Tibetan Ethnic Minority

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 18, 2021

Origin of Tibetan People

In ancient times, the ancestors of the present Tibetans lived along the both sides of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. In the 6th century, the chieftain of the Yarlung tribe conquered several nearby tribes and became king. He was known as Zanpu (king), and established the Po Dynasty. Then in the early 7th century, Songtsen Gampo (Zanpu’s grandson) unified the whole of Tibet and shifted the capital to Lhasa, which is to this day still the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. This is known in Chinese history as the Tupo kingdom. In 641, Songtsen Gampo married Princess Wencheng of China’s Tang Dynasty, and was given the title of "the King of China's West." In 710, Xidezuzan (a later Tibetan king) married Princess Jincheng also of the Tang Dynasty. These 2 unions were the origins of Chinese and Tibetan cooperation, a connection which has had a strong and undeniable influence on Tibetan society in the fields of politics, economics, and culture.

Take a 4-day Essence of Lhasa Tour to learn Tibetan culture and get a glance at Tibet's inner beauty: devoted believers and their temples and monasteries, simple and peaceful life.

Further on during the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th-14th century, the central Chinese government appointed a department specifically to manage affairs in Tibet and thus brought the region under their direct management. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) set up a local government in Tibet, and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) subsequently appointed a ministry to deal with affairs in Tibet and Mongolia. The central government officially approved the title of Dalai Lama in 1653 and the title of Panchen Lama in 1713. In 1728, a resident minister in charge of Tibetan affairs was appointed, followed by the creation of the "Gexia," or Tibetan local government, in 1751.

In 1934, the government of the Republic of China set up a resident agency to administer affairs in Tibet, and in 1959, Tibet Autonomous Region was officially established.


Tibetans are infamous for their iconic traditional clothing. Generally speaking, they wear short blouses and upper garments made of silk or cloth with long sleeves inside, a wide and loose robe on the outside, and long boots of quality cattle hide. For the convenience of work or labor, the people usually expose their right shoulder or both arms by tying the pair of sleeves around their waist. Both men and women sport pigtails, but men always coil up their pigtails over their head; women comb their hair either into 2 or many small pigtails flooding down onto the shoulder, at the end of which some beautiful ornaments and decorations are tied. Furthermore, Tibetan women prefer to wear an apron with beautiful patterns.


There is an old folktale by the name of "Dipper Brothers" that is well known among Tibetans. The legend goes that in ancient times, one day, 7 brothers from the east cut trees, carried stones, and built a giant building overnight to house the common people and to shelter them from the storm. Due to their grand generosity, the brothers were invited to Heaven to build houses for the gods, each of which combined to create the celestial constellation now known as the Big Dipper.

This story shows that it was in their need to protect themselves against the powers of nature that the Tibetans improved their architecture skills and their styles of inhabitation. During the period of Tubo I, the first palace Rongbuklakon was built on the top of a small hill in the Yarlong Valley. The following Sampos built a series of palaces such as Qinghandazhi Palace, Potala Palace, and many more. During the time of Trisong Detsan, the emperor from 755 to 797, the first Samye Monastery was built based on the beliefs of Buddhism tenets. The monastery is a magnificent creation consisting of Buddha relics, rites, bonze, and more. From then on, through these first examples, the foundations of the Tibetan housing style and construction had more or less been laid.

Traditional Tibetan houses, like other Tibetan culture forms, are unique and full of local characteristic features: in the valley area of south Tibet, people live in castle-like houses. In the pastoral area in north Tibet, people live in tents most of the time. On the other hand, those in the forest area along the Yarlung Tsangbo River live in wooden buildings which are each distinctive from each other. Finally, people in the Ali plateau region live in cave dwellings.

