Tibetan monks practice blowing horn

Tibetans are one of the biggest minority ethnic groups under Chinese government. For many, it is also one of the most popular and mysterious ethnic minorities. 

Tibetans call Tibet Boe (བོད་).  Tibet is a remote region, separated from the rest of the world by the highest mountains on the planet. That’s why many people are curious about Tibet, it’s unique culture, breathtaking landscapes, religion and history. 

TIBETAN POPULATION

Tibetans at Karola glacier

Tibetan plateau covers more than 1.2 million sq km. The current administrative division is different from historical.  Most of Tibetan population lives in the Tibet Autonomous Region. In addition, significant numbers of Tibetans live in the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan – historical regions of Kham and Amdo. 

Total population of Tibetans in the world is about 6.5 million. According to the official Census from 2014, about 6.3 million Tibetans live in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the 10 Tibetan autonomous prefectures located in Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of Gansu.

RegionApproximate Population
Tibet Autonomous Region, and Tibetan areas in Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, and Gansu6.3 millions
India120,000
Nepal20,000 to 40,000
United States10,000
Canada8,040
Pakistan7,600
Switzerland6,500
Bhutan5,000
Taiwan2,000
Sweden1,000
Australia1,000

CITY POPULATION, FARMERS AND NOMADS

Tibetan farmer's house
Tibetan farmer’s house

Traditionally, about 65% of Tibetans were farmers, 20% were nomads and the rest 15% are city people. 

The 21st century Tibetans are still farmers, nomads and city people. However, the nomad population is decreasing every year. Many nomads from Northern Tibet are migrating to large cities. 

Most of Tibetan farmers settled in small villages with barley as their main crop. Due to Tibet’s cold and mountainous climate, Tibetans grow and eat few vegetables and greens. Instead they depend on meat, dairy, and barley-based dishes. 

POPULATION DENSITY IN TIBET

Panorama of visitors in Yumbulakhang

Tibet is sparsely populated, because its mountainous territory altitude is very high and the climate is harsh for most part of the year. 

Even in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and the largest city, the population is only about 300,000 people.  

Although Tibetans are accustomed to living in high altitudes, territories above 4,500 meters are not suitable for agriculture. Additionally, many Tibetans are nomads having herds of yaks and sometimes sheep. They have to move regularly following their animals. For example, most of the Northern territories of Tibet are inhabited by nomads. 

Climate in far Western Tibet is also harsh. Ngari, the most Western region of Tibet has an average altitude above 4,500 meters. There are high mountain ranges and muddy landscapes. These territories cannot support large populations. 

HIGH ALTITUDE ADAPTATION

Small village below mountains in Tibet
Small village below mountains in Tibet

They are very few ethnic groups in the world, who live in high altitude regions. Tibetans are one of them. Some Tibetan nomads live in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Northern and Western regions of Tibet, where altitude rises above 4,000 meters. 

Over thousands of years, Tibetans adapted to life at high altitude. The recent scientific study found over 30 gene adaptations that makes it possible. For example, Tibetans carry a gene that helps their blood better absorb the oxygen. At the same time, the increased level of nitric oxide helps to release oxygen to the tissue more efficiently.

HISTORY OF TIBETANS

Yumbulakhang the oldest building in Tibet
Yumbulakhang the oldest building in Tibet

According to Tibetan legends, Tibetans originated from a union of an ogress and a monkey on a Ganpo Ri mountain near Tsedang. The Yarlung Valley is regarded as the birthplace of Tibetan civilization. Archaeological discoveries confirmed the presence of human activity in ancient times.

Yumbulagang is the first building and the first fort in Tibet. In the early history of Tibet, the first Tibetan kings used Yumbulagang as their castle. The exact construction date is unknown. It was standing there from at least the 2nd century, however the base might be even earlier. The first kings started unification of Tibet. From the 7th century Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo unified different tribes, established capital in Lhasa and initiated construction of many Buddhist temples. 

In the 7-8th centuries Tibet became a powerful empire. At the same time, Buddhism was thriving in Tibet. In the 8th century, Tibetan king Trisong Detsen invited Indian master Padmasambhava to help establish Buddhism in Tibet. Buddhism transformed from the original form, mixing with local Tibetan religion Bon and Hinduism.

