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Tibetan Way of Life


Geographical location of Tibet.

Until recent times the world knew little about Tibet and its people. The geographical location of the country - long known as the " Roof of the World" - Lhasa the capital city of Tibet was known as the "Forbidden City". Poor communication with the outside world partly accounted for its inaccessibility. The accounts of explorers and men of adventure who occasionally managed to pentrate into Tibet only enhanced the aura of mystery and mysticism about the simplicity in which it was shrouded. There was however nothing mysteriuos about the simple, unsophisticated people of Tibet. Two factors which greatly influenced their lives were physical isolation and religion. The former resulted in the evolution of a simple, pastoral and agricultural economy and the Buddhist religion with its ritual effected their everyday life.


Religion deeply permeated Tibetan society and a sizable proportion of the population consisited of monmks and nuns. The laymen were exceptionally scruplous about observing eloborate and frequent ritual of prayer and offerings. Great importance was attached to religious studies and monasteries which, were the repositories of what was deemed the profoundest scholarship and knowledge. The entire education system had its basis in religion and the highest examinations - conducted orally - tested a candidate's knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures and philosophy, as also their profiency in religious debate. All the members of the priestly order and the Dalai Lama hinmself had to qualify in these examinations.

Source of Livelihood

A deep religious character is inconsistent with atleast some of the qualities which are needed for material progress. Apart from Tibet's georaphical isolation and lack of contact with the outside world, one reason for its simple, undeveloped economy on the eve of the Chinese invasion was doubtless the state of contentment and limitations of wants induced by religious devotion. But if economy was simple, it was also self-sufficient. The average Tibetan farmer with his small agricultural holding and his livestocks of yak and cows, or the nomads with herds of cattle anf flocks of sheep was contented and happy. The staple food of the Tibetans was Tsampa, prepared from barley. Barley was roasted in a frying pan partly filled with sand and heated in a strong fire, and the roasted grains were then ground into flour. Although other foodgrains such as wheat and maize were also used. Tsampa was usually eaten with tea, milk or beer(chang). It was usual for Tibetans when travelling or visiting friends to carry small bags of tsampa with them which they poured in bowls of soup or tea or beer which their host offered. Preparing the flour into dough was something of an art, which the housewives specialized. Tea was an important ingredient of the Tibetan diet and was taken several times a day, mixed with butter and salt.. Brick tea was imported from China throught the eastern province of Kham. Other items of food were meat, cheese and vegetables, Buddhists of course regarded all forms of life sacred but an important exception was made on the need to eat meat: The geographical location of Tibet being on a high altitute with unfavorable grounds for agriculture added with rigourous cold climate compelled the Tibetans to rely heavily on meat which, was unavoidable. The consumption of meat became a necessity.


The woollen cloth used by most Tibetans was indegenous and woven by craftsmen who went about the country side and set up their looms in the yards of village houses. The thread was spun by the farmer or his wife and the clothes were made also at home except dresses meant for festive occassions, for which a tailores services were needed. Farm-grown jute was used to supply thread for the family's boots. Th villagers also prepares the boots at home from leather wither obtained from slaughtered cattle or from the market(the slaughtering was done by professional butchers) There were also a breed of itinerant craftmen who supplied the simple needs of the villagers; they included the cobbler, the carpenter and the potter.

Health and Medicine

Most Tibetans enjoyed robust health. When illness did occur, it was treated by physicians who practised the indigenous, herbal system of medicine. Allopathy and modern surgery were unknown although it is said that at one stage Tibet had a highly developed surgical science, whcih later fell into dis use and obscurity. The indeginous system was well perfected and the collection of herbs was effeciently organised under the supervision of an experienced physicians. Medicines were prepared and administered mainly in the form of powders and tablet. In diagnsing an illness, Tibetan physicians relied on checking the patient's pulse rate, urine and stool. This medical system proved very efficacious, especially in the treatment of certain chronic and old age diseases.