In agricultural and pastoral areas, people usually house themselves in a yak hair tent. They spin the yak hair into threads and weave it into striped cloth, then they sew the cloth into a square tent of 2 pieces, which are joined by 10 ouches or so to form a completed tent. This kind of tent is usually square-shaped supported by 8 upright pillars. On one end, more than 10 strings of yak hair are tied to the pillars at the top of the tent, while the other end is tied to the poles about 3 meters away, making the tent flat and firm. The tent is about 20square meters in area and 1.7 meters high with a ventilating slit at the top to let out smoke and heat when opened and to keep the tent warm and protected from wind and rainwater if covered. In the front of the tent there is a string tied to the door curtain which can be drawn to control the opening. On hot days, the door curtain can be propped up to let air in making the inside cool and comfortable. The yak hair material is instrumental to the success of the tent, making it wearable, thick, and durable enough against strong winds and snowstorms. Meanwhile, it is also convenient to be dismantled, put up, and removed, fitting for nomadic life.

According to traditional customs, when guests visit a Tibetan's home, the men are always seated on the first seat on the right, which is called the "guest seat," and women are sat on the first seat on the left, which is called "kitchen range."

In the rural areas of southern Tibet, representative flat roof houses can be seen everywhere. In fact, it is recorded in the Old Tibetan Annals which were sealed in the 11th century that "All houses have flat roofs throughout Tibet." All these houses are surrounded by bounding walls. In the layout of traditional residences, the scripture hall is in the middle, the living rooms are at the 2 sides, the kitchen is closely adjacent to the living rooms, and the restroom is at the 2 corners of the bounding wall far from the living rooms. Windows have eaves, the edges of which are folded with colorful square wood so as to protect the windowsill from rain and at the same time showcase the home’s beauty. The 2 sides of all residence doors and windows are spread with black paint, which provide stark contrasts with the while walls. Generally, rural area residences’ courtyards include a tool production room, foraged grass storing room, sheep pen, cowshed, and more due to the agricultural lifestyles of its inhabitants.

The average citizen lives in a simple bungalow with a stone bounding wall. Girders are used as framework, and the section of the wood column is round shaped; the upper section is thin and the lower part is thicker. A chapiter, the capital of a column, is equipped with a square wooden bucket and wood pillow, with wooden beams and rafters laid on one by one; then tree branches or short sticks are added and stones or clays cover the surface. Some houses apply the locally weathered "Aga" earth to protect against rain leakage.

In rural residences, most houses are U-shaped and single-storied. Around the roof are parapet walls 80 centimeters high, and stacks are made at the 4 corners. On New Year’s Day according to the Tibetan calendar, each stack table is inserted with tree branches which are decorated with colorful scripture streamers and will be replaced each Tibetan calendar year in hope of prosperous luck. There is also an incense burner right in front of the house where sacrifices are offered. As well, there is a small Buddha niche above the entrance door, displaying Kalachakra (the design of Gathering Ten Powerful Elements), which symbolizes Misshū honzon and mandala. These symbols are used to show piety and demonstrate prayer in order to avoid demons and wicked spirits and to help change adverse predestined situations into favorable circumstances.

In the forest regions of eastern Tibet, most villages are located halfway up the hillside. People gather raw materials from the local countryside to build their wooden houses, with log walls and pitched roofs covered with wooden tiles. In the Kongpo area, houses usually have irregular stone walls. Generally, they are 2 stories high with a wooden ladder leading to the upper storey. The inhabitants usually live upstairs and keep their livestock downstairs. The main room is behind the entrance door, with a cooking range of 1 square meter in the middle; the whole family will have their meal around the cooking range and warm themselves at the same time. Indeed, the cooking range is the center of activity for the entire family. Guests also enjoy tea and talk there.

The history of Tibetan homes and architectural styles has a history that extends well into the past. Plenty of architectural remnants have been found among the Kanuo New Stone Age artifacts from as early as 4,000 years ago. Some typical locally featured buildings are:

1. Castle-like houses

Many houses constructed with earth, stone, and wood in Lhasa, Xigaze, Chengdu, and in their surrounding villages resembles Western medieval castles and are thus colloquially called "castles" by the local people. This kind of house is the most representative of Tibet, with adobe walls as thick as 40 to 50 centimeters, or stone wall as thick as 50 to 80 centimeters. Also, the roofs are flat and covered with Aga earth. These kinds of houses are warm in winter and cool in summer, suited for the climate on the plateau. Castle-like homes are primarily stone-wood structures of primitive simplicity, though they look dignified, and their strength makes them good for taking shelter from the wind and cold, but also for defense. Another important variable to consider is the slope on which the house lies. The inward-sloping walls provide extra stability in case of tremors and earthquakes, and the walls built closely next to the hillside remain vertical for stability. Such kinds of houses are usually 2 to 3 stories high with a circular corridor built inside and rooms separated by columns.

