Tibetan Art

From the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City to the labyrinthine temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, history has taught us that religion can be one of the greatest artistic muses. As an ethnic group characterised by their deeply spiritual nature and undeniable piety, the Tibetan people have, over the years, produced some of the finest Buddhist artworks in the world. While retaining many of the features of Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism incorporates aspects of the indigenous religion of Bön, a trait which is reflected in traditional Tibetan art. This makes Tibetan Buddhist painting and sculpture unlike any in the world, attracting the curiosity and admiration of visitors for its startling uniqueness.

Arguably the most famous of these art forms is the thangka painting, which became popular in Tibet sometime during the 8th century. It is often regarded as an amalgamation of traditional Indian, Nepalese, and Kashmiri styles, with a distinctly Tibetan flair. Thangkas are typically rectangular in shape and painted on cotton, linen, or silk appliqué, with a fringe made of vibrant silk brocade. The subjects of these spectacular paintings revolve around religious, astrological, or theological motifs, including Buddhist deities, influential figures, narrative scenes, and mandalas. The most common type of thangka usually contains a deity at the centre, who is surrounded by other religious figures in a symmetrical composition. 

Most thangkas are kept unframed and are relatively small in size, although some are several metres in length. These larger thangkas were designed to be displayed for brief periods on monastery walls as part of religious festivals, such as the Monlam Prayer Festival and the Losar Festival. After the festival, these thangkas are rolled up and must be kept in a dry place to prevent moisture from damaging the cloth. While larger thangkas are for public appreciation, smaller thangkas are meant for personal use as meditative or religiously instructive tools. After all, size doesn’t matter!

The intricacy of thangka paintingsis matched only by the Tibetan sand mandalas, which are constructed by Buddhist monks as part of ritual ceremonies. Natural colouring agents such as crushed gypsum, yellow ochre, red sandstone, charcoal, corn meal, flower pollen, powdered roots, and crushed bark are used to dye the sand, producing a vibrant rainbow of colours. The monks first draw the geometric design that they roughly wish to follow and then delicately apply the sand using small tubes, funnels, and scrapers. A team of monks will work together on a single mandala, moving from the centre outwards and creating one section at a time. Their construction requires significant skill and it can take several weeks to complete one.

Once it is finished, the mandala is ritualistically dismantled as part of an elaborate ceremony. Each part of the mandala is removed in a specific order and the coloured sand is collected in a jar, which is then wrapped in silk and taken to a river, where it is released. The mandala is meant to represent the beauty of the natural world, while its destruction symbolises the transitory nature of material life. The practice is thought to help monks re-focus their efforts on attaining enlightenment, rather than become distracted by the material world. In short, we are all nothing more than dust in the wind, or should we say sand in the river!

On a much smaller scale, tsaklis are Tibetan Buddhist miniature paintings that are normally produced as part of a set and feature a single deity, or a pair of deities. Much like the thangka, they are painted on cloth, although there are some tsaklis that are woodblock-printed onto paper. A set of tsaklis can comprise of anywhere from 6 to 100 small paintings on similar subjects. They are primarily used as offerings at temples or during religious ceremonies. For example, a tsakli featuring protective deities might be mounted near a construction site where a temple is being built, or might be used by a Buddhist monk to dispel evil energy from a sick person. Some pilgrims will even carry a tsakli with them in a portable shrine or box known as a “gau”, which is hung around their neck or attached to a shoulder strap.  

Much Tibetan art, including both the thangka and the sand mandala, is part of a wider Buddhist tradition known as tantra, which originated from Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism. The basic concept behind this practice is that the practitioner should try to visualize themselves as a specific Buddhist deity and try to internalise the qualities of that deity. The artwork simply serves as a tool to aid these visualisations. In short, think of them as textbooks for the achievement of enlightenment!

Mount Everest

At 11:30am on May 29th 1953, New Zealand-born Edmund Hillary and Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay embraced each other at the top of the world. Climbing a colossal 8,850 metres (29,035 ft.), they had achieved something that many had tried but all had failed before them; they had conquered Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world and the highest point on planet Earth. Its Tibetan name of Chomolungma means “Goddess Mother of the World”, while its Sanskrit name of “Sagarmatha” means “Peak of Heaven”. Located on the border between Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Mount Everest is the highest peak along the Himalayas and has been regarded by local people as a sacred place for centuries.

