When you think of Tibet, you might imagine monks, temples and breathtaking scenery, but this land has a rich, fascinating history. Learn about the history of this ancient land and its people.
Today Tibet is a melting pot of people from several influential countries, including India, Britain and China. Britain exercised empirical rule over India and folded in Tibet. At the close of the 19th century, British India incorporated the Tibetan areas of Ladakh and Sikkim. India lacked the economic and military resources of the British navy and its power. The Brits imperialism as a colonial ruler kept China at bay, but a shift in the balance of power began the demise of Tibet as an independent state. In 1906, Britain recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
Historically, Buddhist missionaries who primarily came from Nepal and China introduced astronomy and medicine. China left its stamp with material goods and services in Tibet, as well as importing tea. They also shared beer and butter making methods.
Contact with the neighboring cultures of Nepal, India and China influenced Tibet, but those country’s leaders also drove the natives toward things that are not natural to people who don’t measure progress.
The Land of Tibet
Tibet is said to be an autonomous region (read this as politically independent) but under the thumb of Southwest China. The capital and largest city is Lhasa. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, Tibet is the highest region on earth with an average altitude of 16,000 feet (4,875 meters), which causes labored breathing and dehydration for non-natives that can prove risky.
Tibet is also the place of the largest natural wonders. The Himalayas include the world’s largest mountain, Mt. Everest. Nam Con is the world’s largest salt lake. Many of Asia’s great rivers –Yangtze, Mekong, Huang He, Indus and Ganges– have their source in Tibet. The major river is the Brahmaputra.
There are various groups of Tibetans because they have adapted according to the land of their origin, their occupation and their social rank in society. The livable plateau area has five regions and the weather and climate is unique to each. The northern plain is almost uninhabited. On the Tsangpo River in the southern belt, there is agriculture. Western Tibet has mountains and is arid, whereas the southeast boasts damper subtropical forests. Finally, northeast Tibet is made up of rolling grasslands with mountains stitched in. The Himalayan region's remoteness and inaccessibility have preserved distinctive local influences. The people there are strong because they have adapted to the harsh elements and weather, but they are also said to be extremely hospitable in character.
Their Work and Homes
The three major occupations are peasant farming, nomadic herding and monastic living. Peasants lived in villages in single dwellings and their hierarchy goes from a ruler or the noble elite at the top, to private landowners, peasants, and then artisans or crafters at the bottom.
Many Tibetan houses and monasteries are built on elevated sites, drawing in the sun by facing south. It is as if they have grown out of construction leftovers, as many use rocks, wood, cement and earth. The walls look slightly wonky, as a 10-degree slope inward battles the frequent earthquakes mountains are prone to suffer. Fuel is precious, so flat roofs serve to keep heat inside.
Nomads live in tents or camp in caves and the like. Each encampment family contributes supplies to the group traveling down to market in the lower regions.
Aspiring monks and the ultra-religious live in monasteries.
Tibetans have long traded with merchants on the overland routes to China, Nepal and Central Asia. Animals and their byproducts, metal, gems, honey and herbs are among the things exchanged. All the historical usurpers from Britain, India and China have tried to control their trade to no avail. Since 1950, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has regulated open markets. Lhasa has daily markets displaying goods from all over the world. Rural markets outside the city permit peasant exchange.
The Chinese government has also built internal highways and links to the Chinese provinces and rail. Most of the manufactured products in Tibet come from urban centers in the PRC.
Tibetans are industrious and practice a range of old-fashioned trades such as flour milling, rope braiding, wool, fiber and leather processing, metalwork, carpentry, woodcarving and rug weaving. Tibetan rugs are prized all over the world because they are primarily made from highland sheep's virgin wool and created mostly by hand, although machines have been introduced into the industry recently. Visitors and vendors will see rugs for almost every domestic use from flooring to wall hangings and under horse saddles.
Some areas of Tibet are recognized for certain crops or the manufacture of raw and finished product. The southeast has quality paper and bamboo manufacturing. Wood products come from the east. Because of the rich mineral deposits and rock formations, gold, turquoise and other gems are found in the south and west.
The Tibetans have an excellent equestrian culture. Centuries of selective breeding have fostered a small horse called Nangchen, which is raised specifically to be inexhaustible, sure-footed in snow, and with lungs large enough to climb in the high plateau where oxygen is thin. There is a special Nagqu Horse Racing Festival to celebrate the breed with a yak race, tug-of-war, rock carrying, Sgor-gzhas (Tibetan group dancing) and Tibetan operas.