The ground floor, low in height, is very stable and often used as a storeroom. The lower story is also usually used as the barn for animals while the upper stories are reserved for the human living quarters. In this way, humans are free of the smell and disturbance of animals. The second floor is the living quarters with a living room (larger one), bedroom, kitchen, storage room, and/or stairs room (small one). If there is a third floor, it generally serves as a prayer hall for chanting Buddhist scriptures or as a space for drying clothes. There is always a well in the yard, with the lavatory situated in the corner. In the rural area of Shannan, people often add a sliding door to the outer corridor so as to make full use of room due to their fondness for outdoor activities, a feature that makes their buildings quite distinctive. For most farmers, not only do they spend much energy and thought designing the living room, kitchen, storage room, and yard, but they also spend efforts to arrange their animal barns and the location of the lavatory in order to make them exert their functions to the full extent.

Overall, these buildings have such distinguishing features as a square living room, composite furniture, and low ceilings. Most living rooms are composed of 4 2 meter-by-2 meter units with a total coverage of 16 square meters. Furniture includes a cushion bed, small square table, and Tibetan cupboards that are short, multifunctional, and easy to assemble. The items are often arranged along the walls so as to make full use of the room and space.

The residential buildings in the eastern forest area have an entirely different style. The houses in Nyingzhi are mostly composed of a living room (doubling as a kitchen), storage room, stables, outer corridor, and lavatory, with an independent courtyard. The room is square or rectangular, made of smaller square units on the base, and the furniture and bed are put around the fireplace. The building is 2 to 2.2 meters high. Due to much rain in the forest area, most are built with sloped roofs; meanwhile, the space under the sloped roof can be used for storing foraged and miscellaneous articles. People in the forest regions draw on local resources, so their buildings are mainly wooden structures. Walls are made from stone, slate, and cobblestone, as well as lumber, thin bamboo strips, and wicker strips. Roofs are covered closely with wooden tiles held stable by stones.

2. Tents

Tents, unlike castle-like houses in agricultural areas, are a special form of architecture suitable for nomadic and traveling lives. The common tents are usually small and elegant, being square or rectangle at the base. To pitch a tent, people first use sticks to make a frame as high as 2 meters, and then they cover it with black yak felt, leaving a chink in the middle with a 15 centimeter width and 1.5 meter length. This split lets smoke out and sunlight in. As well, the 4 sides of the tent are secured to the ground with yak wool ropes. Inside, people build a 50 centimeter high wall made of grass-earth blocks, earth blocks, or stones, on which barley, butter bags, or yak dung (used as fuel) are usually placed. The tent is typically poorly furnished, without many household items. In the middle (near the door) of the tent, an earthy fireplace is set up, and behind is a worshipping place equipped with Buddha statues. People often spread a sheepskin rug on the floor for rest or sleep.

People in cities and agricultural areas like to live in Tibetan cloth tents. Those in pastoral areas are used to living in yak wool tents.

3. Cave dwellings

In Ali, houses are usually separate from their neighbors. The houses are built with earth and wood and reach as high as 2 stories. In summer, people live on the second floor, and when winter sets in, they move down to live on the first floor since it is warmer than the above floor.

Although most Tibetans live in houses, there are still some who choose to live in cave dwellings. Cave dwellings are frequently built by the side of a hill or mountain, and they take many shapes such as squares, rounds, rectangles, and so on. The majority of are square with an area of 16 square meters, a height of 2 to 2.2 meters, and feature a flat ceiling. Cave dwellings are certainly a special form of residential building on the Tibetan plateau.


