Travel Guide

Tibetan Dwelling Customs and Etiquette

The diversity of Tibetan residential customs is not only manifested by the buildings of square shape and stone structure but also the more abundant types caused by different regions. On account of the differences in geographical environment and ecological system as well as living style, the vast nomadic and animal husbandry areas of northwestern Tibet are mainly the representative of the living custom of the tent while in lowland valley and the low latitude southern part, due to vastly different means of livelihood and cultural heritage, the living customs of its content and forms also own something unique. There existed highly portable tents, houses constructed with earth and wood, blockhouses built mainly with stone, shelters made primarily with bamboo or wood, and even caves. Although along with the time vicissitude, an increasing number of the modern-style reinforced concrete buildings emerging in cities and towns nowadays, the old and traditional dwellings are still shelters and sweet homes of many Tibetan people.
In the long-term nomadic and animal husbandry life practices of Tibet, there gradually formed two major categories of tents according to the need of actual function, one is the black tent for living, made of the yak’s hair, named “sbra” in Tibetan language, and is one of the main dwellings of nomadic herders. The other is a leisure tent for entertainment, made of excellent material and decorated with colorful cloth, Tibetan people call it gur. Because of continuous migration, Tibetan people created this sort of tent that can be conveniently carried, wherever they go, the tent is with them, and it is their home. A growing number of herdsmen nowadays have begun to settle down and built fixed houses though, the tent is still an indispensable living supply. Even in the grassy season, people have to constantly move since the grass of a place is limited and the growth of the grass requires a certain time. Only in the autumn and winter when hays are the only available food for yaks and sheep will the herdsmen live in their fixed houses.

In establishing a fixed tent, the herdsmen will east-locate the tent doorway in the light of traditional customs. Put a fire stove in the center for warming and cooking, and shrines, Buddhist scriptures, butter lamps, etc. in the median wall of the tent. On the south side stocked with food and other daily supplies, also used as a kitchen. Other household items are placed mainly on the north side, functioning as the hall of a house. Wherever they construct a tent, herdsmen will never forget to hang the colorful praying flags on a rope attached to a tent. Dotted tents and aflutter praying flags dressed the snowy plateau more attracting.

In many legends of the Lhoba nationality which lives in the southern area of Tibet, their ancestors once lived in caves or tree nests. After a long life practice, they created assorted houses among which the bamboo house is the main dwelling of Lhoba nationality, generally divided into three layers, with the bottom layer for raising livestock, middle one for living and the top for stacking farm implements, subsidiary agricultural products and food, etc. In the choice of a good spot for a house, there are some interesting customs in it. For instance, if a family of five persons wants to build a house, they need to preselect three places with three groups of grains involved eight grains within three of them respectively represented the pig, the yak and the chicken. Hit a foot square of preselected homestead into flat, then a group of grains in its center put after sunset with fresh branches on it and a flagstone on the surface. Observe it before the next sunrise, if some of the eight grains spread out, it means this place may witness something ominous, and if there are ants here, meaning the hosts will fall ill if constructed here. Only the grains still pile together without any bugs mean it an appropriate place for housing. Under this condition, the homestead decided and people can build a new house after carrying complex ritual activities.

In agricultural areas of Lhasa, Shigatse, and Shannan, it is very common to see the flat-roofed fort-style house, habitually called “blockhouse” among Tibetans. The most typical blockhouse is laid with stones, still with some are of earth-wood structure, featuring warm in winter and cool in summer. The fort-style house is generally multistoried building, and the bottom layer is usually used as corral, the second as the living room or storage room etc. the third as scripture hall. Some families also build single-storey house. The styles of the blockhouse vary from place to place in Tibet. The fort in Lhasa is mainly inner corridor form while in Shannan, it is usually with outer courtyard. However, all the forts are of flat roof where people are able to soak up some sun, air-dry grain, and seek for amusement etc. In addition, every household will cover the roof with colorful praying flags and doing worship activities in major festivals or when there are important things at home.