Tibet Ethnic Culture

Tibet’s culture is unique in the world. Due to its extreme environment and high altitudes it has formed its own unique customs over thousands of years. It is one of the aspects of Tibet that most visitors will find most intriguing. Tibetan’s hospitality is legendary and many Tibetans find it a great honor to welcome guests into their homes and treat them to a wonderful evening of food, wine, and dancing. Tibet’s distinctive communal cultures such as etiquette, dress, marriage and burial ceremonies are colorful, unique, and unforgettable.

Tibetan traditions have things to do with Tibetan Buddhism and its unique topography. Weisang, for example, is a Tibet local custom executed on occasions like weddings and funerals by burning pine branches, cypresses and other herbal leaves around temples and monasteries to pray for peace, harvest and prosperity. It is common to see Mani stones in different sizes and colors with Buddhist themes on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Circling around Mani stones in a clockwise direction to show their sincerity to the Buddha for hoping their wishes will realize one day. It’s been told that where there are Tibetans, there are prayer flags. And the history can be traced back to the Bon traditions.

Customs in Tibet

1. Daily Life

When visiting Tibetan family, you will feel how important the wooden bowls, Tsampa, yak butter tea, gutu and sweet tea are in Tibetans’ daily life and how great Himalayas, sacred Namtso lake and alpine pasture play a significant role in shaping distinct nomadic customs.

2. Festivals

From the biggest celebration, Tibetan New Year (or Losar) festival to numerous religious and secular festivals like Shoton Featival, Tashilhunpo Thangka Festival, Saga Saga Dawa Festival, Yushu Horse Racing Festival. They will definitely deepen your understanding of the unique Tibetan culture and history and refresh your impression of the real Tibet.

3. Region

Religion is extremely important to the majority of Tibetans, and travellers should endeavour to respect their customs and beliefs. Always walk around Tibetan Buddhist religious sites or monastery in a clockwise direction, and when in a monastery do not wear a hat, smoke or touch frescoes. In addition, refrain from climbing onto statues, mani stones or other sacred objects.

4. Tibetan Funerals

The most common burial in Tibet is the Celestial Burial or Sky Burial. Sky Burial is regarded as the most sacred funeral ceremony in Tibet. It is the show of Tibetans’ respect for nature and an understanding of life. Sky Burial is how commoners have been buried for centuries. A sky burial is not considered suitable for children who are less than 18, pregnant women, or those who have died of infectious disease or accident. There are other burial ways like Stupa burial, a special burial for Tibet monks of high rank; Fire Burial, another unique funeral for prestigious Tibetan monks; Water Burial, common funeral of ordinary people; And Tree burial, an extraordinary funeral for small kids. 

The ritual of sky burial usually begins before dawn. Sky Burial is a very unique and rather macabre way of disposing the dead. It is not really a burial because the corpses are not buried anywhere. Instead they are left on very high, isolated places for vultures to devour. Yes, you read it right, Vultures eat the dead bodies. This method is primarily used by commoners.

5. Greet Etiquette

If a Tibetan encounters a friend or an acquaintance, he will remove his hat and bow while holding his hatin front of his chest. However, if he meets an official, a senior, or a highly respected person, he should lower his hat as much as possible when he bows. The other person should show exactly the same courtesy in return. Presenting a Hada or Khatag(a white woven scarf which symbolizes purity and loyalty) is a traditional practice in Tibet to show respect and hospitality. People present Khatag when they visit parents, worship the Buddha, see somebody off, welcome someone home, and so on.

6. Host or Guest Etiquette

As a host, a Tibetan should always let the guest be first, no matter walking or talking. People must sit cross-legged as it is very rude to let the sole of your shoes or feet point towards other people. And a hostess or one of the family’s children will pour a bowl of yak butter tea for the guest. The guest must wait quietly until the host carries and presents the bowl of tea with both hands and the guest takes the tea from the host in the same manner. Then, the guest can enjoy the tea and conversation. As a polite guest, one does not empty his bowl as a never empty bowl signifies lasting abundance. The host will add more tea to your bowl to ensure that it is never empty.