Presenting Hada

Presenting hada is a kind of very common courtesy. Hada is a long piece of silk used as a greeting gift. In Tibet, it is customary to present hada to guests during the occasion of weddings and funerals. It is also commonly presented when people visit senior citizens, worship Buddha, and bid farewell to guests. Also, it is said that only after people present hada in a monastery can they pay homage to the Buddha statues. They are then free to visit the different halls. Before departure, they will leave a hada beside their seats to indicate that even though their body has left, their hearts are still there.

Presenting hada, in short, is used to show purity, loyalty, faithfulness, and respect to the receivers.

Hada is made of silk, sometimes raw silk, and is loosely weaved. They feature different kinds of auspicious patterns such as lotuses, bottles, umbrellas, and conches. The material varies in quality, but generally that is not a concern as long as the hada can express good wishes. They come in different lengths, some as long as 3 or 4 meters though some as short as half a meter. Hada is normally white because Tibetans believe that white symbolizes purity and luck. However, there is a kind of hada with 5 colors on them: blue, white, yellow, green, and red, respectively indicating the sky, clouds, land, river, and the God in charge of Buddha dharma. Five-colored hada is a highly valued gift which can be presented to Buddha statues or intimate relatives. According to Buddhist teachings, five-colored hada is the cloth of Buddha. Therefore, it can only be presented on special occasions.

The ways that hada is presented varies from person to person. The following is what people usually do to present a hada: take the hada with their both hands, lift it up to the same level as the shoulder, reach out their hands, bend over, and pass it to the guest. Make sure that the top of one's head is in the same level with the hada. Only in this way can you express your respect and best wishes. For the receiver, he should receive it with both hands. To seniors or elders, you should lift the hada up over your head with your body bent slightly forward and put it in place in front of their seats or feet. For peers or those below you, you can hang the hada around their necks.

Presenting hada is very common in Tibet. Even when people correspond with each other, they won't forget hada. They always enclose a mini hada in the letter for greeting and expressing good wishes. What's even more interesting is when Tibetans go out, they tend to take with them several hadas in case an opportunity rises so they may be ready to give them to friends and relatives they encounter.

Hada expresses different meanings in different circumstances. During festivals or holidays, people exchange hadas to wish each other a merry holiday and a happy life. In weddings, people present hadas to the bride and groom to wish them eternal love and a joyous future together. In receptions, they are presented to guests to wish that the Buddha shall bless them. In funerals, people give hadas to express condolences to the dead and comfort the grieved relatives of the dead.

When it comes to the origin of the hada tradition, there are various versions of the story. One version has something to do with Zhang Qian's diplomatic mission. In the Han Dynasty, Zhang Qian, a respected diplomat, was sent on an assignment to the nations west of China. When he passed Tibet, he presented silk to the chieftain of the local tribe. In ancient China, silk was highly valued and symbolized pure friendship in that people in the tribes thought that giving silk was a kind of courtesy to enhance relationships. Gradually it became a custom extended to all.

Another version of the origins of hada has to do with the ancient Tibetan king, Wangbasi. The king brought hada back after he met with the emperor Khubli Khan of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The hada had the pattern of the Great Wall and the  Chinese characters "ji xian gru yi" (good luck and happiness to you). Later, people gave hada religious sense saying that hada was the ribbons in fairy maidens' clothes and symbolized purity and authority.


On the roads to Lhasa, from time to time, travelers can see Buddhists prostrating (lying face down in adoration and devotion). They begin their journey from their home and keep on prostrating all the way to Lhasa. They wear hand pads, kneepads, and a protective leather upper outer garment. With dust on their faces and innumerable hardships in their lives, slowly they move forward by prostrating forward every 3 steps for months or for years, toward the holy city of Lhasa. Three or 4 acquaintances may go together under the same belief and for the same direction. Many years ago, Buddhists would go empty-handed, even without food or extra clothes. When they felt hungry or cold, they would beg and beg. Things are different now. A Buddhist may be designated for taking charge of food and clothes supplies, providing convenience for his companions, but never will he be allowed to replace a prostrator. The prostrating Buddhists are very scrupulous. They won't give up no matter their exhaustion. In case of heavy traffic or other situations, they will draw a line with some pebbles instead of prostrating. With determination and strong faith, they then continue to walk and prostrate forward.

