tibet: travel and tibetan culture essentials

[As told to me by my guide Tenzin, and the monks I met in the monasteries.]

Facts and Figures

Known as the roof of the world, Tibet is surrounded by four of the world’s ten highest mountains and covers an area of 1.2 million square kilometers. It shares an approximately 3,500 kilometer international border with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, and is encircled by China to the north and east. The 3rd largest virgin forest in the world with countless evergreen trees lies within the kingdom. The central area of Tibet, namely Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyangtse and Tsedang enjoy mild weather all year round. The maximum rainfall in Tibet is 290mm. It hardly ever snows in winters due to the dry weather. Sunshine is plentiful. Since most places are 3,600 meters and above sea level, heart pounding, shortness of breath, slight nose bleeding and headaches are normal responses caused by lack of oxygen and low air pressure. Acclimatization is recommended on day 1.

Tibetan cuisine is pretty basic, consisting mainly of Tsampa (roasted barley flour) and endless bowls of butter tea. Steamed meat dumplings called Momo and wind dried raw meat (yak, beef, or mutton) are popular. Drinks include Chang, a fortified barley beer, and butter tea which is a salty black tea mixed with yak butter.

No amenities exist on the highways which are basically dirt roads cutting through the mountains. It is recommended to stock up on fuel and food as the average travelling time between neighbouring towns is around eight to nine hours. One can travel through Tibet on buses with a group, but nothing can beat having your own landcruiser with a guide and driver. Perhaps a little more expensive, but the sense of freedom and adventure it provides is absolutely priceless. Do not expect much in the form of public toilets which are limited to open halls with literally holes in the ground, including those in the Potala palace, and ‘secret’ places behind rocks lining the road.

Travel to Tibet requires a travel permit issued by the regional Tourism Administrative Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region. You can only apply for the permit through a qualified local travel agent. Certain parts such as Shigatse and Samye monastery need a further Alien Travel Permit.

Tibetan Buddhism

Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism differ widely in both ritual and doctrine. Within Tibetan Buddhism lie elements of the older Bon, a primitive Shaman religion indigenous to Tibet that was steered into the Buddhist path.

Tibet inherited the cream of Indian Buddhism in the 5th Century AD, partly due to the proximity of the two countries. The fusion of Buddhist Tantric and esoteric elements with Bon forged Tibetan Buddhism, though Bon still survives as an independent faith. The religion ultimately spread to the whole of Tibetan society, and is startlingly different in culture and belief from that followed outside. Composed of a number of schools, a peculiar feature of it is the doctrine of the reincarnating Lama and its pantheon of deities.

The primitive Bon religion was governed by a priestly class of mediums, exorcists, and miracle-workers. Tibetan Buddhism has preserved much Bon technique, including faith healing and miracle-working. The ecstatic dances, belief in human flight, spirit languages and mythical lore of Bon shamanism were adopted into Tibetan Buddhism. This helps explain why Tibetan Buddhism is replete with images from the netherworld. Human skulls and bones have a symbolic and magical function that reaches out from the bon psyche. The Tibetan ‘Book of the Dead’, a book read by a Lama (tutor) to the recently deceased without touching the body, is also shaman in organization.

Tibetan Buddhism has a number of talismans and ornaments that serve sacred purposes. The Wheel of Life often found decorating temples, depicts the cycle of suffering and rebirth. It hangs from the mouth of the lord of death. The Prayer Wheel is a decorated, hollow metal tube on a rod, containing a roll of paper upon which is written a mantra or invocation. The turning of the wheel is a substitute for the recitation of the mantra. Similar to the Prayer Wheel, is the Prayer Flag. Mantras on the flag are carried aloft by the winds. Phur-bu is a ritual dagger that was formerly used for human sacrifice. It is symbolically employed to exorcise evil spirits. The blade is three-sided, and the handle is generally decorated with the head of a deity. Kapala is a cup made from a human skull, and used in ceremonies to offer food and drink resembling flesh and blood to deities. Kapala is a Sanskrit word meaning skull. And lastly, the dorje is a small sceptre-like object (vajra in Sanskrit), made from either brass or bronze, representing a thunderbolt. A male symbol, it is balanced by the bell, a female symbol. The dorje sometimes appears in double form, in the shape of a cross.