Art and Architecture
Virtually all art is religious in nature and designed to foster Tibetan Buddhism. Artworks are anonymous and most are undated. Paintings come in two forms: wall paintings and thangkas, which are banners displayed in temples or sometimes carried in processions. Thangkas often depict scenes from the life of a deity or use mandala symbols (a pattern used for meditation). Sometimes they tell a story of historical events or retell a religious myth. The mediums are paint, applique, block print or embroidery. Much care is taken to use organic materials, mineral pigments and to frame them in silk brocade.
Gompas, Buddhist temples or monasteries, contain prayer wheel art. From the blueprint of the building to the arrangement of the human figures that populate the murals, design is dictated by ancient principles of spirituality, geometry and numerology.
Buddhist stupas, which typically contain the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns, are built in geodesic shapes with a central prayer hall. These round constructions are symbolic and quite beautiful. Each is unique and has a different goal, such as to commemorate an event or to gain spiritual benefits.
Tibetan Buddhism mixes meditative monasticism with indigenous folk beliefs and involves a system of reincarnation of lamas (monks). Both spiritual and temporal certainty exists in the person and the office of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is a member of the Yellow monks (the other sect is Red monks; following the Gelugpa order). Dalai Lama is the “Living Buddha" and the spirit and life as it is now, a ruler of Tibet. Each Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of his predecessor. The Panchen Lama leads the Red monks.
Travelers to Tibet see the faithful of Buddhism, pilgrims heading to temples. There are also those who mutter the prayers while winding rosaries and twirling little prayer wheels. Prayer flags and banners in bright colors with the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum . . . “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus" can be seen flying high; the motto is also found chiseled into rock.
Against this, traditional dress: robed monks and men in chubas—a thick Tibetan wool and sheepskin ankle-length robe—typically worn by the nomadic tribes, is tied at the waist and creates a very large pocket into which they secret their supplies for the day. Women wear dark-colored wrap dresses over a blouse, and this is offset with a striped wool apron that transmits a subtle message, that she is married. Everyone wears long sleeves even in the hot summer months.
Resource Rich Tibet
Forty percent of China’s coal reserves and about a fifth of its natural gas comes from Xinjiang (meaning “new frontier"), and it is neighbor to Tibet in the Pamir mountains from the Afghanistan side. Here too, are rich deposits: gold, salt and other minerals. A large, far-flung region, it borders more countries than any other does. Location makes it a rich and strategic asset for China.
Occupants of Hotan in Xinjiang see snow-capped mountains and a desert larger than Poland. Many of the people are farmers, also called Uygur. Living under China’s flag, they also have a dying culture. Uygars can be seen driving yaks through alpine meadows, even in brutal winter. They eat meat –specifically mutton and beef– and butter. The high protein foods and Tsampa, which is a dough made with roasted barley flour and yak butter, are staples that create a favorite food, Momos or dumplings. They drink buttered tea. These people and the Tibetans often eat raw meats to give them stamina.
Many Tibetan people have found a way to get rich. You can see them in the sun, digging with a tool that unearths a stalk that is sometimes no bigger than a quarter-inch. The treasure they seek is called yartsa gunbu.
Yartsa gunbu is a moth larva that contains a parasitic fungus. These infected larvae are used medicinally. The batch of worms is dried and evaluated before women sort, clean and bundle the little treasures at the Zhong Shi Caterpillar Fungus Hall in Chengdu. For about two pounds, which would equate to 1,500 high-quality worms, the payout is up to $100,000.
Traders who negotiate underneath a cloth with hand gestures can be seen in Xining, China's largest wholesale market for the valuable worms. Payment is received under the cloth as well.
Beijing's "Develop the West" program intended to modernize the lagging economy of western China and the Tibetan Plateau show that 122,000 Han or ethnic Chinese are now living in Tibet. They promise time and teaching to what the Chinese call “Liberated Tibet."
Ancient nomadic Tibetans are then juxtaposed against the modern world and it must be jarring to see monks on motorcycles! Because of the Chinese moving in with their accouterments and necessities, it is said that travelers see adobe houses with satellite dishes. Instead of horse travel, there are wagons pulled by tractors and trucks. Vans and SUVs litter the road, purchased with new wealth from the worms. Traditional sections of Lhasa are being razed in support of faceless modern buildings.
