The Tibetans

The Tibetans

Tibetan People

The Tibetan people are an ethnic group that is native to Tibet. They number an estimate of 7.8 million. Significant Tibetan minorities also live outside of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in China, and in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

The inhabitants in Tibet include Tibetans, Menpa, Luopa, Han Chinese, Hui, Sherpa, and a few Deng people. Among them, the Tibetans are the main inhabitants, who take up more than 92 percent of the regional population. The Tibetan people are optimistic, bold and uninhibited.

The origins of Tibetans generally share a considerable genetic background with Mongols, although other primary influences exist. Some anthropologists have suggested an Indo-Scythian component, and others a Southeast Asian component; both are credible given Tibet's geographic location.Tibetans traditionally explain their own origins as rooted in the marriage of of the bodhisattva Chenrezig and a mountain ogress. Tibetans who display compassion, moderation, intelligence, and wisdom are said to take after their fathers, while Tibetans who are "red-faced, fond of sinful pursuits, and very stubborn" are said to take after their mothers.


A recent genetic study of Tibetan Y-chromosomes suggests that about 5,000–6,000 years ago, a subgroup of the Proto-Sino-Tibetan people, who had settled in the Yellow River valley, diverged from the ancestors of the Han Chinese and migrated, probably following the “Zang (Tibet)-Mien corridor,” from the upper Yellow River region westward to Qinghai province and then southward to the Himalayas. This subgroup, called the Proto-Tibeto-Burman people, crossed the Himalayan mountains, and reached the southern Himalayan area, peopling Bhutan, Nepal, northeastern India, and northern Yunnan. After mingling with another population group, possibly from Central Asia, some of them entered the Himalayas and eventually expanded all across Tibet.

This theory is supported by archaeological and linguistic evidence. The Tibetan language is a member of the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.


Tibetans speak the Tibetic languages, many varieties of which are mutually unintelligible. They belong to the Tibeto-Burman languages. The traditional, or mythological, explanation of the Tibetan people's origin is that they are the descendants of the human Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa and rock ogress Ma Drag Sinmo. It is thought that most of the Tibeto-Burman-speakers in Southwest China, including the Tibetans, are direct descendants from the ancient Qiang. Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, though some observe the indigenous Bön religion and there is a small Muslim minority. 

The Tibetan language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan phylum. Traditionally, the land was divided into U-Tsang, Amdo and Kham three dialect boundaries. Tibetan (“bod-yig,” Tibetan language) is typically classified as a Tibeto-Burman language. Spoken Tibetan includes dozens of regional dialects and sub-dialects which, in many cases, are not mutually intelligible. According to geographical divisions, it has three major local dialects: Central Tibetan, Kang and Amdo. Several forms of Tibetan are also spoken by various peoples of northern Pakistan and India in areas like Baltistan and Ladakh, which are both in or around Kashmir.

The Tibetan language is highly stylized and reflects the traditional social hierarchy of a peasantry and an elite. For most terms, there is an honorific expression used when speaking to equals or superiors, and an ordinary word used when addressing inferiors or referring to oneself. An additional set of higher honorifics is used when addressing the highest lamas and nobles. The classical written form of the Tibetan language is a major regional literary language, used particularly in Buddhist literature. In the early seventh century, the Tibetan language, a phonetic system of writing was created based on the writing system of the ancient Sanskrit language of India. The Tibetan language consists of thirty consonant, four vowels, five inverted letters (for rendering foreign words) and the punctuations. Sentences are written from right to the left. Two major written scripts, the regular script and the cursive hand, are widely used in all areas inhabited by Tibetans. From the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, Tibetan literary culture developed dramatically. Literary works include two well-known Buddhist classics, the Bka-gyur, and the Bstan-gyur, and works on cadences, literature, philosophy, history, geography, mathematics, the calendar, and medicine. Tibetan Buddhism influences Tibetan art, drama, and architecture, while the harsh geography of Tibet has produced an adaptive culture of Tibetan medicine and cuisine.


Traditionally, farmers settled in small villages with barley as their main crop. The roaming nomads earned their living by herding yaks and sheep. Most Tibetans in cities made a living as craftsmen. Nowadays, more and more people are migrating into businesses. However, their special lifestyles do not disappear as time passing by.