The prostrator follows these procedures: first, stand straight upright, chant the 6-character truth meaning "merciful Buddha," put their palms together, raise their hands up over their heads, and take a step forward; second, lower their hands down in front of the face, take another step forward; third, lower their hands down to the chest, separate both hands, stretch them out with the palms down, kneel down to the ground, then prostrate with the forehead knocking the ground slightly. Stand up again and repeat the whole procedure.

Another, simpler method is to walk around the monastery in a clockwise direction and prostrate. Starting from the front gate of the monastery, Buddhists also prostrate once every 3 steps, chanting the 6-character truth and some Buddhism scriptures.

Prostrating is related to Lamaism and has much to do with the Chinese custom of kowtow. Kowtow was a kind of daily etiquette in the feudal society. According to the ancient book Zhouli Chunguan Dazhu, there were 9 kinds of kowtow, illustrating that the etiquette was popular as far back as in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-256 BC). In the following year of the Revolution of 1911 (also known as the Xinhai Revolution), Sun Yat-sen (first president and founding father of the Republic of China) abolished the etiquette.

The exchange between the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Tupo regime indicates the 2 nationalities, Chinese and Tibetan, can learn from each other. Kowtow spread to Tibet. In order to show their fidelity, Buddhists transformed kowtow into prostrating. Gradually, prostrating became widely accepted and practiced.

Making Model Pagoda

Making model pagodas is a religious custom in Tibet. People firstly make a clay impression of a pagoda and bake it. The result is a ceramic pagoda. It comes in a cone shape and different sizes. Inside the model, there is put in place a small piece of paper written with spell, and a small amount of highland barley. Finally, it is usually placed around a real pagoda or a statue, as a sacrifice to the Buddha. In the Aba district, Tibetans pray for a bumper harvest year by putting their model pagodas at the side of a road or a village, or burying them in the farmland in hopes that they will kill harmful insects.

Walking Around Pagodas

Pagodas are very important symbols of Buddhism. Buddhist scriptures are placed inside the pagodas and statues of Buddha are carved on the exterior. Buddhists regard pagodas highly. Whenever they see one, they will walk around it once in a clockwise direction while chanting the 6-character truth, fingering their beads, and praying for peace. Some will walk around it several times, and some will place offerings in front of the pagoda.

Turning Prayer Wheels

Tibetans believe in Lamaism. The believers must recite or chant Buddhist scriptures very often. For the illiterate, they can turn prayer wheels with scriptures inside. Turning the prayer wheel is equivalent to chanting scriptures and it has become routine work for Tibetan people. Many Tibetans keep portable prayer wheels at home. They come in different sizes and quality, but there is one thing in common, and that is that they all have scriptures inside. Followers of the Yellow sect turn the wheel clockwise, while followers of the Black sect turn it counterclockwise.

Religious Rituals in the New Year

Among many festivals, Tibetans put much stress on the celebration of New Year's Day by the Tibetan calendar. Every year on 29th of the last month, the ritual of "expelling ghosts" is performed. However, the date might be different from place to place. Monasteries as well as homes perform the ritual separately. According to tradition, people will hold the ritual after dinner. The ritual originates from totem worship in ancient time. It is called "Guduo" in the Tibetan language.

On this New Year’s day, people prepare a very special dinner called "Gutu." For dinner, usually congee of barley or soup of Zanba are eaten. The special Gutu consists of 9 foodstuffs that include barley flakes, peas, dough ball soup, radish, and more. To add to the festivity of the scene, people choose some symbolic items and stuff them into the wheat paste balls. Some symbolize luck while others symbolize different personalities. The stuffed paste balls and dough balls are cooked together in a ceramic pot into a delicious soup. Before they eat the Gutu soup, everybody rubs some parts of his or her body with a wet paste ball uttering phrases such as "Ah, the sufferings, pains, and diseases all go away from me." Then they put the paste ball into the pot.