The mountain was originally known as Peak XV, but in 1865 it was named after Sir George Everest, British surveyor general of India from 1830 to 1843. It is composed of multiple layers of rock that have folded back on themselves, most notable of which is the Yellow Band, a limestone formation visible just below the summit. With its three-sided pyramidal shape, the summit is described as having three “faces”: the North Face and the East Face, which rise above Tibet; and the Southwest Face, which is located in Nepal. From base to summit, its slopes are covered in shimmering glaciers, such as the Kangshung Glacier to the east and the Khumbu Glacier to the west. Both the Rong River in Tibet and the Lobujya River in Nepal originate from glaciers on Everest’s lofty heights. 

Generally speaking, temperatures on Mount Everest are sub-zero year-round, with highs reaching only −19 °C (−2 °F) and lows plummeting to between −36 °C (−33 °F) and −60 °C (−76 °F). Since the peak is so high that it reaches the lower limit of the jet stream, it can be buffeted by sustained winds rushing at over 160 kilometres (100 mi) per hour. At the summit and on the upper slopes, lack of oxygen, powerful winds, and extremely cold temperatures preclude the development of any plant or animal life. Hostile though it may be, the valleys below the mountain are inhabited by Tibetan-speaking peoples, most well-known of which are the Sherpas.

The Sherpas live in villages at elevations of up to 4,270 metres (14,000 ft.), many of which are found in the Khumbu Valley of Nepal. Traditionally they were livestock farmers who lived a seminomadic lifestyle on the frozen mountain slopes, but they’ve since adopted a far more lucrative trade. After years of living in such close proximity to the world’s highest mountain range, the Sherpas are uniquely acclimatised to high altitudes. When British expeditions on Mount Everest began during the early 20th century, they soon found highly paid work as surveyors, guides, and porters. As Everest became increasingly more commercialised, they have come to financially depend on the tourism and climbing expeditions that it attracts.

For those brave or foolish enough to try and scale this snowy behemoth, there are two main hiking routes: one that follows the southeast ridge in Nepal, and the other that runs along the north ridge in Tibet. The southeast route is largely considered to be easier, so it is the more frequently used, although bear in mind that “easier” is a relative term! Everest represents arguably the most challenging and dangerous climb in the world, with altitude sickness, fatigue, inclement weather, and powerful winds all contributing to the deaths of numerous hikers. As of 2016, over 200 people have tragically lost their lives while trying to summit the mountain. 

In fact, the weather on Everest is so harsh that there are only two brief time periods when an ascent is possible: between April and May, before the monsoon; and for a few weeks in September, after the monsoon. While adverse weather conditions certainly contribute to the difficult of Everest, worse still by far are the extreme effects that the high altitude has on the human body. Once climbers ascend past the 7,600-metre (25,000 ft.) mark, they enter what’s colloquially referred to as the “Death Zone”. In this area, punishingly low temperatures can lead to frostbite on any part of the body that is exposed and the oxygen levels are so low that the human body essentially starts to die.

As the body desperately tries to obtain more oxygen, rapid breathing and high pulse rates inevitably lead to exhaustion. During the more advanced stages, oxygen deprivation or hypoxia leads to poor sleep, an inability to digest food, and confused thinking that often results in impaired decision making. In a desperately unsafe environment where you need your wits to be at their sharpest, the last thing you want is an addled brain! To combat this, most hikers use supplemental bottled oxygen breathed through masks. So great are these debilitating effects that it takes most climbers an average of 12 hours to walk the distance of under 2 kilometres (1 mi) from South Col to the summit.

In spite of these challenges, people continue to flock to Everest in ever increasing numbers. In 1988, fewer than 200 people summited the mountain but, by 2003, that figure had exceeded 1,200. As if climbing the tallest mountain in the world wasn’t quite thrilling enough, some people have even been known to snowboard, ski, paraglide, and BASE jump down it! While the mountain certainly attracts its fair share of adrenaline junkies, the Rongbuk Monastery at its northern base continues to be a focal site of pilgrimage for the locals. At an altitude of 5000 metres (16,404 ft.), it is the highest temple in the world. So, if you’re planning on praying for safe passage up the mountain, the monastery closest to the heavens is undoubtedly your best bet!

The Jokhang Temple

As the spiritual heart of Lhasa and the holiest house of worship in Tibet, the Jokhang Temple is unceasingly buffeted by waves of pilgrims eager to prostrate themselves in its courtyards, spin its prayer wheels, and chant within its venerable halls. Although it is technically maintained by the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect, it currently accepts worshippers from all branches of Buddhism. Its undeniable historical significance and continuing cultural importance to the region meant it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, alongside the nearby Potala Palace and the Norbulingka. With its intricate mixture of Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese features, it is an architectural gem beyond compare.  

