The Tibetan Customs

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[1]. 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[2]. 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!

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

The Tibetan Ethnic Minority

Long ago, when the earth was in its infancy, there roamed a mythical monkey known as Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa. Even his name was imbued with deep significance, with “pha” meaning “father”, “trelgen” meaning “old monkey”, “changchup” translating to “enlightenment”, and “sempa” meaning “intention”. He settled on Mount Gongori in Tibet, where he vowed to immerse himself in meditation and pursue a life of asceticism. One day, while he sat deep in thought, he was approached by a rock ogress named Ma Drag Sinmo. She begged the monkey to marry her and made every attempt to seduce him, but he refused, as his religious discipline meant he could not yield to temptation.

In her desperation, the ogress then resorted to threats. She told the monkey that, if he would not marry her, then she would marry a demon and produce a multitude of smaller monsters, which would overrun the earth and destroy all other living creatures. Evidently she didn’t take rejection very well! The monkey despaired and, not knowing what to do, he consulted the bodhisattva[1] Avalokiteśvara. Avalokiteśvara told the monkey that this was an auspicious sign and that he was destined to marry the ogress, so he gave the couple his blessing and the two were married.

Within a few months, the ogress gave birth to six small monkeys and the elder monkey left his six children to grow up in the forest. After three years, he returned and, to his dismay, he found that they had multiplied to five hundred monkeys. The fruits of the forest were no longer enough to sustain them, and they beseeched their father to help them find food. At a loss once again, the elder monkey went back to Avalokiteśvara. The bodhisattva travelled to the sacred Mount Meru, but from here the story diverges. Some say he collected a handful of barley on the mountain, while others believe he plucked the five cereals from his own body and offered them to the elder monkey.

Regardless of how it transpired, the elder monkey planted the cereals and, after a bumper harvest, he was able to feed all of his children. As they continued to engage in agriculture and move away from the forest, the monkeys gradually lost their tails and most of their hair. They began to use tools made from bone and stone, then wove their own clothes and built their own houses. Eventually they formed a venerable civilisation, from which the Tibetan people supposedly descended. So the next time you question your own family tree, imagine how strange it would be to have a monkey and an ogress as your ancestors!

Living primarily in isolated locations throughout India, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the Tibetan people have maintained an air of mystery that has captured the curiosity of people throughout the world. They embody a culture defined by spirituality, communion with nature, and rigid discipline. Even their language is highly stylised, with honorific and ordinary versions for most words, which are used to address superiors or inferiors respectively. The indisputable importance that religion holds for Tibetans is reflected in this language, as there is a set of higher honorific terms that are only to be used when addressing the highest sect of Buddhist lamas.

According to historical records, it is estimated that the ancestors of the Tibetan people began settling along the Yarlung Tsangpo River sometime before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). The expansive grasslands and lush pastures allowed them to easily raise and support herds of sheep, goat, and yak, which became their primary source of income. However, the harsh climate meant they could only grow certain hardier varieties of grain, such as highland barley. Thus they evolved into an ethnic group primarily composed of farmers and pastoral nomads, with a clear distinction between peasantry and the elite landowning class.

Their belief in and devotion to a higher power first manifested in the indigenous religion of Bön, which was gradually superseded by Buddhism during the 7th century. Eventually these two venerable faiths intermingled to form Tibetan Buddhism, the religion observed by the majority of Tibetans to this day. From the darkened corridors and elaborately decorated halls of the Potala Palace to the humble yurts on the craggy Tibetan Plateau, people from all walks of life carry prayer wheels, chant sutras[2], and prostrate themselves as a demonstration of their piety.

This extreme devoutness has given birth to countless stunning works of art, including intricate thangka paintings, elegant statuary, and the semi-spiritual Epic of King Gesar, which is considered to be the longest hero epic in the world. While this level of piousness might lead you to think that the Tibetan people are solemn, that’s far from the truth! Religious festivals, such as the Losar Festival and the Shoton Festival, are celebrated with lively performances of Tibetan Opera, singing, dancing, and bountiful feasts. With such a rich and vibrant culture, it’s easy to see how the lifestyle of this enigmatic ethnic group has captured the imaginations of people from across the globe.

 

 

[1] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

 

Read more about Tibetan Ethnic Minority:

Traditional Dress       Other Customs

 

Tibetan Traditional Dress

In spite of the hostile environment in which they live, the traditional garments of the Tibetan people are defined by their bright colours and elaborate ornamentation. Like precious stones and glimmering jewels, they stand out on the barren plains of the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans typically don long-sleeved jackets made of silk or cloth, covered by a loose robe tied at the right by a band. Nomadic herdsmen and women working in colder climates eschew the jacket in favour of sheepskin robes fringed with fur. While women tend to wear skirts with a multi-coloured apron over top and men wear trousers, they both opt for leather long-boots to combat the rocky terrain and felt or fur hats to keep themselves warm. For the sake of mobility, many Tibetans leave one or both shoulders uncovered and tie the sleeves around their waist when they are working.