When all these rituals are completed, the hostess will distribute the soup for everyone with a cooking spoon. When someone finds a food item which looks like the sun, moon, books, or statues in their bowls, everyone will stop eating and raise their cups to toast the finder’s good luck and happiness. When someone has paste balls stuffed with sheep’s hair, stones, or dairy products in their bowls, people will say that he should be as gentle as the sheep hair, as strong-willed as the stone, and as pure as milk. When someone has paste balls stuffed with salt, pepper, a porcelain piece, or charcoal, people will say that he should not be lazy, unforgiving, nor cruel, and request him to sing a song as punishment. When a young girl has a paste ball stuffed with something resembling a naughty child, people will laugh loudly and advise her to keep her purity. If someone is unlucky enough to have their paste ball stuffed with a thorny fruit called Simare, people will tell him to get along well with others and he has to drink wine and imitate a barking dog as punishment. In the end, everyone will pour their leftovers of the Gutu soup into the broken cooking pot and wish it to carry all bad luck away by saying: "take all the bad luck away and never return. In this way, the special dinner comes to end.”

Also on New Year’s day, there is a ritual of expelling ghosts, a tradition that is performed differently in different places. Generally, a man will light a torch, carry it to every room, and shout "get out, get out." Finally, he throws the torch away on a crossroad nearby. In some locations, it is quite complicated and performed after the special Gutu dinner. One man carrying the broken pot with ghosts in it precedes others who hold torches high and shout, "get out, get out ghost." They march towards a crossroad and the man leaves the broken pot there. Then they march back towards home and sing the praises for the gate:

Gate is a golden gate.
White cloth is cloud.
The stone threshold looks beautiful.
The wooden gate looks bright.
The auspicious gate faces east.
Sunshine and moonlight fall in,
With fortune and happiness.
Fortune and happiness fill the house,
Driving the ghosts away,
Driving the bad luck away.
Clean and clear we come back.
Open the golden gate.

After this, the gate is opened. A bonfire is lit near the doorsill in the sitting room. Everyone then jumps over a fire. Then, someone in the room will splash water over everyone who has just finished jumping. After these special activities, the ritual of expelling ghosts comes to an end.

Ghost Dance

This is a religious ritual popular in the northern part of Aba Prefecture. People make use of the ritual to pray for happiness and peace. On the last day of the year by the Tibetan calendar, monasteries hold a meeting of dharma. Some lamas wear ancient costumes and masks, disguising themselves as ghosts. In groups, they come out to the central square and dance to the accompaniment of drums, conches, and cymbals. While they dance, they cry out in hopes of driving ghosts away.

Visiting Relatives

Visiting relatives is a common tradition for nearly all nationalities around the world. Simple though it may seem, it reflects the different customs of different nationalities. In Tibet, when visiting relatives, the visitor usually carries a basket filled with gifts on his or her back. The baskets are covered with a cloth so no one can see what is inside. In addition, the visitor always takes a thermos flask of buttered tea and a plastic bucket of barley beer. These 2 items are indispensable.

When a guest arrives, the host and hostess are very pleased. Their first words will be "ah, you're welcome here." Then they will begin to chat while drinking the tea and barley beer that the guest brought. After 2 or 3 hours of chatting, the guest will ask the host to accept the gifts in the basket. The host won't take all the gifts, but will leave something like food or eggs for the guest to take back. This is because taking all the gifts would spoil a person's good and modest name. What's more, the host will put something new in the basket in return, something inexpensive such as fresh cabbage, fresh fruits, or clothes for the children. The host will take great care to remember what has been received, so that gifts of similar value can be taken on a return visit at a later time.

During the holidays, guests often stay very late.

Ritual to Mark a Girl's Adulthood

In some parts of Tibet, a girl is considered to have come of age when she reaches 17. Her parents always mark the event with a ritual, on the second day of the New Year according to the Tibetan calendar. Parents prepare beautiful clothes and all kinds of ornaments for the occasion. An expert woman will be invited to do the girl's makeup. In rural areas, small girls typically sport 2 pigtails. They will have 3 pigtails by the age of 13 or 14, 4 at the age of 15, and at 17 years old, she may have several dozens pigtails which symbolize her adulthood. Young men are allowed to court a girl with many pigtails. When the ritual is performed, her relatives and friends will come around to congratulate the girl.

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