Tibet developed a distinct culture due to its geographic and climatic conditions. While influenced by neighboring cultures from China, India, and Nepal, the Himalayan region’s remoteness and inaccessibility have preserved distinct local influences, and stimulated the development of its distinct culture. Tibetan people are the main ethnic group living on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Under the profound influence of ancient Bon Religion and Tibetan Buddhism, unique folk customs and aesthetic taste took shape. Tourists can see the panorama of Tibetan culture through Tibetan history, arts, medicine, festivals, handicrafts, architecture, foods and drinks, etc.
Tibetan civilization began near the Yarlung Zanbo River in present-day Tibet. A Tibetan kingdom was created in the sixth century AD. In the seventh century, the ruler Songtsen Gampo made Lhasa the capital of Tibet. While he ruled, the Tibetan laws, calendar, alphabet, and system of weights and measures were created. Princess Wenchen, his Chinese bride, came to Tibet in 641. She had a great effect on Tibetan culture.
Warfare and political strife weakened the Tibetan dynasty and it collapsed in 877. Tibet was conquered by the Mongoliansin the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Later it came under Chinese control. The Qing Dynasty(1644–1911) recognized Tibet’s spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. A local government was set up in Tibet, with its own minister from the emperor. This system continued under the Republic of China until 1949, when the communist revolution created the People’s Republic of China. The new government created the Tibetan Autonomous Region, covering all of Tibet. The political power of the lamas was taken away and given to Tibetan leaders nominated by the central government in Beijing.
Over the centuries, Tibetan culture was influenced by both internal and external factors. Among them, the influence of the neighboring countries also played an important role in the development of Tibetan culture, including Nepal, India and Bhutan, China and Mongol. The introduction of the Buddhism from its origin country India had exerted a deep influence over the whole plateau. Since then Buddhism became indispensable part of the Tibetan culture. Gradually cultural variations came to exist due to the regional geographical and environmental distinction in different parts of the Tibet, generally the culture variation in Tibet can be described by Utsang(central and western Tibet), Kham (far-eastern part) and Amdo (northern part). Its geographical remoteness and inaccessibility once had isolated the region from the rest of the world and preserved its rich and indigenous culture without any influence from the outside world in the names of modernization.
After 1980s, when Tibet was widely opened for outsiders, it brought a tremendous boost in its economic development and phase of modernization; However, the Buddhism philosophy and practice has deeply rooted in their day to day life of all Tibetans, intensively celebrate religious festivals and making pilgrimages to distant monasteries, holy mountains and lakes are becoming indispensable part of their life.
The official language of China is mandarin Chinese, though most Tibetans speak Tibetan as a first language. Most Chinese immigrants(and taxi driver) don’t speak Tibetan or English. English is not widely spoken. The Tibetan language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. It has three dialects. Tibetan is written from left to right. Tibetan writing was developed in the seventh century. In urban Tibet, many Tibetans also speak Chinese.
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. Most widely spoken is the Lhasa dialect, also called Standard Tibetan, which is spoken in Central Tibet and also in Exile by most Tibetans. In Kham the Khams Tibetan dialect is spoken and in Amdo the Amdo Tibetan dialect. The Tibetan dialects are subject to the Tibetic languages which are part of the Tibeto-Burman languages. Modern Tibetan derives from Classical Tibetan, which is the written norm, and from Old Tibetan. The official language of Bhutan, Dzongkha, is also closely related to Tibetan.
Tibetan art is deeply religious in nature, a form of religious art. Tibetan arts originated from the rock paintings in ancient time and its contents ranged from animal images of deer, ox, sheep, horse, etc to hunting scenes. Tibetan arts have developed very well during the period of Tubo Kingdom. Especially after introducing Buddhism to Tibet, religious paintings made a further progress. The heritage of traditional Tibetan crafts and the fusion of India, Nepal and Han People’s art essence make Tibetan arts outstand in the world. Tourists can get a panorama view of Tibet arts through stone and rock carvings, murals, frescos, sand mandala and precious Thangkas.
Thangkas, a syncrestistic art of Chinese hanging scrolls with Nepalese and Kashmiri painting, first survive from the eleventh century. Rectangular and intricately painted on cotton or linen, they are usually traditional compositions depicting deities, famous monks, and other religious, astrological, and theological subjects, and sometimes mandalas. To ensure that the image will not fade, the painting is framed in colorful silk brocades, and stored rolled up. The word thangka means “something to roll” and refers to the fact that thangkas can easily be rolled up for transportation.
Besides thangkas, Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings can be found on temple walls as frescos and furniture and many other items have ornamental painting.