Important historical sites in Yarlung valley: 

  • Yumbulagang – the first fortress
  • Tradruk – one of the first temples (together with Jokhang and Ramoche)
  • Samye – the first Buddhsit monastery in Tibet

TIBETAN LANGUAGE

Carved Tibetan mantra Om Mani Padme Hum
Carved Tibetan mantra Om Mani Padme Hum

Tibetans speak Tibetan language. The writing language is the same across all Tibetan provinces. Tibetan written language has its roots in Sanskrit. Nowadays, Tibetans still use the same writing in schools, religious scriptures, modern books, newspapers, etc.

However, there are several dialects in spoken language in different provinces. The classic Tibetan language is also called Lhasa Tibetan. It is the official Tibetan language and most Tibetans understand it regardless of where they live. 

The largest dialects of Tibetan are in the Amdo (Qinghai and part of Sichuan provinces) and Kham (Eastern TAR and Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces) regions in Eastern Tibet. The dialects are so different from the official language that people traveling from Central Tibet to these provinces have difficulties understanding locals.  

Another dialect of Tibetan is used in the Indian area of Ladakh. It also uses the Standard Tibetan writing script, but a different pronunciation. 

Tibetan alphabet has 30 letters. Tibetan writing script follows left to right direction. 

RELIGION IN TIBET

Monk and Tibetans walking on Barkhor Street in the morning
Monk and Tibetans walking on Barkhor Street

Originally, Tibetans followed Bon religion. In the 7th century, king Songtsen Gampo introduced Buddhism in Tibet and soon it became a dominant religion. Presently about 90% of Tibetans are Buddhists. For Tibetans, Buddhism plays an important part in daily life. Many Tibetans have a small altar at home with Buddha paintings or statues. They start their day by offering water bowls to Buddhas. It helps to set up good intentions for the upcoming day. 

When possible, Tibetans will also walk around sacred places, such as monasteries, temples, and mountains. When you visit Lhasa, you will see many Tibetans walking around Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace. Many Lhasa people do it every day. Often you can see Tibetans spinning the prayer wheel. Each wheel has mantras inside of it, and with every turn of the wheel the prayers are sent out. 

People prostrating in front of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa
People prostrating in front of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa

When going on a pilgrimage to sacred places, some Tibetans will circumambulate them by full-length prostrations. You can often see Tibetans performing prostrations in front of Jokhang Temple, Potala Palace and when visiting sacred Mount Kailash

Tibetans also leave colorful prayer flags near the sacred places and in high mountain passes. With every gust of wind the flags are sending prayers for all sentient beings. 

TRADITIONAL TIBETAN CLOTHING

Tibetans in traditional dres walking down the stairs

The territory of Tibet is large and many provinces have their own traditional dress styles. Tibetan clothes are of various styles, with elaborate decorations and vibrant colors.

Tibetans skillfully combine vibrant colors, and their outfits look bright and stylish. Most Tibetans have at least two sets of clothes: one that they wear everyday, and another one for festival celebrations. Tibetans love jewelry and decorations. Both men and women wear heavy gold jewelry with turquoise, coral and other gemstones.

TIBETAN WOMEN’S CLOTHING

Tourists trying on traditional Tibetan clothes
Tourists trying on traditional Tibetan clothes

Women wear a shirt that can have long or short sleeves. The shirt is typically made of pure silk. 

Above the shirt Tibetan women wear a traditional Tibetan dress – Chuba. The Chuba is a fitted long dress with a belt. In colder months women in Central Tibet wear a jacket above their chuba. In Eastern Tibet areas, women sometimes wear animal skin Chuba similar to what men wear. 

Above the Chuba married women wear a wool apron – an important garment. An apron is sewn from three striped fabrics. The apron styles depend on the region, and Tibetans can easily recognize travelers from different areas of Tibet. 

Tibetan women skillfully combine different colors in their outfits and look very beautiful. They also often wear gloves, hats and face masks to protect their skin from the sun. 

TIBETAN MEN’S CLOTHING

Tibetan man rotating prayer wheels walking kora around Potala Palace

Nowadays, not all men in Tibet wear traditional clothes. It is more likely to see traditional dress in remote areas and during festivals. However, you can see many pilgrims from various parts of Tibet visiting Lhasa, and many of them wear some of their best traditional clothes. An outfit also depends on the season. 

Men first wear a usually white or cream-colored shirt with a high collar. Everyday shirts can be simple, sometimes with a black stripe at the collar.

Above the shirt Tibetan men wear a broad robe called Chuba. During the warmer months they wear Chuba made of wool and cotton blend, sometimes trimmed with fur. In high altitude areas and during colder months, Tibetans wear a robe made of animal skin with fur. Tibetans can also use fur Chuba as a blanket. Underneath Chuba men wear pants. 