Tibetan farmers often wear dark brown or grey robe made of Pulu (a woolen fabric). Relatively speaking, Tibetan peasants make a more stable life but have lots to concern. They can only produce barley, turnip, and potatoes on this pool soil. Raising cattle has been their subsidiary business. However, cattles couldn’t grow very well under such a harsh environment and what they can eat is straw. Thus, the limited milk, ghee, and cheese become precious in Tibet farming area.  For most females, the ability to make Tibetan tea is an especially needed skill. And among all kinds of tea, Sichuan tea is Tibetan’s favorite. They brew tea with soda in a small amount of water, then put together with ghee, salt, and boiled water into a wooden barrel, and stir them vigorously with a long stick for about five minutes. Tea is not only regarded as Tibetan beverage, but also a staple food for Tibetans. As for many poor people, they think it’s too luxurious for them to put ghee while making tea. Therefore, they only add a small slice of ghee in their cups and drink cautiously to blow the oil on the surface aside, finally mix with zanba.

Presenting hada is a kind of very common courtesy in Tibet. Presenting hada is to show purity, loyalty, faithfulness, and respect to the receivers. Even when people correspond with each other, they won't forget Hada. They always enclose a mini Hada in the letter for greeting and expressing good wishes. What's more interesting is that when Tibetans go out they tend to take several Hadas with them in case that they may give them to friends and relatives they encounter in the journey.

Buddhist believers must recite or chant Buddhism scriptures very often. For illiterate people, what they can do is to turn prayer wheels, with scriptures inside. Turning the prayer wheel is equivalent to chanting some scriptures and it has become routine work for Tibetan people.


Tibetan people have very characteristic clothes. Generally speaking, they wear short upper garment made of silk or cloth with long sleeves inside, wide and loose robe outside and long boots of cattle hide. For the convenience of work or labor, they usually expose their right shoulder or both arms by tying the pair of sleeves around their waist. Both man and woman have pigtails, but the man always coils up the pigtails over the head while woman combs the hair either into two or many small pigtails flooding down onto the shoulder, at the end of which some beautiful ornaments are tied. Woman prefers to wear an apron with beautiful patterns.

Tibetans deem Hada as the most precious gift. Hada is a strip of a snow-white scarf made of yarn or silk. It symbolizes goodwill and respect and can be present at various occasions of festivity, arrival, and departure of guests, etc. However, there is a kind of Hada with five colors on, blue, white, yellow, green and red, respectively indicating sky, cloud, land, river and the God in charge of Buddha dharma. Five-colored Hada is a very valued gift and can only be presented in the grandest occasions, such as Buddhist activities.


Tibetan festivals such as Losar, Shoton, Linka (festival), and the Bathing Festival are deeply rooted in indigenous religion and also embody foreign influences. Each person takes part in the Bathing Festival three times: at birth, at marriage, and at death. It is traditionally believed that people should not bathe casually, but only on the most important occasions.

Losar, the Tibetan New Year, observed from the first to the third day of the first Tibetan month, is the most important festival in Tibet. Preparations for the New Year include making special offerings to family shrine deities and painting doors with religious symbols. On New Year's Eve families gather to eat guthuk, a soup with balls of barley paste that contain various fillings to signify the fortune of the person who eats them. After dinner, the family observes the Ceremony of Banishing Evil Spirits to purify their home.

Monlam, the Great Prayer Festival, falls on the fourth to the eleventh day of the first Tibetan month. Established in 1049 by Tsong Khapa, the founder of the order of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, it is the grandest religious festival in Tibet. Religious dances are performed and thousands of monks gather to chant before the Jokhang Temple. Examinations in the form of sutra debates for the Geshe, the highest degree in Buddhist theology, are also held.

The most important folk festival in Tibet is the Nakchu Horse Race Festival. A tent city is constructed by people gathering in the town of Nakchu, and thousands of herdsmen in their finest dress participate in horse races, archery and horsemanship contests. A Harvest Festival (Ongkor in Tibetan) is celebrated in farming villages when crops ripen, usually around August. People walk around their fields to thank the gods and deities for a good year's harvest, and singing, dancing, and horse racing take place.

The Shoton Festival, also known as the Yoghurt Festival, begins on the thirtieth day of the sixth Tibetan month. The festival originated in the seventeenth century when pilgrims served yogurt to the monks who stopped for their summer retreat. Later, Tibetan opera performances were added to the event to entertain monks in the monasteries. During the festival, giant Thangkas of the Buddha are unveiled in Drepung Monastery while Tibetan opera troupes perform at Norbulingka.

The Bathing Festival starts on the twenty-seventh day of the seventh lunar month and lasts for one week when Venus appears in the sky. Tibetans bring food, set up tents along rivers and bathe themselves under the starlight. The holy bath was believed to heal all kinds of illnesses and wards off misfortune.


A castle-like house is the most representative one in Tibet. They are often stone-wood structure of primitive simplicity, looking dignified and stable. Even the walls built closely next to hillside remain vertical for stability. Such kind of houses is usually two to three stories high with circular corridor built inside.