Murals and Frescos
Tibetan murals and frescos are the actual pictures of Tibetan history, from which you can find the trace of Tibetan politics, economy, culture, customs and medicine. And it also has abundant subjects, including Buddhist teachings, fairy tales, local lives, natural scenery, etc. The best place to appreciate Tibetan murals are Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and Ruins of Guge Kingdom.
It records the past days of Tibetan area and people’s life. The contents in stone and rock carvings have covered Tibetan daily necessities, fairy gods, Bon religion, folk legend, historical figures and Tibetan Buddhism, etc. Three typical representatives of Tibetan rock carvings are really worth your visit, namely, Ritu Rock Carving in Ngari, Yaowangshan Rock Carving in Lhasa and Zaxi Cave Rock Carving in Nagqu.
While traveling in Tibet, you are highly recommended to buy some Tibetan souvenirs for your family and friends. As the most famous bazaar in Lhasa, Barkhor street is also a distributing center for Tibetan handicrafts and accessories. Here you can see all kinds of crafts and art works in Tibet, like Tibetan incense, knife, pottery wares, ornaments, jewelry, carpets and quilts, etc.
Tibetan architecture with its unique content and formation has met material and spiritual needs of local people, which can be classified into three groups, namely, temples, palaces, and housing.
There used to be thousands of monasteries in Tibet. Every family was expected to send at least one boy to a monastery. Tibetan monastery architectures are the places where local people hold religious activities and play an important role in their daily life. Tibetan monasteries are works of architectural, pictorial, decorative and landscape art. The most famous Tibetan monasteries include but not limited to: Jokhang Monastery, Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery in Lhasa, Tashihunpo Monastery in Shigatse and Palcho Choke Monastery in Gyantse, etc. Most of the monasteries were built against the mountains, therefore all buildings rise and lower with the terrain of the hills but in good order, forming a magnificent building complex.
Tibetan Palace buildings are the places where Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama handle affairs and divided into winter palace and summer palace. Those palaces and Buddha hall in temples belong to the highest level and have high similarity in eaves’ decoration. However, the walls of palaces are painted in yellow and white rather than red. Built in the times of King Songzan Gambo, Potala Palace in Lhasa has long been regarded as a symbol of Tibetan architectural art and cultural prosperity.
1. Tent: Tents are indispensable to Tibetan herdsmen’s families. Tent material is usually cow hair, woven and stitched after spinning.
2. Flat-topped Blockhouse(平顶稠房): In rural areas, cities and towns, Flat-topped Blockhouse is commonly seen. The most authentic blockhouses are built with stones and some with civil engineering structures, characterized by warm in winter and cool in summer. Flat-topped Blockhouses are usually multi-storey buildings, the ground floor is generally used for livestock enclosure, the second floor for the bedroom and storage room, etc., the third floor can be used as a hall, of course, there are also one-storey houses.
Tibetans have their own unique food structure and eating habits, including Yak butter, tea, Tsampa, beef and mutton known as “four treasures” of Tibetan diet, besides, there are highland barley wine and various kinds of dairy products.
1. Tibetan Meal
Tibetan food is one of the schools of Chinese food series, with a long history and rich variety. Tibetan food is divided into three categories: staple food, dishes and soup. Tibetan food taste is light, mild, many dishes, in addition to salt and garlic, generally do not put spicy spices. In terms of eating meat, Tibetan taboo is more. Generally only eat beef and mutton, do not eat horses, donkeys, mules, especially do not eat dog. Fish, shrimp, snake, eel and other aquatic seafood food, in addition to some urban residents, people in agricultural and pastoral areas are generally not used to eat. With the improvement of social economy and cultural life, Tibetan food has been continuously improved and enriched in cooking techniques and eating forms.
2. Wine Culture
Tibet’s highland barley wine is directly brewed with highland barley, due to low degree, Tibetan people regardless of men and women, young and old like to drink, is a festival necessary. Tibetan drinking etiquette and customs are relatively rich, every time when Tibetans brew new wine, they must worship God first, and then toast to the elder in the family, finally the family can drink to heart’s content.
3. Tea Culture
Yak butter tea is an indispensable drink for Tibetans in Tibet. And making Yak butter tea is inseparable from butter, salt and tea. Yak butter is the cream extracted from cow’s milk and goat’s milk, and the best is the golden yellow yak butter extracted from summer yak’s milk. When Tibetans drink tea, they pay attention to the order of the elder and the young, the host and guest. Guests can not drink tea too quickly, generally, drinking three bowls of tea is most auspicious.