Since the temperature varies greatly during the day, you can often see men wearing only one sleeve, leaving their right arm open. It allows them to adjust to the outside temperature. 

While short haircuts are becoming increasingly more popular, traditionally, Tibetan men wore long hair. They would usually bread it and fix it around the head. Tibetan men often wear decorations on their hair, as well as gold earrings and rings with gemstones.

TIBETAN MONKS ROBE

Tibetan monks in front of the Norbulingka - summer residence of the Dalai Lama
Monks Debates in Sera monastery

Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns wear simple but eye-catching yellow and maroon robes. A monk or nun should only have one robe at a time. If they have more than one, it is said they are borrowing one from someone else. 

Historically, monks were sewing pieces of unwanted clothes together in a large piece of fabric. They washed the fabric and dyed it with various herbs and spices.

Nowadays, the robe is usually made of wool. Monastery visitors can donate the robes or fabric to monks. 

There is an inner sleeveless shirt and a large cover up that monks use to wrap around them.

Monks and nuns also wear various hats and the shape and color of their hats differs in Tibetan Buddhist schools. The most popular school of Tibetan Buddhism Gelug is also called the Yellow Hat sect. Lamas of the Karma Kagyu sect are wearing Black Hats, and monks from the Nyingmapa sect are wearing Red Hats.  

TIBETAN TRADITIONS AND CUSTOMS

When you first arrive in Tibet or meet new Tibetan friends, Tibetans will present you a white scarf – khata. It is a symbol of blessing and the best wishes. They offer khata scarves to Buddha statues, thangkas and other religious objects. 

Most Tibetans are very religious. They visit monasteries and temples when they have an opportunity. They value the lives and happiness of all sentient beings, and try to help each other, take care of animals and birds. 

At the same time, Tibetans are superstitious. They consult the “Tibetan calendar” to check if the day is good for different activities. For example, they will cut hair only on days that are good for it.  

Tibetans value their parents and family, they prefer living together with large families. Unlike in some Western societies, when kids have their own family, they prefer to stay with their parents in one large house. 

Tibetans are very polite people. They have a smile on their face most of the time, even when times are tough. It makes visitors feel welcomed and very comfortable when traveling in Tibet. 

Tibetan society is very conservative. You should dress modestly when visiting Tibet. Revealing clothes and shorts are not allowed when visiting monasteries. 

One of the most mysterious traditions in Tibet is Sky Burial – the funeral practice. Since Tibetans believe in rebirth, the body after death becomes a mere empty vessel.

TYPICAL DAY OF TIBETAN

  • Wake up in the morning (usually between 6 am and 8 am). 
  • Wash hands to offer seven blows of water, incense and butter lamp in front of Buddha statues, while chanting mantras.
  • Read Buddha scriptures.
  • After that, make butter tea for traditional breakfast. Offer the first cup to Buddha. Then mix the butter tea with tsampa (roasted barley flour) to have it for breakfast.
  • After finishing breakfast, it’s time to go to work. 
  • When there is no work, for example on the weekends, during vacation or after retirement, people living in Lhasa go around Jokhang temple or Potala Palace. On the way they can meet with friends and stop for lunch in the local restaurant. 
  • In the evening, when they come back home, they clean the seven bowls for next morning offerings. After that, they are ready for dinner with their family.  

FESTIVALS

Drepung Monastery in Lhasa during celebration of Shoton Festival
Drepung Monastery in Lhasa during celebration of Shoton Festival

Because of the strong influence of Buddhism on the lives of Tibetans, most of the festivals are religious. Tibetans live according to the Lunar calendar, and the dates of festivals will be different for each year of the World’s calendar. 

You can find dates for upcoming years festivals in the article: Festivals in Tibet

LOSAR – TIBETAN NEW YEAR

The first important festival of the year is Losar – Tibetan New Year. It usually falls at the end of January – beginning of February. Tibetans celebrate Losar on the first week of the 1st month. During Losar, they prefer to spend time at home with family. Later, they will also visit their friends and relatives. 

SAGA DAWA

Setting up the new pole during Saga Dawa celebration
Setting up the new pole during Saga Dawa celebration

The next important festival is Saga Dawa celebrated in May – beginning of June. The festival commemorates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinirvana. Tibetans celebrate it for a month, making a special effort to help others, do more virtuous deeds. The main celebration happens on the 15th day in Mount Kailash region. Thousands of people visit Kailash for a ceremony of erecting the new pole. 