The temple was originally built in 652 by Songtsän Gampo, founder of the Tibetan Empire (618–842). However, the nature of its construction is shrouded in mystery. Countless legends surround the sacred site, the most prevalent of which is that, in ancient times, the Tibetan people believed that Tibet rested on the back of a wild demoness known as a srin ma. Whenever the King tried to build the temple, it would miraculously collapse overnight and they’d have to begin construction again. It was apparently the King’s second wife, Princess Wencheng of the Han Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907), who discovered that it was in fact the demoness thwarting their attempts to propagate Buddhism throughout the region. 

In order to halt her evil schemes, the King was required to build twelve temples: four on the frontiers, four in the outer areas, and four in central Tibet. Finally, the last temple had to be built over the site of a lake, which was said to be the demoness’ heart. Using 1,000 goats to carry soil from nearby mountains, the lake was filled and the Jokhang Temple was built in its place, subjugating the demoness once and for all. Another legend recounts how the King reputedly tossed his ring and promised to build a temple wherever it landed. It landed in a lake and, like the mighty Excalibur, a white stupa[1] emerged from beneath the crystal clear waters, over which the temple was built.

A far more likely explanation is that the temple was built to house the statue of Akshobhya[2] Buddha which the King’s first wife, Princess Bhrikuti of the Nepalese Licchavi Kingdom (c. 400–750 AD), brought with her as part of her dowry. Not to be outdone, Princess Wencheng presented the King with a far more valuable gift, one that is still revered as the holiest idol in Tibet. It was a statue of Shakyamuni[3] Buddha, but not just any statue. This statue, known as the Jowo Shakyamuni or the Jowo Rinpoche, was supposedly carved at the behest of the Buddha himself, and is one of only three such statues that the historical Buddha permitted to have made during his lifetime. 

This life-sized 1.5-metre (5 ft.) tall statue depicts the Buddha at age 12 and was gifted by the King of Magadha (modern-day Bihar and Bengal, India) to Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty before being used as Princess Wencheng’s dowry in 641. Glittering in the light, it is cast from precious metals and bedecked with a constellation of jewels. The statue was originally housed in the Ramoche Temple, but was moved to the Jokhang Temple on the death of Songtsän Gampo for security reasons. In fact, the Jokhang Temple was initially known as the Tsuklakang or “House of Religious Science”, but was renamed the Jokhang or “Temple of the Jowo” in honour of this statue!

From 756 to 797, during the reign of Trisong Detsän, the King’s minister became particularly hostile towards the spread of Buddhism in Tibet, so the statue had to be hidden. When the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, unified Tibet and became its independent leader during the 17th century, the temple and Lhasa as a whole enjoyed a golden era of spirituality. Although the temple was expanded greatly during this time, much of the original 7th century structure has been remarkably well-preserved. 

The temple itself is a four-storey timber structure with a distinctive golden top. From the main square, one can view the entire complex. There are two steles[1] in the square, one recording an alliance between the King of Tibet and the Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, and the other engraved with hygiene tips on how to prevent the spread of smallpox. Even in ancient times, the government had a way to issue health and safety warnings! In the eastern section of the complex, a row of votive lights form a dimly lit path leading to the main hall. 

At over 1,300 years of age, the Buddha Hall is the oldest building in the complex. It is where the sacred Jowo Shakyamuni statue is currently housed, and also contains magnificent gilded statues of Songtsän Gampo, Princess Bhrikuti, and Princess Wencheng. A number of chapels surround the main hall, all dedicated to various deities and bodhisattvas[5] in the Buddhist canon. Thick with the smell of incense and illuminated only by flickering candles, a labyrinth of secluded corridors are the only paths connecting the halls and chapels of the complex. Outside, the doors and roofs are bedecked with glorious golden engravings, from docile deer flanking the Dharma wheel to monstrous dragons guarding the eaves. 

When it comes to worship, there are three pilgrimage circuits in Lhasa: the Lingkhor, which encircles the city’s sacred district; the Barkhor, which circumvents the Jokhang Temple; and the Nangkor, a ritual corridor within the Jokhang Temple that surrounds the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni. Every day, hundreds of pilgrims perform a kora[6] around each of these three circuits while prostrating themselves, chanting sacred mantras, or spinning prayer wheels. For this reason, the temple is closed to tourists in the morning and reserved solely for pilgrims. While the temple’s historic importance is part of its allure, witnessing the devotion that the locals continue to have for their faith is the real key to the Jokhang Temple’s magic. 