In the pasturing area, people usually live in a yak hair tent. The tent is usually square-shaped supported by eight upright pillars. Made of yak hair, the tent is durable enough against wind and snowstorm. Meanwhile, it is convenient to be dismantled, put up and removed, suitable for the herdsman's life.

In whatever type of houses, there are always altar tables for worshiping Buddha. This represents Tibetans’ piety to their religion.

Eating Habits

The cuisine of Tibet reflects the rich heritage of the country and people's adaptation to high altitude and religious culinary restrictions. The most important crop is barley. Dough made from barley flour, called tsampa, is the staple food of Tibet. This is either rolled into noodles or made into steamed dumplings called momos. Meat dishes are likely to be yak, goat, or mutton, often dried, or cooked into a spicy stew with potatoes. Mustard seed is cultivated in Tibet and therefore features heavily in its cuisine. Yak yogurt, butter, and cheese are frequently eaten, and well-prepared yogurt is considered something of a gourmet dish.

Drinking butter tea, made with tea leaves, yak butter, and salt is a regular part of Tibetan life. Before work, a Tibetan typically downs several bowlfuls of this tangy beverage, and it is always served to guests. Nomads are said to drink up to 40 cups of it a day. This tea is very warming because it contains fat from the yak butter.

Tsampa, yak butter tea and Tibetan barley wine are the staple food for Tibetan people. People also like dairy products and air-dried beef and mutton. Tibetans eat Tsampa in almost every meal. Tsampa is roasted barley flour mixed with yak butter tea or Tibetan barley wine. Tibetans usually mix the food with fingers of the right hand and knead it into small lumps before eating.

Yak butter tea is made of boiled tea leaves, salt, and yak butter. All are mixed together and vigorously churned in a wooden cylinder till well blended. Yak butter tea is warm and nutritious, and Tibetans drink it throughout the whole day. Tibetan barley wine is a very popular alcohol in among the Tibetans. This mild alcohol is brewed from locally-grown barley and tastes sweet and sour.


Most Tibetans generally observe Tibetan Buddhism and a collection of native traditions known as Bön (also absorbed into mainstream Tibetan Buddhism). Legend says that the 28th king of Tibet, Lhatotori Nyentsen, dreamed of a sacred treasure falling from heaven, which contained a Buddhist sutra, mantras, and religious objects. However, because the modern Tibetan script was not introduced to the people, no one knew what was written in the sutra. Buddhism did not take root in Tibet until the reign of Songtsen Gampo (c. 605–649), who married two Buddhist princesses, Brikhuti and Wencheng. It gained popularity when Padmasambhava, widely known as Guru Rinpoche, visited Tibet in the eighth century at the invitation of the 38th Tibetan king, Trisong Deutson.

Tibetan lamas, both Buddhist and Bön, play a major role in the lives of the Tibetan people, conducting religious ceremonies and taking care of the monasteries. Pilgrims plant their prayer flags onto the sacred grounds as a symbol of good luck.

Mani stones, stone plates, rocks or pebbles inscribed with a mantra or ashtamangala (a sacred suite of Eight Auspicious Signs), are a form of prayer in Tibetan Buddhism. Mani stones are intentionally placed along the roadsides and rivers or placed together to form mounds or cairns as an offering to local spirits (genius loci). Creating and carving mani stones is a traditional devotional practice.

The prayer wheel is widely seen among Tibetan people. A wheel made from metal, wood, leather, or even coarse cotton, depicting or encapsulating prayers, mantras, and symbols, is spun on a spindle. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spinning such a wheel several times in a clockwise direction will have much the same effect as orally reciting the prayers. In order not to desecrate religious artifacts such as stupas, mani stones, and gompas, Tibetan Buddhists walk around them in a clockwise direction, although the reverse direction is true for Bön. Tibetan Buddhists chant the prayer Om mani padme hum, while the practitioners of Bön chant Om matri muye sale du. Islam and Catholicism also have a few followers in Lhasa and Yanjing respectively. Tibetan Muslims are also known as the Kache.

All the Tibetan people can’t live without three mascots, that is, Buddha, Buddhist teachings, and Tibetan monks (lamas), which are believed to bring them blessing and harmony. They also hold that Mount Kailash is the center of the world and all the lives are circling around the carriers of holiness. And those sacred carries can be mountains, lakes, stupas, temples, etc. That’s the reason why you can see many pilgrims prostrating in front of Jokhang Monastery and circumambulating it day and night.

As the old saying goes, seeing is believing. Join our Tibet tour to know more about Tibet and people living here and uncover the great Himalayan mystery: the Yeti!

Welcome positive energy with Tibetan Buddhist Handmade Knots Bracelet.