Tibetan Culture & Customs

Tibetan culture & customs reflect the history, politics, economy, psychology and culture of the Tibetan people. They cover a wide range and manifest in a diverse form, from food, clothing, entertainment, particular forms of funeral service and Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Culture & Customs


Tibetan cuisine


In Tibetan culture, cuisine includes the culinary traditions and practices of Tibet and its peoples. It reflects the Tibetan landscape of mountains and plateaus and includes influences from neighbours (including other countries such as India and Nepal). The cuisine is known for its use of noodles, goat, yak, mutton, dumplings, yoghurt, cheese (often from yak or goat milk), butter (also from animals adapted to the Tibetan climate) and soups. The most important and commonest staple is what is called Tsampa, which is flour milled from roasted barley in the Tibetan culture.


Different Food Items


It is eaten mostly mixed with a special tea called ‘butter tea’, and is most wholesome for one’s health, as it contains butter, protein, milk, calcium etc. The cuisine is traditionally served in small soup bowls and on plates. Use of chopstick, an influence of Chinese cuisine, is very common in Tibetan culture. Meat dishes such as yak, goat, or mutton are cooked into a spicy stew with potatoes.


Mustard seed is cultivated in Tibet and is therefore featured strongly in its cuisine. In larger Tibetan towns and cities many restaurants nowadays serve Sichuan-style Chinese food. Western imports and fusion dishes, such as fried yak and chips, are also popular. Nevertheless, many small restaurants serve traditional Tibetan dishes which persist in both key population centers and the villages.


Traditional Clothing in Tibetan Culture


The traditional Tibetan culture, Tibetan clothing has a strong connection with the people and the climate of the Tibetan plateau.  They tend to be conservative in their dress, and though some have taken to wearing western clothes, traditional styles still abound, especially in rural and nomadic villages. Each area of Tibet has its own distinct style of clothing. The clothes are influenced by the religion and environment. While women wear dark-coloured wrap dresses over a blouse, and a colourfully striped, woven wool apron, called Pangden which usually is a sign that she is married.


Men and women both wear long sleeves even in hot summer months. Except for the lamas and certain lay persons who shave their heads, the Tibetans wear their hair either long or in a braid wound around their heads and embellished with a complicated pattern of the lesser braid, which makes the whole thing look like some sort of crown.


Tibetan Traditional hat


They often wear a huge conical felt hat, whose shape varies according to the district they come from; sometimes its peak supports a kind of mortarboard from which dangles a thick woollen fringe. In order to prevent their hats being blown away, they attach them to their heads with a long thread. In their left ear, they wear a heavy silver ring decorated with a huge ornament of either coral or turquoise. The costume is not elaborate, although it can get very elaborate on special occasions such as the new year and other celebration events.


It normally consists only of a Chuba, along capacious robe with wide, elongated sleeves which hang almost to the ground. This is caught up at the waist by a woolen girdle so that its skirts reach only to the knees and its upper folds form an enormous circular pocket around its wearer’s chest. The nomads, on the other hand, generally wear a sheepskin Chuba, hand-sewn and crudely tanned in butter, with the fleece on the inside.


Tibetan Architecture


Tibetan architecture contains Chinese and Indian influences but has many unique features brought about by its adaptation to the cold, generally arid, high-altitude climate of the Tibetan plateau. Buildings are generally made from locally available construction materials and are often embellished with symbols of Tibetan Buddhism. For example, private homes often have Buddhist prayer flags flying from the rooftop in the Tobetan culture. Religious structures fall into two main types: temples, which are used for religious ceremonies and worship; and stupas (Chortens), which are reliquaries and symbols. Temples (Gompas) come in a great variety of styles, generally reflecting local architectural traditions.


Secular structures in Tibet include private homes, multi-family dwellings, and shops. Some herding families live in tents for part of the year, although people who live in tents year-round are becoming rare due to government programs to encourage (or require) herdsmen to move into permanent housing. Typically, Tibetan structures are constructed with locally available materials such as stone, clay, and wood.