Notes:

[1] Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

[2] Akshobhya: According to Buddhist scripture, Akshobhya is one of the Five Wisdom Buddhas and represents consciousness as an aspect of reality. He is the embodiment of “mirror knowledge”, which states that the mind should be like a mirror: empty yet luminous, holding all the images of space and time yet untouched by them.

[3] Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[4] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

[5] 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.  

[6] Kora: A kora is both a type of pilgrimage and a meditative practice in Tibetan Buddhism. The practitioner performs a kora by making a clockwise circumambulation around a sacred site or object, typically as part of a pilgrimage, ceremony, celebration, or ritual. In some instances, it is used as a broader term to describe the entire pilgrimage experience.

Make your dream trip to the Jokhang Temple come true on our travel:  Explore Untouched Wilderness on Our Full Circuit of Tibet

Yamdrok Lake

At the southern foot of the lofty Himalayan mount range lies Yamdrok Lake, one of the three holy lakes of Tibet, alongside Namtso Lake and Lake Manasarovar. Surrounded as it is by snowy climes, it appears like a deep blue sapphire embedded in a sea of pearls. This colossal freshwater lake was formed by melted snow trickling down from the nearby mountains. According to legend, Tibetans believe that the lake was once a goddess who transformed herself, and therefore it is a popular site for pilgrimage. Devout Buddhists will visit the lake, sometimes every year, to walk around its perimeter, an impressive feat which takes an average of 7 days! It is believed that, by performing this ritual, you wash away your sins and are more likely to experience good fortune in the future.

Yet the lake’s spiritual importance doesn’t end there. Yamdrok Lake has been used for decades to help Tibetans find the Dalai Lama. After a Dalai Lama passes away, the senior monks are left with the arduous task of finding the boy who harbours the reincarnated soul of the Dalai Lama and is therefore the next Dalai Lama. They gather on the banks of the lake to chant and pray before throwing a hada[1] and other sacred items into the lake. By peering into the water, they are supposedly offered a reflection of the specific location where the Dalai Lama’s soul currently resides. In short, Yamdrok Lake functions as a sort of holy GPS! 

Situated 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of Lhasa and 90 kilometres (56 mi) west of a town named Gyantse, the lake’s remote location makes it tough to reach, but this is undoubtedly part of its bucolic charm. Its unusual shape, which gives it the appearance of a scorpion when viewed from above due to its two long “arms”, means it’s difficult to estimate its size, although the official surface area is listed at 638 square kilometres (246 sq. mi). Like gems scattered throughout its expanse, the lake is dotted with countless islands that serve as resting places for a myriad of bird species. During autumn and winter, thousands of birds migrate to the lake to nest, making it a veritable bird-watching hotspot. 

Near to the lake’s edge, it is not uncommon to see locals tending to their yaks or walking their Tibetan mastiffs, animal species that have been integral to the development of Tibetan agriculture. Within the lake itself, a large population of freshwater fish has earned the lake the nickname “the treasure trove of Tibet”. Most Tibetans won’t eat the fish, as they believe they are the embodiment of their ancestors’ souls, but thriving fish farms on the lake regularly transport their goods to restaurants throughout Tibet. So you might want to avoid eating any fish dishes near to the lake, or risk accidentally dining on Great Aunt Gladys! 

On a peninsula jutting into the lake, the Samding Monastery is the only Tibetan monastery to be headed by a woman. What makes this house of worship so unique is that it’s not a nunnery, meaning the female abbot presides over a community of male monks, as well as female nuns. This female abbot is known as the Samding Dorje Phagmo, who is considered to be the tulku[2] of the goddess Vajravārāhī. Not only is she considered to be the highest female incarnation in Tibetan Buddhism, she is also the third highest ranking person in the religion’s hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. 

About 7 kilometres (4 mi) west of the monastery, the small town of Nagarze is the perfect place to stay if you’re planning on visiting the lake. With its plethora of family-run guesthouses and traditional restaurants, it offers visitors a glimpse of authentic Tibetan culture. However, no trip to the lake would be complete without first stopping on Kampala Pass, where you’ll be treated to a breath-taking panoramic view of the lake from above. Far in the distance, towering in at over 7,200 metres (23,600 ft.), the snow-capped Mount Noijin Kangsang creates the ideal backdrop for a truly unforgettable moment. 

Notes:

[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] 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

Make your dream trip to the Yamdrok Lake come true on our travel:  Explore Untouched Wilderness on Our Full Circuit of Tibet

Tibetan Architecture

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!

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.