Tibetan Culture & Arts

Culture and Arts

The immense plateau of Tibet is sparsely populated, and they are mainly categorized as Drogpas(Nomads) and Shingpas(Farmers). Due to its geographical and natural condition, central, eastern, southern, and western Tibet is mainly populated with Shingpas(farmers). At the same time, far east and west, northern Tibet has been inhabited by Drogpas (Nomads) since its early days. Still, it is common that both nomads and farmers can be found in the same region, where nomads live in the mountainous grassy region and farmers live bottom of the valley and bank of the rivers.    

Over the centuries, we developed Tibetan culture under both internal and external factors. The cultural influence of the neighboring countries also played an important role in the development of Tibetan culture, including Nepal, India, and Bhutan in the south and west, China and Mongol in the north and east. Later in the 7th and 8th centuries, the introduction of Buddhism from its origin country India had exerted a deep influence over the whole plateau. Buddhism became an indispensable part of the Tibetan culture. Gradually cultural variations came to exist due to the regional geographical and environmental distinction in different parts of Tibet. Generally, the cultural variation in Tibet can be described by Utsang(central and western Tibet), Kham (far-eastern part), and Amdo (northern part), since then its geographical remoteness and inaccessibility 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 the 1980s, when Tibet was widely opened for outsiders, it brought a tremendous boost in its economic development and phase of modernization; naturally, the cultural degradation leads to a long gap between the older people and youngsters within the country, in the way of their speaking, attitude, clothing, belief, manner and so on. Still, the Buddhism philosophy and practice have 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 an indispensable part of their life, so the H.H, the Dalai Lama, describe Tibetan culture as Buddhist culture.

Tibetan Language and writing

The Tibetan language is classified as one of the 23 Tibeto-Burman languages spoken within the border of present-day China in the Himalayan region. Still, there are clear variations in dialect from Ladakh in the far-west to the Kham Gyarong, Gyalthang, and Golok dialect of eastern Tibet, especially the distinctive differences in pronunciation and vocabulary always been mistaken for distinct languages. Generally, the dialects among Tibetan comprises U-key spoke in central and western Tibet. Kham-key spoke in the far-eastern Tibet under the Sichuan province in the present day. Amdo-key spoke in northern Tibet that is under the Qinghai prefecture of Gansu province. Still, there is a common Tibetan writing among all Tibetan irrespective of regions and location; Tibetan writing dates back to the 7th century, during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo, he sent his minister Thonmi Sambhota to India to study the art of writing and upon his return, he invented the Tibetan script by researching several years at the Phapongang monastery, the form of the letters is based on an Indic alphabet of that period, he devises a new syllabary of 30 consonants and 4 vowels to suit his own entirely different Tibetan language. Thon-mi Sambhota wrote eight treatises on Tibetan grammar, two of which survive. Since then, we undertook Tibetan writing some improvements in different periods.

Tibetan houses

Tibetan houses are widely different from region to regions, in the central Tibet it is built by the combination of stone, earth and wood, wherein the eastern part use mostly wood and fragile wall in the outermost, some part in the western and far-eastern(Khampa) use adobe and wood, only in eastern Tibet the houses have peak roof to accommodate the long monsoon in the region, other regions have a flat roof with Lungta (wind horse prayer flags) on each corner to disperse the prayers in the wind, all the doors and windows are beautifully decorated with paintings and colorful clothes called Shambu. Each family has a special room as a temple, and it is fully decorated with ritual items, images, and thangka. In the villages, there is a small compound around the house as an animal shelter, and the southern walls of the houses are largely covered by circular cow-dung for drying.


 Yak is the most symbolic animal of the Tibet plateau, which exists nowhere else in the world. Yak is resistant to the extreme cold of -30 or -40°. The nights in winter do not frighten the yak, even in high winds. It provides everything like meat, milk of which one makes butter and oil for lamps. Long hair is useful for making ropes, clothing, blankets, and tents, and dung is used as fuel to boil tea as it does not give enough calories to heat either a house or a tent. In the early days, traders in Tibet mainly depended on Yak as the only means of transportation, and farmers use yak for plowing fields.

Tibetan food

Tibetan farmers mostly grow barley, wheat, and potatoes, which require only three months to produce, from barley they make Tsamp and flour from wheat, which then stores for the use of whole year around, Tsampa is the main staple food in Tibet, it is made from roasted barley by water mills, the dry and cool climate allows near-eternal preservation. The roasted barley, mixed with the tea and butter, will be used as a basis for the nourishment, which is the ” tsampa. ” Apart from that, there are complete traditional cuisines that are mostly non-vegetarian as only a few vegetables grow in the harsh climate in the early days. These cuisines were consumed previously by rich families. Today these products are used in tourist restaurants. Where the culture of greenhouses is intensively using in Tibet, and different vegetable cuisines are available. However, in the lowest valleys of the south and south-east, one will find trees and vegetables because of its tropical climate. Tibetan never eat seafood like fish and wild animals, though there are abounding wild animals and fishes are can be found almost in every river in Tibet. As per the Buddhist philosophy, killing is sin, and the accumulation of sin will lead to bad karma in the coming life, so Tibetans eat only domestic animals that they feed. Also, they are so many vegetarians in Tibet, especially lamas and monks in the monasteries.