Materials and Style


Since 1980, concrete has also come into use but so far is not widespread in rural villages. Most houses are built on elevated land facing south. Flat roofs are used in most parts of central and western Tibetan plateau, where rainfall is slight; however, in the eastern Tibetan plateau, where summer rains are heavier, sloping roofs, covered either in slate, shingles, or (increasingly) ceramic tiles, are popular.


In prosperous agricultural areas, private homes may have up to three storeys. In herding areas where houses may be used only part of the year, they usually have only one storey. Walls that are constructed of stone or rammed earth may be up to a meter thick at the base. In large structures such as temples and manor homes, walls slope inward to create an illusion of greater height. Windows are usually small because the walls are so heavy that large openings would make the structure weak and unstable. In the past, windows featured paper-covered wooden latticework, but nowadays almost universally use glass.


Tibetan Marriage Custom


In Tibetan culture, Marriage is an important part of all the lay people everywhere and likewise, Tibetans also consider it as a very auspicious and important event. Marriage traditions have changed in many ways. In the old days, most of the marriages were arranged by parents and only a few were a love marriage. Polygamy – something that still exists in Tibet – was also common in many areas of Tibet.


In the past, many families chose this form of marriage so that the household could remain big and strong as the family properties wouldn’t have to be divided in the Tibetan culture. Through astrological calculation and divination, parents check if the couple has the right karma to live together and people are very careful to avoid marriage between relatives. With arranged marriage parents believe that the couple can develop their love even though they didn’t know each other before and the rate of divorce was quite low as it was considered shameful and sinful.


Tibetan Dances


Singing and dancing are an integral part of every Tibetan’s life. Tibetan people sing and dance for nearly every event: weddings, social gatherings, and just for fun. There are many different styles of dance; each area of Tibet has its own distinct style. Gorshey dance, in Tibetan Culture, is a group dance popular in rural Tibet. This dance is usually performed on the open ground and can go on for long. It consists of men and women dancing together in a circle.


This particular form of dance has two parts: singing, and dancing. It is an agile and vigorous dance. Men and women stand in two separate circles and sing in a rotation while swaying and stamping their feet. The tempo, in the beginning, is slow and as the song progresses the tempo speeds up. They performers conclude their singing by shouting “Ya!” Shey (dance), in Tibetan Culture, is accompanied by a stringed instrument.


Dances Style


At festivals and outings, men and women dance the shey face to face in two lines. They are usually directed by one person at the head of their formation who plays a stringed instrument. The participants sing to each other to express their feelings. This dance is graceful and natural characterised by slow steps. Cham (sorcerer’s) dance, in Tibetan Culture, is a religious dance. It came to Tibet along with the introduction of Buddhism. It is used to subdue evil spirits in monasteries.


Originally, the Cham dance was a mime dance where participants wore ceremonial masks.  At the end of the dance, the performers take an effigy of Dremo (the leading demon), made of butter and Tsampa into the wilderness to burn, which will drive away evil and bring good fortune in the coming year.


Tibetan Sky Burial


Tibetans follow six ways of funeral services, including underground burial, the sky-burial, water burial, cremation, entombment burial and mixed burial in Tibetan Culture. The sky-burial or vulture disposal is a very common practice when people die in most of the Tibetan areas. It has more than nine hundred years of history. Before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet the corpse of important people and the common people were just put in tombs or buried. The reason why Tibetan chose vulture-disposal is that they were inspired by a story about one of Buddha’s previous life when he gave away his own flesh to a hungry tiger.


Teaching of the Tobetan Sky Burial


This teaches people about the importance of generosity. When people decide to feed their corpse to vultures, it represents their last act of generosity. History says that at the beginning of the 12th century, an Indian master called Padamba Sangye started the Shichey or the pacification school in Tibet and his spiritual wife and student, Machik Labdorn practised and taught the teaching “Changing Corpse into Food.


