take on students. Their primary function is to dispel ghosts, pray to spirits, help people choose an auspicious time or place to do something important, and tell people’s fortunes. They are often employed to perform at funerals, local festivals, and in times of crisis. Sometimes a Taoist priest will take the place of a shaman, although he will chant in Chinese instead of the Zhuang language.
Buddhism in Zhuang communities has been heavily influenced both by Taoism and Moism, so Buddhist priests are allowed to marry and are only semi-vegetarian. Their main function is to write horoscopes, act as geomancers, and exorcise ghosts, although they will also help in times of crisis by chanting sutras. In other words, when it comes to religion the Zhuang have all their bases covered!
 Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.
 Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha
The customs and taboos of the Uyghur ethnic minority have been informed primarily by their rich history and their pious belief in Islam. When receiving guests, the host will typically offer them the best seats, treat them to some tea or milk, and then provide them with some small snacks, such as dried fruit or sweetmeats. If you are offered a drink, be sure to take the cup with both hands as this is a sign of courtesy. The same applies if you are being offered a gift.
When dinner is ready to be served, the host will bring a kettle of water and invite the guests to wash their hands. This is because many Uyghur signature dishes, such as zhuafan or “hand rice”, are eaten with the hands or using a piece of naan bread rather than with cutlery. It is important to note that you should never place the naan bread upside down while eating it. According to their Islamic faith, Uyghurs are forbidden from eating pork and they also cannot eat any animal that has not been killed by a butcher in the traditional halal way.
When it comes to dining etiquette, it is considered extremely rude for a guest to fiddle with the food in their dish, put back any food that they’ve taken, or leave some food in their bowl. If any food is dropped during the meal, the guest should quietly pick it up and wrap it in a tissue. Once the meal is finished, the elderly members of the household will lead the group in a profound act of worship known as a Dua. Guests should remain in their seats and try to stay as still as possible during the Dua.
Dua: The term “dua” is an Arabic word that roughly translates to mean “supplication” or “invocation”. Within the Islamic faith, it is an act of worship whereby the worshipper calls out to Allah and expresses their devotedness to him.
Deep within the aged pages of the Bardo Thödol or “Book of the Dead”, there lies a guide to traditional Tibetan funerary practices. When death occurs among the Tibetan people, what happens to your body largely depends on your religious status. The vast majority of Tibetans will receive a type of sky burial known as Jhator, which literally translates to “Feeding the Birds”. Be forewarned, this is not a metaphor! The body is taken up to the sky burial site in the mountains, where it is offered up to nature. While the process may seem deeply spiritual, this style of burial was born out of distinctly practical concerns. The rocky and often frozen ground in Tibet is much too tough for grave-digging, and firewood is a scare commodity that cannot be spared for cremation.
During the funeral ceremony, the body is covered with a white cloth and placed face down on the hillside. The family and friends of the deceased gather around as a monk or master of ceremonies, known in Tibetan as a tomden, removes the cloth and anchors the body to the ground while chanting sutras and waving incense. If the deceased was a monk, a symbol of religious significance will be carved into his back. Taking a saw-like knife, the tomden is then granted the unenviable task of removing the organs and cutting the body into small pieces. By this point, large vultures will have begun staring hungrily from hilltops near the sky burial site or hovering impatiently in circles above the body.
Once the body has been prepared, the tomden steps back and allows the vultures to devour it. Crows and hawks wait on the outskirts, vying for their chance to pluck the leftover morsels from the bones. When the vultures have eaten their fill and the bones have been picked clean, the tomden smashes the bones with a mallet and mixes the crushed remains with barley flour, tea, sugar, and yak butter. This marrow-rich slurry is then cast onto the ground for the birds to feed on. If the corpse is entirely consumed by vultures, this is a sign that the person died without sin and their soul has safely gone to heaven. Should any parts of the corpse remain, they must be gathered and cremated while monks chant soul-redeeming sutras. Fascinating as this practice is, it is important to note that tourists must not watch the sky burial without an invitation from the deceased’s family and photographing or videoing the ceremony is strictly forbidden.
When it comes to death, not everyone is subject to such fowl treatment! In the remote mountains of southern Tibet, there are simply not enough vultures to make sky burial a viable option, so the locals practice a traditional water burial as an alternative. The body is prepared in much the same way, but is cast into the water and fed to fish instead. As a mark of respect, people living in these regions will never eat any fish from the rivers or lakes used for water burial. In the heavily forested regions of southeastern Tibet, the abundance of trees means that locals have the luxury of cremation as the most popular funeral option.
Throughout Tibet, eminent monks will also be honoured by being cremated, with their ashes either being stored in a stupa or buried in a coffin. Unlike in the Western world, where cremation takes place at special crematoriums, Tibetans simply pile firewood into a special crisscross pattern. The body is then “seated” within this wooden frame and, after wooden pieces have been placed over the head, oil or wine is poured onto the wood.
The four corners of the wooden frame are set ablaze while monks face the deceased and chant sutras. As they chant, the monks will also extol the virtues of the deceased and express their wish that he will be accepted into heaven safely. Once the fire has burnt out, the ashes are collected and, after three days, they are stored. From that day onwards, monks are invited to chant every seven days in a further effort to redeem the soul of the deceased. This chanting lasts for forty-nine days, after which the funeral is officially complete.
