Tibetan People

Written by Matteo Updated Jun. 18, 2021

The Tibetan people are one of China's 56 ethnic groups. They are the native inhabitants of the Tibetan Plateau - the world's highest plateau. The plateau has harsh conditions, with a high altitude of around 4,000 meters above sea level, and dry and cold weather. 

Tibetans live a simple lifestyle in remote areas, engaging in farming in fertile valleys or nomadic herding on high plateaus. Buddhism plays a significant role in their lives. 

Where Do Tibetan People Live?

Tibetans are mainly distributed in western China including the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, western parts of Sichuan Province, Yunnan's Diqing area, and Gansu's Gannan region.

Lhasa is considered a sacred place for Tibetan people. There are approximately 7 million Tibetans in China (as of 2016).

What are the Origins of the Tibetan People?

The origin of Tibetans can be traced back to an agricultural tribe located in the central part of the Yarlung Tsangpo River valley.

About 4,000 years ago, the ancestors of Tibetans lived in this region. They were Initially a hunter-gatherer group, but later they gradually learned agricultural and livestock-rearing skills, upon which they relied to survive.

The Religious Beliefs of the Tibetan People

Most Tibetan people believe in Tibetan Buddism, some believe in the old bon, and others, particularly among the nomadic tribes, maintain traditional nature-based beliefs.

The Bon religion believes people can turn into ghosts or spirits after death and return as humans later. Ghosts and spirits can influence the living's lives, but only gods can dispel the harm caused by them. So, sacrificial rituals, blessings, and exorcisms are important in Bon.

Tibetan people in front of Jokhang Monastery

Tibetans have many folk beliefs, including deities, mountain gods, dragon gods, sky dwellers, and household gods. There are also various types of animal worship in Tibetan areas, such as yaks, tigers, sheep, and male lions. Tibetan people use lions to symbolize the strength, heroism, and prosperity of their tribes. 

Mount Kailash

Tibetans rely on Buddha, Buddhist teachings, and monks for their blessings and harmony in life.

Mount Kailash is believed to be the world's center, surrounded by holy places like mountains, lakes, and temples. Every year, many Tibetan pilgrims come to Mount Kailash for a sacred circumambulation.

That’s the reason why you can see many pilgrims prostrating in front of Jokhang Monastery and circumambulating it day and night.

Traditional Tibetan Family

Tibetans usually live in large families, with grandparents, parents, and children all living together, particularly in rural areas. Families are created mainly based on the father's side of the family and through weddings. 

Tibetan marriage systems can be complex. One spouse is the norm, but in remote areas, some people still have multiple husbands or wives.

Eating and Drinking of the Tibetan People

A tibetan women making food

The traditional foods for Tibetan people are mainly highland barley, beef and lamb, and dairy products.

People grow the highland barley on the Tibetan plateau and use it to make a food called Tsampa. Tsampa is the main staple food of Tibetan people.  

highland barley harvesting

Beef and mutton are important foods in daily life, particularly for herders in rural areas. Meat is often boiled in water, cut into portions, and consumed hot or cold.

Tibetan people love air-dried beef and mutton, which are now regional specialties. There is a tradition of making air-dried meat in Tibet.   During the butchering season, families prepare air-dried meat by slicing it into long strips and storing it in a circular kiln made of stones or cow dung.

Dairy products play a major role in the daily diet of Tibetan people. These mainly include fresh milk, yogurt, cheese, and clarified butter. Tibetan people drink fresh milk every day.  They prefer yak milk and don't drink sheep milk, especially goat milk, which is mostly used to extract butter.

Better tea is the major drink in Tibet, which is made from a mixture of yak butter, milk, and tea. There are many local tea houses in Lhasa where you can see locals enjoy butter tea with their friends. 

Traditional Tibetan Clothing

Tibetan women clothing

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, people usually expose their right shoulder or both arms by tying a pair of sleeves around their waist. Both men and women sport pigtails, but men always coil up their pigtails over their heads; 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.

In addition to clothing, Tibetans are fond of accessories. Both men and women enjoy wearing necklaces, rings, and various other adornments.

Tibetan Houses and Architecture

In the valley area of south Tibet, people live in castle-like houses. In the pastoral area in north Tibet, they mainly live in tents most of the time. On the other hand, those in the forest area along the Yarlung Tsangbo River live in distinctive wooden buildings. Lastly, people in the Ali plateau region live in cave dwellings.

In agricultural and pastoral areas, people typically live in yak hair tents. These tents are around 20 square meters in size and 1.7 meters high. Yak hair tents are durable, thick, and wearable, able to withstand strong winds and snowstorms. They are also convenient to dismantle, set up, and move, making them suitable for nomadic life.

Tibet yak hair tent

In the rural areas of southern Tibet, representative flat roof houses can be seen everywhere. 

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 on the east of the Yarlung Tsangpo River, houses usually have irregular stone walls. Generally, they are 2 stories high with a wooden ladder leading to the upper story. The inhabitants usually live upstairs and keep their livestock downstairs.

Traditional Customs and Practices of the Tibetan People

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.


Tibetan people Prostrating

In Tibet, prostrations are performed to show deep religious faith and devotion.

On their way to Lhasa, travelers may see Buddhists prostrating, which means lying face down in adoration and devotion. They start their journey at home and prostrate all the way to Lhasa.

They wear hand pads, kneepads, and protective leather garments. With dusty faces and hardships, they slowly move forward, prostrating every three steps for months or even years, towards the holy city of Lhasa. Three or four friends might travel together, sharing the same belief and direction.

A simpler way is to walk around a monastery clockwise and prostrate. Starting at the front gate, Buddhists prostrate every three steps while chanting the six-character truth and Buddhist scriptures.

Tashilhunpo Monastery

Making Model Pagoda

Making model pagodas is a religious custom in Tibet. The model pagoda is usually placed around a real pagoda or a statue, as a sacrifice to the Buddha. Inside the model, there is usually a small piece of paper written with spell and a small amount of highland barley. 

In the Aba district in Western Sichuan, 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. Whenever Tibetan people see a Buddim pagoda, 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, a simple form of Tibetan Buddhism. Believers often chant Buddhist scriptures. For those who can't read, they can use prayer wheels with scriptures inside. Turning the prayer wheel equals chanting, and it's a daily task for Tibetans. Many have portable prayer wheels at home, which come in various sizes and qualities. They all contain scriptures. Yellow sect followers turn the wheel clockwise, while Black sect followers turn it counterclockwise.

Tietan woman

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