This practice is also called and it means cutting attachment. This also strongly influenced Tibetan people’s mind to give away their dead body to hungry vultures. They are special people who take the corpse to the vulture disposal ground and cut them into pieces so that the vultures can eat them conveniently. These people are called Tobden and they get well paid for the service.


Tibetan Language


Language is considered the very important aspect of Tibetan culture & custom. Tibetan language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages and is spoken by around six million people, mainly in Tibet but also within Tibetan communities in Nepal, India, Bhutan and Pakistan. Historically Tibet was divided into three cultural provinces called U-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo. Each one of these three provinces has developed its own distinct dialect of Tibetan. The most widely spoken language is the Lhasa dialect, also called standard Tibetan, which is spoken in central Tibet.


Tibetan Religion


Religion is extremely important to the Tibetans and has a strong influence over all aspects of their lives and Tibetan culture & customs. Before the arrival of Buddhism, the main religion among Tibetans was an indigenous shamanic and animistic religion, Bon, which now comprises a sizeable, minority and which would later influence the formation of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhist ritual has a lot of influences from Bon religion such as Tibetan Prayer Flag in Tibetan culture.


However, nowadays the major religion is Tibetan Buddhism. Its outspread in the 8th century AD is a distinctive form of Mahayana and Vajrayana, which was introduced into Tibet from the Sanskrit Buddhist tradition of northern India. Tibetan Buddhism is practiced not only in Tibet but also in Mongolia, parts of northern India, the Buryat Republic, the Tuva Republic, and in the Republic of Kalmykia and some parts of China.


Tibetan Buddhism


Four Main Sects of Tibetan Buddhism

Gelug (pa)

The way of Virtue, also known casually as Yellow Hat, whose spiritual head is the Ganden Tripa and whose temporal head is the Dalai Lama. The successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to mid-20th centuries. This order was founded between the periods of 14th and 15th centuries by Je Tsongkhapa, based on the foundations of the Kadampa tradition. Je Tsongkhapa was renowned for both his scholasticism and his virtue. The Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelugpa school and is regarded as the embodiment of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

Kagyu (pa)

Oral Lineage. This lineage contains one major sub-sect and one minor subsect. The first, the Dagpo Kagyu, encompasses those Kagyu schools that trace back to Gampopa. In turn, the Dagpo Kagyu consists of four major sub-sects: the Karma Kagyu, headed by a Karmapa, the Tsalpa Kagyu, the Barom Kagyu, and Pagtru Kagyu. The once-obscure Shangpa Kagyu, which was famously represented by the 20th-century teacher Kalu Rinpoche, traces its history back to the Indian master Niguma, sister of Kagyu lineage holder Naropa. This is an oral tradition which is very much concerned with the experiential dimension of meditation. Its most famous exponent was Milarepa, an 11th-century mystic.

Nyingma (pa)

The Ancient Ones. This is the oldest, the original order founded by Padmasambhava. The Nyingma particularly believes in hidden terma treasures and place an emphasis on Dzogchen. They also incorporate local religious practices and local deities and elements of shamanism, some of which it shares with Bon religion. The Nyingma tradition actually comprises several distinct lineages that all trace their origins to the Indian master Padmasambhava. Traditionally, Nyingmapa practice was advanced orally among a loose network of lay practitioners. Monasteries with celibate monks and nuns, along with the practice of reincarnated spiritual leaders are later adaptations

Sakya (pa)

Grey Earth, headed by the Sakya Trizin, founded by Khon Konchog Gyalpo, a disciple of the great translator Drokmi Lotsawa. Sakya tradition developed during the second period of translation of Buddhist scripture from Sanskrit into Tibetan in the late 11th century. Sakya Pandita 1182–1251 CE was the great grandson of Khon Konchog Gyalpo. This school emphasizes scholarship. The leaders of Sakya are and have always been from a single aristocratic clan, the Khon. It’s said that the first Khon was born after his father defeated a vampire and married the vampire’s wife. Sakya tradition strengthened and flourished and produced many great and distinguished practitioners, saints, and scholars.


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