The festivals of Tibet were closely linked with religious observances. Monks in red or yellow cloaks, beating gongs or tinkling bells, invariably participated in these events. Almost every locality or region had its own deity and own special occasions. People travelled long distances to make their offerings to the deity and seeks its protection or guidance. For instance, Taktser, the small village in Amdo province where His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama was born, had its protective deity, 'Kye' and its throne was the nearby mountain of 'Kyeri'. ften temples or Labtses (heaps of stones) were erected in a village or town and dedicated to the deity. Prayers and offerings were followed by dances and feastings. The biggest celebration throughout the country was that of the Tibetan New Year (Losar). This was an occasion for much rejoicing and feasting. During this time people visited their relatives and friends not only in the same village but also in neighbouring villages and towns. Housewives vied with each other in entertaining thier guest as lavishly as possible. There were plenty of food and locally brewed beer(chang) which kept flowing nonstop to keep everyone in good spirit. Another important celebration was the 'Torgya'. In Lhasa the great dance of the lamas was held the day before the Tibetan New Year Eve (Losar). Potala, the Dalai Lama's winter Palace was the center of the festivities. The Torgya celebration consisted of series of Lama Dances which were graced by the Dalai Lama presence, who was seated on the highest balcony of the Palace. People in Lhasa and those coming into the city dressed gaily paricipated in teh celebration. The dances which mimed the legendary episodes in the country's history, lasted several hours and were performed by masked monks. The dancing groups followed one another in quick succession and audience welcomed them with laughter and applause. Each mask, with its animal or other symbols had a special significance and history, although only a few knowledgeable people were aware of it. But the 'Black Hat' dancers, representing the destroyers of evil, were immediately recognizable. For this dance the dancers wore dark-colored costumes and long grisly chains made of human bones. The whole effect was errie and awesome as such and created a powerful, if somewhat sobering impression on the audience. Then on the fifteenth day of the Tibetan New Year another festival was held - 'Festival of Light' The monasteries and the houses were illuminated with thousands of butter lamps making the whole area a spectacular sight. A distinctive feature of the festival was the elaborate display of the carefully constructed butter structures of buildings, people and landscapes. These were made of butter with a wooen frame. The skill of the artisans were awed and admired. But as tradition decreed that the butter creations should not see the light of the dayafter being displayed on the night of the festival. They were destroyed and cleared away before dawn. 'Chhotul Monlam Chenmo' and the 'Tsokchhoy Monlam Chenmo' were held in the second month of the Tibetan Calender and lasts for about twenty one days and eleven days respectively. Chhotul Monlam Chenmo is celebrated as subjugation of evil spirit by Lord Buddha and Tsokchhoy Monlam Chenmo - the death of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. Not only incarnated Lamas, monks and layman in Lhasa but people from the remotest parts of Tibet make it a point to attend and participate in these two important religious Assemblies. The Assemblies are marked by many learned discourses, recitations and debates. During these Assemblies the people deem it a priviledge to get the blessings of the high Lamas and religious dignitaries. They distribute large donations of tea and money to the monks and alms to the beggars.


Life in the capital and other parts of Tibet was not all austerity and and meditation. Blended with its religious and spiritual activity, was plenty of life and gaiety. The richer people entertained lavishly and held picnics on the river banks in summer. Their costly and decorative dresses lent color to these festive gatherings. The modest families too ejoyed life in their own ways. It must not be assumed that the Tibetans preoccupation with religion repressed their natural zest for life and or sense of humour. Infact, they always enjoyed a joke and even a Lama or a monk was apt to laugh heartily. The people's religious beliefs and training engendered the qualities of tolerance, courtesy, kindness and humility.

Social System

The syste of land tenure in Tibet has been described as 'Feudal', but it was different in important ways from the Medieval Feudal System of Europe. All land was the property of the State and most farmers held their lands under leasehood direct from the State. Although technically tenants, in actual practice they all had all the rights of a freeholder. The land was heritable and they could lease it to others, mortage it or sell the right to it. They paid the rent to the Government largely in kinds and produce. This rent thus collected by the State was the main source of stocks held and distributed to Monasteries, the Army and the Officaldom. Apart fromthis class of farmers, there were others who worked on the large estates which had been granted to aristocrate families and monasteries. On these setates the peasants or the tenants cultivated the land on behalf of the landlords and also had separate holdings for the support of their families. They either paid rent in kind to the landlords or placed at his disposal the services of one of their family member. The other members of the famil were free to engage in any business or to folloe any profession. Such system cannot certainly be described as 'Serfdom', and there were no serfs in Tibet. The landlords did exercise the administration of justice, which may have been abused sometimes, but under a rule instituted by the 'Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama', all tenants had the right to appeal to him directly in cases of suppression and maltreatment by a landlord. Another factor which prevented the landlord from acting harshly was the constant shortage of labor; thus he could not afford to let the peasants leave the farm and run away. Whatever the merits and demerits of this ancient system, it certainly neded reforming and the present Dalai Lama(XIVth) and His Kashag(Cabinet) had prepared a scheme by which the large private estates would revert to the State on payment of compensation. The land thus acquired was then to be distributed among the actual tillers. But before this scheme could be implimented, the Chinese invaded Tibet and took control over the adminstration and began to impose their ideas and schemes on the country. The Chinese, in trying to justify their invasion of Tibet and the wholescale destruction of its intitutions have grossly exaggerated the inequalities and so-called inequities of the Tibetan Social System. While admittedly there was inequality of wealth as between the land ed aristocracy and the poorer sections of the peasantry, the material conditions of the people as a whole, "compared very favourably with that of some European countries". (The Legal Inquiry Committee on Tibet of the International Commission of Jurists) Critics of the Tibetan agrarian and social system are apt to overlook some very relevant and important factors which countered its apparent faults. Inspite of difference of status or material possessions, there was no great gulf between the rich and the poor. The universal belief in the principles and the teachings of Buddhism encouraged, on one hand, the generousity and the desire to improve the lot of the less fortunate and on the other hand, the absence of envy and resentment on the part of the poor. Acceptance of 'Karma', which postulates that each man reaps in this life what he has sown in the previous existence and that the good or the evil he commits in the present life will effect the status of his next rebirth - produced a passive contentment with life but did not stifle the urge to improve one's lot. The doctrine of reincarnation, as reflected in the search and discovery of a new Dalai Lama or other high dignitaries of the church in humble homes tended to narrow the difference of birth, heritage or wealth. Apart from reincarnations, which thus had a democratic influence, promotions to higher ranks in the monastic order was also democratic and there was nothing to prevent a boy from a poor family/class entering a monastery and progressing by dint of his own ability.

As we say in Tibetan:
"Amey bhu la yonten yoe na 'Ganden Tri' la dak po mey"

Meaning that:
"No matter what back ground you come from, but if you work hard in achieving and possessing the required knowledge then you could sit on the throne of the highest position in the Tibetan Government."