Both genders usually keep their hair long, with men coiling it into a single braid on the top of their head. Girls wear their hair in one braid until they turn seventeen, at which point they plait it into two braids or multiple smaller braids as part of a coming-of-age ceremony. Ornaments play an important role in Tibetan culture, so these braids will be dripping with finery. Historically and culturally speaking, jewellery was the tool used by Tibetans to distinguish the rich from the poor. Poorer nomads would only be able to afford simple jewellery, such as coral pieces, or none at all, while richer nomads would sport silver chains, gold teeth, and large coral earrings.

In contrast to this lavish decoration, the clothes of the Tibetan monks are modest and solemn in nature. They traditionally wear a sleeveless garment known as a kasaya, which translates to mean “colour that is not pure” in Sanskrit. This is thought to derive from the fact that the kasaya is purplish red in colour, rather than being a pure primary colour. It is approximately 2.5 times the length of the human body and is wrapped around the upper body with the right shoulder exposed.

The quality and colour of the cloth used to make the kasaya varies depending on the rank and importance of the wearer. The most eminent monks will have their garments fringed with yellow silk brocade or will wear clothes made from the finest yellow silks and satins. While the style of the kasaya worn by different Tibetan Buddhist sects rarely varies, they each wear different types of hats to distinguish themselves. In short, you should be able to tell them apart at the drop of a hat!

Tibet Autonomous Region

tamdrok-lake

Often described as “the Roof of the World” and “the Land of Snows”, the Tibet Autonomous Region has a certain ethereal allure that has enticed foreign travellers for decades. Yet, beautiful though the region undoubtedly is, it is also shrouded in controversy. Although Tibet was officially a vassal state under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it achieved independence in 1912 and wasn’t reincorporated into China proper until 1951. It was fully open to tourists for a couple of decades, but nowadays non-Chinese visitors are required to apply for a separate Tibet Entry Permit and sign up to a package tour before they are allowed to enter Tibet, as it is still considered a politically unstable region. Occasionally, during times of social unrest, it is even closed to foreign tourists entirely.

tibet02The Tibet Autonomous Region is located on the Tibetan Plateau, which is the largest and highest plateau on earth. With an average altitude of over 4,500 metres (15,000 ft.), it’s no wonder that it has the lowest population density of any region in China. It is renowned for its towering snowy mountains, the most famous of which is the magnificent Mount Everest, which marks the border between Tibet and Nepal. The climate is notoriously harsh, with bitterly cold winters and biting gale-force winds. Winter temperatures regularly drop to a chilling −19 °C (−2 °F) and plummet even further during the night. However, thanks to the low humidity and dry climate, Tibetan summers are generally mild and pleasant, with average temperatures of around 30 °C (85 °F). Therefore it’s usually recommended you plan your visit from June to October, so as to avoid the inhospitable winter months.

Approximately 90% of the population in Tibet is comprised of ethnically Tibetan people, with other ethnic groups such as the Han Chinese, Hui, Monba, and Lhoba people making up the other 10%. The Tibetan people are celebrated for their rich cultural heritage, most notably their dedication to the indigenous religions of Tibetan Buddhism and Bön. Bön is a shamanistic(1) and animistic(2) faith that is widely considered to be the first known religion in Tibet. As Buddhism from India disseminated across Tibet and rose to popularity, it gradually adopted rituals and concepts from Bön, which eventually contributed to the development of Tibetan Buddhism.

bhikkhu03Nowadays Tibetan Buddhism is the more popular of the two, and its most influential branch is known as the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect, which was established sometime during the 17th century. This is the sect to which the Dalai Lama belongs, and there are numerous celebrated monasteries dedicated to it, including the Drepung Monastery and the Sera Monastery. From the colourful prayer flags that adorn every household to the decorative prayer wheels outside each temple, the piety of the Tibetan people is palpable wherever you go.

Tibet is renowned for its religious scroll paintings or thangka, which vividly depict lifelike images of Buddhist deities. In fact, many aspects of Tibetan culture revolve around religion, including their beautiful folk songs, dances, and operas. These wonderful spectacles are normally performed in groups during festival occasions and can last for several days, with the central themes being the peoples’ devotion to religion, their love of the land, and the brave deeds of their ancestors. Annual events such as the Monlam Prayer Festival and the Butter Lamp Festival are the ideal place to connect with this vibrant aspect of Tibetan culture.

