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 Tibetan culture


The People

Tibet contains a multicolored tapestry of culture groups. The Tibetan Plateau has an area of over 2 million square kilometers, yet remains one of the most sparsely populated regions on earth with an estimated population of only about 8 million (not counting Xining or Lijiang). There has been a large migration of ethnic Han Chinese into the Tibetan Plateau in recent years, but most figures say that over 50% of the population are still of Tibetan origin.

There seem to be two main sets of physical features among the varied Tibetan peoples. In the north and east, mainly among the nomads of the Kham and Amdo, there is a general body type of greater height, with long limbs and heads, and aquiline facial features, like modern Turkic and Mongolian peoples. In central and western parts of the region, as well as areas of Nepal and Bhutan, one often finds shorter stature, high cheekbones, and round heads, more similar to the features of modern Han Chinese, Thais, and Burmese. However, this is a very simplistic distinction and through ethnic intermingling there is as much variation in physical features within and between culture groups of the Tibetan Plateau as in any other place in the world.

Among the Tibetan peoples there are at least 7 major cultural divisions. There are the Topa of the highlands of Far-West Tibet in the vicinity of Kang Rinpoche and the lower Mount Kailash. There are the Tsangpa of West Tibet, the Upa of Central Tibet, and the Horpa of North Tibet. These three groups are all in the basic vicinity of Lhasa and are more similar to each other in culture than to some of the other divisions. Then there are the Khampa of East Tibet in the vicinity of Yushu, the Amdowa of Northeast Tibet, mostly in Qinghai province and around Qinghai Lake, and the Gyarongwa of Far East Tibet near Lingxia. Within all of the culture groups there are both farming communities (rongpa) and nomadic herding communities (drokpa).

Besides this variety of Tibetan peoples, there are also a number of minority culture groups closely related to the Tibetans, which include the Monpas and Lhopas in the extreme south, the Qiangs in the extreme east, and the Jang of the extreme southeast. There are also some minority groups of Mongol and Turkic origin, including the Kazakhs, the Salar, the Tu, and some Mongolians. All of these different ethnic groups in one region make for a very diverse tableau of cultural display available for visitors to peruse in the form of an endless variety of customs, dress, food, festivals, languages, and rituals.

The Language
There are three main dialect groups of the Tibetan language: Lhasa, Kham, and Amdo. The Lhasa dialect group includes numerous dialects spoken in the Lhasa area, western and farwestern Tibet and the Nepali border regions. Kham dialects are spoken mostly in eastern Tibet, and Amdo dialects mostly in the northeastern areas. The differences from one dialect group to another are so strong that often Tibetan people from the northeast, speaking an Amdo dialect, cannot understand Tibetan people from the Central Tibet / Lhasa region. The similarities between Kham and Lhasa dialects are a little closer, allowing for more communication. Yet, within one dialect group there are still vast variations in vocabulary and pronunciation, to the point that sometimes people from one village may speak very differently from people in the next village. Furthermore, it is common for the farming communities and nomadic communities of each region to also have dialects distinct from one another.

In modern speech, Tibetan languages have adopted from Chinese many commonplace words for everyday use, including foods, drinks, clothing, and some words for items of new technology. Tibetan writing has its roots in Sanskrit writing from India, and their writing is the same for all regions. So, for people who are educated in writing, communication is possible through this medium no matter what dialect is spoken, even if their speech is unintelligible to each other.

Because of this vast linguistic disparity of Tibetan dialects, the need for common communication in the modern world has caused many Tibetans to adopt Chinese as their second language as it makes it much easier to converse with people from most regions of the Tibetan Plateau. Also, due to Chinese public and government control of the region it is necessary for any Tibetans inhabiting any urban areas to be able to communicate in Chinese. Among Chinese speakers in this area, there are 3 main groups: speakers of Putonghua (standard Mandarin Chinese), and also Sichuan and Qinghai dialects. One may also hear Arabic, spoken by some Muslims in the region, as well as Mongolian, and numerous other dialects of the various local minority groups.

Daily Life
Auspicious Dates
One important aspect of Tibetan daily life is their attention to calendrical detail. Any important event: a child-naming ritual, wedding ceremony, funeral, moving in to a new home or office, opening a business, etc., must be held on a carefully chosen auspicious day. They use a lunar calendar different from the western system, based on a 60 year cycle, or a specifically Tibetan calendar which tends to be about one month later than the lunar calendar(used more in central Tibet and part of Kham). The years are named with a combination of the twelve animals and five elements of Chinese divination. The most common auspicious days in a lunar calendar are on the 15th and 30th of every month. Other auspicious days often fall on the 8th, 10th, or 25th, and on other dates associated with specific people and events. Much time is spent, even in modern days in determining the proper timing for all important happenings.

Food
Traditionally, Tibetans ate a very simple diet of yak butter tea, tsampa (porridge made from a roasted barley flour mixed with yak butter and tea), dried meat, chang (barley ale), yak milk, curd (yogurt), and churra (a type of hard dried cheese). The main occupation of most Tibetan communities has always been the herding of sheep, yaks, and goats, and their diet of primarily meat was heavily related to the fact that meat was abundant and vegetables were sparse. In modern times, there are also many vegetables in their diet, as more communities have begun subsistence farming. Another new feature is an abundance of noodle dishes, which have become one of their preferred foods, although meat is still a very large part of their diet. Other foods very common to Tibetan households are steamed bread, and momos or somas, a form of dumpling filled with meat and vegetables, that can either be steamed, boiled or fried.