Tibetan Festivals

The Tibetan New Year is the most important festival in Tibet. It is an occasion when families get together and wish for a better coming year. Known as Losar, the festival lasts from the 1st to 3rd of the 1st Tibetan month. Specially made offerings are given to family shrine deities while doors are painted with religious symbols. On New Year’s Eve, barley crumb food (Guthuk in Tibetan) stuffed with different fillings form part of the festivities. Post dinner it is the Festival of Banishing Evil Spirits. Torches are lit and people run and yell to get rid of evil spirits from their houses. Before dawn on New Year’s Day, housewives fetch their first buckets of water in the new year home and prepare breakfast. The families then dress up and open their home doors with prayers and go to the monasteries. The first two days are spent visiting neighbours and exchanging Tashi Delek blessings. On the third day, old prayer flags are replaced with new ones.

Monlam, the Great Prayer Festival, follows Losar and is held from the 4th to 11th day of the 1st Tibetan month. The event was established by Tsongkhapa, founder of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. As the grandest religious festival in Tibet, religious dances are performed and thousands of monks gather for chanting before the Jokhang Temple. Pilgrims crowd to listen to sermons and make religious donations. Examinations for the Geshe degree (the highest degree in Buddhist theology), in the form of sutra debates, are held during this time.

The Shoton or Yogurt Festival begins on the 30th of the 6th Tibetan month. The festival originated in the 17th Century. The summer months see the monks stay in caves and meditate, neither eating nor going out, in order to avoid killing newly hatched insects. When they finally emerge, the locals donate yoghurt to these monks, initiating the seven-day festival. On the first day of the festival big thangkas are displayed and hundreds of monks participate in religious dancing inside the monasteries. Tibetan opera is held in the Norbulingka in Lhasa on the subsequent days.

Customs and Traditions

Tibetans are primarily either farmers or nomads. The farming areas are based around Gyangtse and Shigatse. The farmers cultivate barley, from which they produce flour and beer (their staple food), peas, wheat and rice. Offerings of barley flour and beer are also made to the gods in the monasteries and temples. In addition, the farmers domesticate cows, yaks and sheep from which they make handmade carpets to sell.

Nomads are found outside the central areas of Tibet, their main source of income being yaks; one family can own up to 100 yaks. A yak is a cross between a wild yak and a cow and a yak is only male. On average the adult yak is 1.5 meters in height and has long hair, is skilful in steep narrow trails and can load up to 70 kilograms on its back. They can be herded easily and don’t like to stay alone. Yaks have multiple purposes in the lives of the Tibetans. Yak meat is eaten after being dried with salt and spices. Butter tea, an all time favourite drink, is made from yak milk. Apart from being a source of food and means of transport, the yak’s skin is used for making boats, whilst yak hair is used to make the nomads’ tents. Yak heads are also placed over house entrances to ward off evil spirits.

The nomads sell the meat, milk and butter from their yaks to farmers. As a result some of them are quite wealthy. But since they lead an unsettled life and are devout and religious by nature, the rich end up making huge donations to the monasteries, giving away much of their acquired wealth. Most nomads are, however, poor. All nomads, rich and poor alike, make frequent journeys to the monasteries during winter, travelling for endless days through the remote mountains in groups of five or six led by a group leader. Though their lives are simple, their weathered faces glow with contentment.

Funerals in Tibet comprise sky burials in which the body is cut into small pieces and prepared by priests after which it is fed to the vultures. The vultures are considered to be holy birds, flying high above everyone else and by feeding on the human body they take the soul to the heavens. Only people who die from accidents or natural deaths qualify for sky burials. When children die or in the event of an unnatural death such as murder, the body is drowned in the river to be fed on by fish. Tibetans, hence, do not eat fish. Another reason for not eating fish is that Tibetans believe that within the fish’s stomach are a thousand more fish, and by eating fish they would be killing not one but many.

[In 2004 I travelled to Tibet on my own. I hired a 4X4, got a driver and guide, and drove through the mountains for seven days, stopping at monasteries on the way. My Tibet series documents this journey.]

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