In 1947, the Indian Council for World Affairs convened an Inter-Asian Relations Conference and Tibet showed up with a newly invented national flag. The Chinese protested and in 1950, the new communist regime sent its forces to invade. Chairman Mao and the People’s Republic of China proclaimed in Tiananmen Square, “China has stood up."
For nearly two centuries, China had been broken by civil war, economic strife and Western imperialist onslaughts. The Communists provided a strong central government and wanted to incorporate Tibet as a Chinese national minority. They felt that Tibet was hell on earth ravaged by feudal exploitation, with no redeemable features or culture. The Communists felt they were liberating the serfs and dragging Tibet toward development and modernity.
The Tibetans felt differently. Before the Chinese, the natives were happy and contented people. Chinese rule meant the destruction of Tibetan independent political identity. In 1951, Tibet was declared an autonomous region of China, nominally governed by the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government began a series of despotic measures essentially targeting Buddhist monasteries.
The Cultural Revolution banned religious practice and, as a result, the number of active monasteries was cut from 2,500 before “liberation" to 1,800. The number of monks dropped from 120,000 to 46,000. In March 1959, the Communist’s People’s Liberation Army suppressed a full-scale revolt against China rule. The Dalai Lama managed to flee to India, establishing a government-in-exile at Dharamala. In 1965, China formally annexed Tibet as an autonomous region.
Many thousands of Tibetans were forced into exile by the brutality of the Communist regime. Now the Chinese government is anticipating that as Tibetans continue to join the money race, they will become more compliant and less committed to the Dalai Lama and to what Beijing alleges is his scheme to split China by inciting an uprising in Tibet.
Despite the restoration of some of the desecrated monasteries and the reinstatement of Tibetan as the official language, human rights violations continue.
Brick-and-stone façade compounds dot the Tibetan Plateau. The laogai, “reform through labor" camps that were set up for penal labor are essentially prison farms. Statistics from Beijing claim that in 1995, there were 685 camps holding 1.2 million prisoners throughout China. Harry Wu, a former inmate who has taken up the battle against Chinese authorities, insists there are nearly twice as many camps and closer to eight million prisoners. Wu says camps in the TAR hold some 4,000 Tibetans, and countless thousands more are imprisoned in neighboring provinces. Tibetans, he says, are often tortured and forced to work at hard labor and produce cheap goods for international trade.
In 2015, Tibetan protestors sought to block a road leading to a planned gold mine on a Tibetan sacred mountain. The protest rally was comprised of hundreds of villagers in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in western China and the village of Lhara drew police, soldiers and miners. The peaceful but desperate march took place at Ser Ngul Lo, meaning “year of gold and silver" in Tibetan. The Chinese firm agreed to stop their plans for mining and to build concrete barriers to block the poisonous residue of earlier mining efforts. The Tibetans want to hold the site residue as evidence and pursue an environmental examination.
China has committed sins in Tibet: the overthrow of the monasteries and the violent redistribution of land, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and the restriction of intellectual and religious freedom that continues to this day.
As in any form of imperialism, much of the damage has been done in the name of duty. To the Chinese, monasteries and nobles owned pre-1951 Tibet means the region’s serfs and slaves. Tibetans are nearly all illiterate, so the Chinese felt a moral obligation to liberate them. (The adult illiteracy rate in Tibet is still 52 percent.)
On one hand, the Chinese regime stepped up its campaign against illiteracy. On the other, it controlled the political content of education more carefully in hopes of pacifying the region. The Chinese built hundreds of schools and hospitals. They halted deforestation, installed telecommunications and roads. They have thrown much money into Tibet.
Tibetans almost invariably believe that China instigates development solely to exploit Tibet's natural resources. Since religious practice is knit into the fabric of their lives and China has methodically undermined it, the Tibetans’ fear of losing their ethnicity is well founded. Although individuals are permitted to worship, photos of the Dalai Lama are taken from temples and personal shrines, and their owners subject to jail. Monks feel the lash of Chinese control. In the Dalai Lama's day, the power of the religious institution was final. Nearly one-fourth of all Tibetan males shaved their heads (tonsure) and robed-up for monkhood.
Eighty-five percent of the people in this region farm and herd to live. China separated most of the Tibetan Plateau from the rest of China and called it TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region). Two eastern states of Kham and Amdo are annexed onto the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. Anyone who opposes Chinese rule or who aspires to see the Dalai Lama will find themselves banished or punished, so the “autonomy" designation is simply not true. Many Tibetans become exiles. As many as 130,000 now reside in India.