If you thought that was complex, it pales in comparison to the grand ceremony that is held when a tulku or “living Buddha”, such as the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama, passes away. After being embalmed with spices and antiseptics, the body is wrapped in a special cloth known as “Five-Coloured Silk”. Blue represents air, white symbolises water, yellow signifies earth, green denotes nature, and red is associated with fire. Together, these five colours form the cloth of the Buddha, which can only be used on occasions of exceptional significance.
As monks chant sutras, the embalmed body is placed inside of a spirit stupa, which is then sealed. Day and night, monks will stand guard by the stupa and light butter lamps as a form of worship. There are different varieties of spirit stupa depending on the rank of the deceased, from gold and silver down to wood and mud. Only the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are granted the honour of a golden spirit stupa after they die. After all, being transformed into a fixture for religious guidance seems like a fitting end for men who have devoted their life to their faith.
 Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.
 Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.
 Tulku: A tulku is the re-incarnation of a deceased master of Tibetan Buddhism. Each time an old tulku dies, senior monks are charged with locating the young person who harbours their re-incarnated soul. The Dalai Lama is the most well-known example of a tulku.
 The Panchen Lama: The highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhism.
Much like the environment in which they live, the customs of the Tibetan ethnic minority are marked by their elegance, solemnity, and deep spirituality. This is most often seen in the traditions surrounding a ceremonial white scarf, known as a hada. The hada features in both traditional Tibetan and Mongolian culture, but plays a vastly different role in each. In Tibet, it evolved out of the ancient custom of adorning statues of deities with clothes. The white hada symbolises purity, faithfulness, and respect to the receiver. It is a common courtesy afforded to everyone, no matter their rank or background.
The hada itself is made of loosely woven silk and features a range of patterns, which have auspicious or symbolic meanings. They can be as short as 50 centimetres (20 in) and as long as 4 metres (13 ft.). While most hada are white, there is a special version that is made up of five different colours: blue to represent the air; white to symbolise water; yellow to signify the earth; green to denote nature; and red to indicate fire. This five-coloured hada is considered to be the cloth of the Buddha and, as such, it must only be given on exceedingly important occasions. It is a highly valued gift that is exclusively offered to statues of the Buddha, eminent monks, or intimate relatives.
The white hada is customarily offered during a variety of occasions, from regular greetings and temple visits to marriage ceremonies and funerals. In some cases, Tibetans will even leave behind a hada near their seat in a temple to signify that, although they have physically left, their heart remains. When presenting a hada, the giver typically takes the scarf in both hands, lifts it to the shoulder height of the recipient, extends their arms, bends over, and passes it to the recipient, taking care to ensure that their head is level with the hada. To show respect, the recipient should accept the hada with both hands. It is also considered acceptable to place the hada around someone’s neck if they are your social peers or juniors, but seniors or elders should have the hada placed in front of their seats or at their feet as a mark of deference.
The practice of giving hada is so centric to Tibetan culture that, whenever a person leaves the house, they will carry several hada with them in case an opportunity arises where they might be expected to offer one. When writing letters, they will even enclose a miniature hada in the envelope! In most contexts, the hada is designed to extend good wishes and respect, but its significance may change slightly depending on the context. During festivals, a hada is exchanged to wish the recipient a happy holiday. At weddings, the bride and groom are presented with hada in the hopes that they will have everlasting harmony and a bright future together. At funerals, the family present hada to the guests so that the Buddha may bless them and the guests offer hada to the grieving relatives in order to express their condolences.
Aside from the hada, there is a strict etiquette in Tibetan culture surrounding the act of greeting. When visiting relatives, it is customary for the visitor to carry a basket filled with gifts, a thermos flask of buttered tea, and a bucket full of chang. The basket should be covered with a cloth to ensure that no one can see inside. When the guest arrives, the host and hostess will welcome them warmly before enjoying a drink of the butter tea and the chang they have brought.
After a long time spent chatting and catching up, the guest will finally present the host with their gift-basket. It is considered polite for the host to leave some of the gifts, such as food, within the basket for the guest to take back home, as this shows modesty and restraint. Not only that, but the host will be expected to add some inexpensive items to the basket, such as fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, or new clothes for the guest’s children. Most importantly of all, the host will take note of what the guest has brought so that, when they pay a visit, they can bring a gift-basket of similar value. Unlike most people, who give so that they can later receive, the Tibetans receive so that they can give!
Superstition is also a prominent feature of Tibetan culture, with numerous taboos and omens being observed. A traveller who passes by a funeral procession, a source of running water, or a person carrying a pitcher of water is said to have good luck coming their way. A vulture or owl perched on a rooftop is a sign that death or misfortune will soon befall the inhabitants. Snowfall during a wedding is believed to be a sign that the newlyweds will face many difficulties in their marriage. By contrast, snowfall during a funeral means that the family will not suffer another death for a long time. In short, don’t dream of a white wedding, wish for a white funeral!
Hada: A hada is a narrow strip of silk or cotton that is used by Mongolian and Tibetan people as a greeting gift. Although it has little monetary value, in a nomadic culture it carries deep symbolic value, as everything must be carried on one’s person and therefore must be deemed worthy to take up precious limited space.
Chang: Chang is an alcoholic beverage brewed from highland barley, millet, or rice grains. It is popular among the Tibetan and Nepalese people. Although its alcohol content is low, it produces a warming sensation that is ideal in the frozen climes of Tibet and Nepal.