Sky burials

The Tibetan custom of sky burial in which corpses are dismembered and fed to vultures has attracted mixed feelings of revulsion, fear, and awe among outside visitors. Yet, the custom must be the only means of disposing of the dead in Tibet, but it is the most popular throughout Tibet.

Tibetan is strongly practicing Buddhism and believing in death and rebirth from their own Buddhist teachings. Following the moment of death, the consciousness or spirit will leave the deceased body, and the body is thought to return to one of the elements- earth, air, fire, water, or wood. Though there are also other burial practices in Tibet, it is only subjected to limited conditions. Cremation is mostly used for high lamas and the ashes placed in a stupa as funeral tombs. Earth burial is also rare, and those who are dead by poison or communicable diseases will be buried. Water burial-where the deceased body is fed to fishes, it is mostly reserved for small children.

After several days of ritual officiation, monks will help the consciousness transfer from the deceased body and guide it to the next life. Then the corpse brings to the sky burial site. There are several holy sky burial sites around the Tibetan plateau, including Sera Shar and Dregong Thill in central Tibet; and Darling monastery in Golok. Corpses may be carried long distances from dismemberment at one of the preferred sites. There specialized monks or laypeople at the burial site works at the sky burial site, the corpses cut into shreds and feed to vultures, bones also crushed and mixed with Tsampa and feed at the end. The vultures mostly stay nestling near the sky burial site and are summoned by an offering of incense. They are revered as birds of purity, subsisting only on corpses.

Tibetans are not the only people to dispatch the dead in this way. The Parsees in India follow a similar custom. However, the ancient Parsee religious custom may soon disappear because the vultures that eat the bodies are headed for extinction in India. Populations of both the long-billed and white-backed vulture have crashed since 1996 due to a virus of some kind.

Song and dances

Tibet is also known as the “Ocean of songs and dances,” dancing and singing are extensively spread throughout Tibet since centuries ago. Songs and dances are widely categorized as wedding songs, love songs, archery songs, circular dancing songs, folk songs, drinking songs, labor songs as so on, they are deeply connected with their daily life, especially during the festivals people spend whole days of dancing and singing with their traditional dresses.

Tibetan opera was date back to its origin in the 15th century, it was founded by the first Tibetan engineer Thangthong Gyalpo, who built 108 chain bridges within Tibet, and he started the Tibetan opera with seven brothers to raise funds and materials to build the bridges since then it became one of the most popular public show that mostly plays during the festivals. On the vast plateau of Tibet, nomad shepherds are lonely, catering to the herds of their animals in the alpine grassland. Still, their songs accompany them, and they are express all their feelings through songs in open nature. That is also how they practice their voices.

Prayer flags

Prayer flags were originally used as talismans to protect Tibetans during the war. It is originated from the Bon religion that people used prayer flags for protection, and it is printed symbols such as snow lion, dragon, and the tiger the flag. Tibetan prayer flags were eventually adopted into Tibetan Buddhism with prayers or messages of hope and peace printed on them. The colors of Tibetan prayer flags are significant in five different colors. It symbolizes five basic elements in a certain order, blue stands for the sky, white for air or wind, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth. Prayer flags depict mantras of different deities and protectors, such as Tara, Guru, Chenrezig, etc. Tibetans can place prayer flags inside a room in your house, and traditionally, they were placed outside the house. Tibetan hang the prayer flag on clean and windy spots like high passes and riversides. That is why you can see a heap of prayer flags on almost every passes in Tibet. Tibetan Prayer flags above all symbolize peace and harmony.

Tibetan Thangka painting

Thangka painting is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist art form, which has been practiced in Tibet since the 7th century. Thangka is the Tibetan word for painting. Thangka is a painting of various deities and venerable teachers, such as the historical Lord Buddha Shakyamuni rimmed by colorful silk. These images inspire through their beauty, but also, a painted deity is a visual support for those who practice meditation. The origins of Thangka painting were dated back to Buddha’s time and stretched even further. Lord Buddha lived about 2600 years ago in India, where he taught the Holy Dharma to large followers and instructed and inspired many artists. The painted image had its origin in the country of Magadha, which is Bihar of central India, where Buddha was enlightened under a Banyan tree there. As Lord Buddha’s Teachings flourished in India beyond His lifetime, His Teachings spread to neighboring countries like Tibet to establish Buddhism in Tibet. The innovative 33rd Tibetan king Songsten Gampo married the Chinese princess Wencheng in the early seventh century. She brought scriptures of Lord Buddha’s Teachings, Buddhist sculptures, and paintings and also introduced a Chinese style of painting in Tibet by bringing some artisans with her from China. Tibetans highly respected the princess, and she was one of the key figures to introduce Buddhist artistic traditions in Tibet. She encouraged spreading the traditions of painting and sculpture widely throughout central and eastern Tibet. This early stage of Tibetan Thangka painting has been referred to as the old Garden style, the origin of graphic arts in Tibet. Another Tibetan Thangka painting style is Menri, introduced in Tibet from Nepal in the 9th century. Gadri has been established in the Eastern part of Tibet, whereas Menri is in the Central and Western parts of the country. In the 16th century, the Gadri style experienced a renaissance from the influence of the great artist Namka Tashi, who was linked to the Great Saint Mikyo Dorje, later the 8th Karmapa. Made significant contributions, also the artists Cho Tashi and Kasho Karma Tashi brought changes from their artistic contribution, these three artists established the Karma Gadri style of Tibetan Thangka painting.