7. Rite of Passage for Tibetan Girls

In some areas of Tibet, when a daughter reaches the age of 16, a coming of age ceremony/party is held on the second day of the Tibetan New Year. On this day, parents prepare beautiful clothes and various ornaments for their newly grown-up girl. After the rite of passage, there are some noticeable changes about the young woman. Her hairstyle, clothing, ornaments, and name will be changed to show her newly acquired womanhood. Braiding their hair into more than ten braids, girls are particularly subject to customs relating to headgear which is called “heavenly head” (“wearing the head of the sky”). It is an initiation rite practiced in all Tibetan-inhabited areas, but its meaning varies from place to place. It is as grand as a marriage ceremony and its purpose is to show that the girl is grown up and is available for marriage.

8. Wedding

After the Tibetan girl’s rite of passage, she is eligible for marriage. The day before the wedding, the engaged are not allowed to see each other at all. During the day, monks pray for their marriage to dispel any bad luck. After the wedding, all the relatives, friends, old classmates and colleagues gather at the new couple’s home and celebrate until that late night. Tibetan wedding ceremony is followed by a joyful wedding feast, which is liberally interrupted by many presentations of ceremonial scarves, blessings, and gifts — so many that sometimes the groom and bride are nearly buried beneath the large number of scarves tied around their necks!

9. Tibet Song and Dance

Tibetan folk songs and dances are an indispensable part of every Tibetans’ life, especially during festivals or important events. Being named as the “Ocean of Songs and Dance“, Tibet has several unique forms of singing and dancing like Guoxie (circle dance), Duixie (tap dance) and Zhuoxie (drum dance). Their melodious love songs, with bursts of hearty laughter, keep reverberating over the grassland. Tibet also has the Ghost Dance, Mask Dance and Guozhuang Dance, each of which represents Tibetan local customs. 

10. Sport

As a traditional sport in Tibet, yak racing is a spectator sport held at many traditional festivals in Tibet, such as the annual Shoton Festival which usually falls in August every year. Yak race can be one of the most entertaining parts of a Tibetan horse festival, in gatherings which integrate popular dances and songs with traditional physical games.

The best way to find more about diverse Tibetan customs, funerals, etiquettes and sports, and be a Tibetan cultural expert is visiting Tibet in person. Come and start your trip with MysteriousTibet.com.

Taboos in Tibet

With unique culture and religion, Tibetans have different ways of behavior in many aspects. There is an old Chinese saying: “Sing the local songs when you get to a local place.” So please keep in mind the following tips:

1. Tibetan people do not eat horse, dog and donkey meat and also do not eat fish in some areas, so please respect their diet habits.

2. Asking for permission before taking pictures of Tibetan people is a necessary procedure when in Tibet.

3. you should accept the gift with both hands. While presenting the gift you should bend your body forward and hold the gift higher than your head with both hands. While offering tea, wine or cigarette, you should offer them by both hands without your fingers touching the inside bowl.

4. Presenting Hada(or Khatag) is traditional practice of respect and hospitality in Tibet, and will be appreciated by your host. If you are presenting a Hada to a statue or a high lama, raise the Hada above your shoulder and bow. When you receive a Hada, it is proper to accept with both your hands.

5. Remember not to step on threshold when entering the tent or house.

6. Do not touch, walk over or sit on any religious texts, objects or prayer flags in monasteries. Do not smoke in monasteries. Do not enter the temples or monasteries without permission.

7. Don’t wear shorts or short skirts in a monastery. Take your hat off when you go into a monastery. Keep quiet during religious ceremonies in the monastery. When meeting a lama, it is not appropriate to hug him or shake hands with him. The proper way is to hold the two hands upright, palms together in front of the chest, and lower the head. Don’t talk with them on sensitive topics, such as marriage and the eating of meat.

8. Eagles are the sacred birds in the eyes of the Tibetan people. You should not drive them away or injure them. On the outskirts, you could not drive or disturb the sheep or cows with red, green or yellow cloth strips on.

9. Tibetan people stretch out their tongue to say hello to you. Also it is a courtesy to put their hands palm in front of breast. It is not polite to clap your palms and spit behind the Tibetan people.