Religious sites in Tibet are now popular tourist attractions, although it is important to always remember that these are active houses of worship and must be respected as such. The Potala Palace in the capital of Lhasa is undoubtedly the most spectacular and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. Other places of exceptional beauty include Jokhang Temple, one of the region’s holiest sites, and the Norbuglingka or “Jewel Palace”, which acted as the traditional summer residence for the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile in 1959.

The tranquillity of temples may appeal to some, but others travel to Tibet for far more adventurous reasons! The area is a popular centre for mountaineering, and places such as the glittering Yamdrok Lake, the colossal Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, and the North Face of Mount Everest have attracted adrenaline junkies from across the globe. With the high altitude and low oxygen count, Tibet represents one of the most challenging arenas for adventure tourism. So, whether you’re a spiritualist or a thrill-seeker, be sure to guard against altitude sickness and take plenty of sunscreen. Tibet may be breath-taking, but you don’t want it to literally take your breath away!

Notes:

1. Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

2. Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.

Kekexili State Nature Reserve

Hoh Xil, also known as Kekexili, is an isolated region situated in the northwest part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and its main claim to fame is that it’s the third least populated area in the world. So if you’re not a people person, Kekexili is the place to be! The region stretches across a colossal 83,000 square kilometres (32,000 sq. mi) and sits at an average elevation of 4,800 metres (15,700 ft.). That makes it larger than Scotland and nearly four times higher than Ben Nevis!

It rests between the Tanggula and Kunlun Mountains and borders the Tibet Autonomous Region in the southwest, and Qinghai and Xinjiang in the northwest. Divorced from mankind and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the verdant grasslands and dense forests that populate this region have become a safe haven for a variety of animal species. This truly unspoiled wilderness is a wonder to behold and, in an effort to preserve it, 45,000 square kilometres (17,400 sq. mi) of it was carved out to form the Kekexili State Nature Reserve in 1995.

The nature reserve is located at the border between Zhiduo County and Qumalai County in Qinghai. Its rushing waters, shimmering lakes, and rolling meadows are home to 16 species of mammal, 30 species of bird, and 210 species of plant, of which 18 animal species and 84 plant species are endemic to the region.

The preserve is home to many animals that are currently under national protection, such as snow leopards, Tibetan antelope, golden eagles, and brown bears. Thus the region is precious not only for its natural beauty, but for the many endangered species that inhabit its plains. Unlike other mountainous areas in China, the region is densely covered with lakes, such as Kekexili Lake, Sun Lake and Xuelian Lake, meaning that its animal residents are never too far away from a good drink and a good meal. Unfortunately, if you’re a cuddly little plateau pika[1], that means you’re on the brown bear’s menu!

The region has become so beloved that there was even a film made about it in 2004 called Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, which detailed the struggle of several noble locals trying to protect the rare Tibetan antelope from poachers. This helped highlight the current endangerment of several animal species in Kekexili and, in an effort to further raise awareness, the Tibetan antelope or chiru was made into one of the five mascots of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The mascot’s name, Ying Ying (迎迎), literally means “Welcome! Welcome!” and, with the chiru’s adorably fluffy face, you couldn’t ask for a warmer one!

[1] Plateau Pika: A small burrowing rodent with tan-coloured fur.

Amazing towns on the Ancient Tea – Horse Road (the second Silk Road)

There is a mysterious, ancient road hiding in the mountains of southwest China. Hoof prints are imbedded into the narrow trails along the high cliff edges and turbulent rivers flow under precariously suspended chain bridges. This is the road that was once treaded by merchant caravans.

The Tea – Horse Road was developed because of the ancient Tea – Horse Mutual Trade, which was established 1300 years ago in China’s southwest region. However, the Ancient Tea – Horse Road was not only a passage for trade, but also a thoroughfare for cultural exchange.

Along the Ancient Tea – Horse Road there are many plateaus. Trading posts were established on these plateaus and were used by merchant caravans to do business and trade with one another. These trade points were developed gradually thanks to the prosperity and increasing length of the Ancient Tea – Horse Road. Eventually some of them grew into flourishing towns.

Most of these towns are in Yunnan Province, Sichuan Province and Tibet. They are beautiful and worth a visit not only because of their fantastic scenery and architecture, but also because they are home to many unique cultures. Most of the towns have been developed to accommodate tourists so it’s relatively easy for travellers to visit these towns alone. However, it is still vital that you have a well-prepared travel plan. After all, it is a region dominated by ethnic minorities who won’t speak English and who probably won’t even speak much Mandarin. If you want to gain an in-depth knowledge of their culture, we advise that you do some research and learn about some of the history behind the towns and the ethnic minorities before you travel there.  If you need any help planning your fantastic tour of these mysterious towns, please do not hesitate to contact us at: info@asiaculturaltravel.co.uk.