SHOTON OR YOGURT FESTIVAL

People are walking towards and underneath Thangka to receive blessing during Shoton
People are walking towards and underneath Thangka to receive blessing during Shoton

Starting from Saga Dawa month, monks spend more time in the monasteries meditating. During the warm summer time they prefer to spend more time inside as the chance of stepping on insects outside is high. At the end of the meditation time, Tibetans bring yogurt for monks. Monks, in their turn, display large thangkas to give blessings to all visitors. It is the Shoton festival. It usually falls in August. 

HORSE RACING FESTIVALS

Horse racing in Tibet
Horse racing in Tibet

During the summer months there are several horse-racing festivals in different regions of Tibet. Some of them last for several days and include different competitions. 

The most famous horse racing festivals are in Gyantse and Nacqu (Northern Tibet). Gyantse festival usually lasts for 3 days and includes bow and arrow competition. Festival in Nacqu usually lasts seven days and also includes yak race, bow and arrow competition and opera dance. Both festivals are celebrated in summer, usually in July in Gyantse and in August in Nacqu region.

BUTTER LAMP FESTIVAL

The Butter lamp festival commemorates Tsongkhapa, one of the most influential Buddhist lamas and the founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans light thousands of butter lamps and Lhasa streets look magical with lights everywhere around. On the same day, Ganden Monastery displays the large thangka – Buddha painting.

CHAM DANCE PERFORMANCE

Monk performing Cham Dance

In addition to these main festivals there are a number of smaller or local festivals, celebrating different events. For visitors, one of the most interesting festival activities is the Cham Dance. It is the religious dance performed only by monks. You can see it in several monasteries on the different days of the year. 

TRADITIONAL FOOD

Colorful food in Tibet

Living at high altitude with a harsh climate, Tibetans learned to live in harmony with nature and use its resources wisely.

Farmers grow highland barley. Tsampa – roasted barley flour is a staple food for Tibetans. They mix it with butter tea and cheese and eat it for breakfast, as a snack or anytime while on the road. 

Another Tibetan staple is yak meat. Tibetans fry it, boil it, make curries with it and dry it. 

Must-try in Tibet is momos or Tibetan dumplings. They are usually steamed and in some restaurants also served fried. The most popular varieties are with yak meat, vegetables, potatoes and cheese. 

If you are visiting Tibet, try traditional Tibetan noodles in one of the tea houses. Typically, noodles come with soup and either meat or some vegetables. 

Tibetans love butter tea – black tea mixed with butter. It is unusual for foreign visitors, but Tibetans enjoy it with snacks or by itself. 

Street sellers offer freshly baked breads, fresh yogurt, dried cheeses, and other snacks. 

Nowadays, there is more food variety in Tibet. There are various fruit and vegetables, Indian and Western snacks in the supermarkets. However, in the remote regions of Tibet choices are still limited. 

RECOMMENDED TOURS

Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Central Tibet

14 DAYS PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR

This special private tour is perfect for exploring Tibetan culture, traditions, meeting locals, visit off-the beaten path destinations. At the same time, this tour visits all highglights of the Central Tibet. You will enjoy stunning landscapes perfect for amazing photographs.

Everest North Face from Tibet

8 DAYS MOUNT EVEREST TOUR

A beautiful and exciting journey, starting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and going to the Everest Base Camp. The tour visits Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera, Drepung and Tashilhunpo monasteries, Kumbum Stupa, Yamdrok Lake and Karola glaciers.

Both group and private tours are available.

Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Central Tibet

2021 SAGA DAWA FESTIVAL TOUR

This special tour takes you to the sacred Mount Kailash and Manasarovar lake during the biggest festival of the year. Saga Dawa Festival celebrated the day of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. It attracts thousands of pilgrims from all around Tibet, India, and the world. You will see the greatest diversity of Tibetan national dress as people wear their best clothes for the festival.

Shoton Festival Thangka Display in Sera Monastery, Lhasa

SHOTON FESTIVAL TOUR

The Shoton or Yogurt festival is one of the most important festivals in Tibet. Festival tour is created to allow you to see the most interesting events during the Shoton. Tibetans celebrate Shoton for a week, the first two days, however, are the most important. On the first day of celebration Tibetans wake up early to visit two main monasteries in Lhasa – Drepung in the morning and Sera in the afternoon. 

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