Names
Tibetans generally follow a Bhuddhist naming system that usually does not include a surname. This is often found to be confusing to westerners used to a patronymic system because most Tibetans' given names are made up of a combination of 2 names. For example, if a Tibetan says his name is Tsering Dorge, then a westerner might mistakenly refer to him as Mr. Dorge, assuming that the second name was a surname. In fact, Tsering Dorge may use either name, or both together as his first name, and neither one is a family name. Some Tibetans only have one name as their given name, which confuses westerners even more. It is also common to have a short name or nickname used by family and friends. It is also common for Tibetans to request names from important lamas or religious leaders for their children

Dress
The typical style of dress for most Tibetans in their natural habitat is the chupa, which is a long-sleeved robe that is tied at the waist with a sash. Often the upper part of this robe is folded down to the waist and the sleeves tied around the waist, or else one sleeve hangs off the shoulder and the other sleeve is worn like normal, creating a pouch in front in which many items may be carried. There are many different styles and designs often distinct to a specific region or culture group. Some regions have chupas that are shorter, with loose pants worn beneath, and some have especially long sleeves that are specifically used for some traditional dances. There are also common everyday chupas, usually in more subdued colors, and fancy dress chupas for important events--often much more colorful and decorative.

There are many types of headgear that may indicate which part of the country a person comes from. There are the lhakshi, the headscarves worn by Amdo women, the Khampa cowboy hats, brocade hats lined with fur, and many other types of headwear, as well as, many different hairstyles with different sizes and patterns of intricate braids distinct for each locale.

There are many kinds of jewelry worn by Tibetan peoples especially at festival times or special events, again distinct for each region. There are generally ornaments of both gold and silver with stones of coral, turquoise, amber, ivory, and beryl. The most important stone is the uniquely Tibetan zi stone, which is highly prized, rare, and very valuable, although many fake ones can be found cheaply at the marketplace.

Arts and Crafts
Art
Painting and sculpture are two important art forms in Tibetan culture. There are three main expressions of Tibetan painting: manuscript illumination (peri), mural painting (debri), and cloth painted scrolls (tangkha). All of these are closely linked to the practices of Buddhism. There are also appliqued tangkhas and sand-painted mandalas. The sculptures of Tibet were produced mostly in metal, clay, or stucco, but sometimes in wood, stone, or even butter or tsampa. Usually sculptures are of deities or historical figures. Important structures, like temples, are often highly decorated, especially the door frames, wall panels, and ceilings, with intricate brightly painted murals often depicting stories from their spiritual beliefs. Most Tibetan art appears to serve a spiritual function, either used during worship, or in some way connecting man with the divine.

Crafts
Some of the crafts that are often found in the marketplace include gold and silver jewelry and ornaments (some engraved with the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism), engraved amulet boxes, wooden butter churns and bowls, decorated knives, and woven carpets. There are also woven blankets, intricately carved or painted wooden furniture, and Tibetan style chupas, hats, and striped aprons. There are a variety of musical instruments to be seen, the silver bowls used for choka (a traditional drinking ritual), and many Buddhist ritual items, like prayer wheels, singing bowls, prayer flags, and victory banners. There are many other objects that one may find in Tibetan markets, but here is just a sample of the crafts one might see.

Music and Dance
Music and singing play a huge role in Tibetan life. There is much traditional music played, often on a mandolin, but many songs are sung without any musical accompaniment. There are many different types of songs, including nomadic ballads, lyric poems, and regional folk songs. The folk songs often have different themes which may include wedding songs, working songs, archery songs, round dance songs, drinking songs, love songs, greeting / welcoming songs, and others. These songs usually use simple language meant to invoke an immediate mood. Much imagery and metaphor are used, and hidden meanings implied. Their long history of being strongly connected to nature is apparent in their music as almost all of their songs are filled with images of nature.

Many of these songs are often accompanied by folk dances. A common example of one of these dances is one in which groups of men and women form 2 circles around a bonfire. The dancers move around the circle performing intricate hand and arm motions, and complex footwork. Often the time is kept by the stamping of feet. There are many other different kinds of Tibetan dances from different regions involving only men, only women, or both together, moving in a variety of patterns. In cities, one can go to a Tibetan bar and join in the dancing, and at festivals, although there are many prearranged performances by professional dancers, there are generally also times when the amateurs are allowed to join in.

Another important task accomplished by Songtsen Gompo was the importation of a writing system to the then solely oral Tibetan tradition. His sent his minister, Tonmi Sambhota, to India to study Sanskrit. From his study, characters were developed to represent the Tibetan language and Tibetan writing was born.

Following the unification of Tibet under Songtsen Gompo, a series of military campaigns were undertaken and the influence of the Tibetan Empire was far-flung. This can be evidenced by the preservation of Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts and paintings in the Dunhuang Caves in Gansu province of northern China.