Sunday, June 21, 2020

Costume of the Tibetan Peoples

Hello all, 

Today I would like to talk about the traditional clothing of the Tibetan people. By Tibetan I mean those people who speak a language which is derived from Classical Tibetan, which was standardized in the 13th cent. but has since divided into over 2 dozen mutually unintelligible languages, but most of whom still use Classical Tibetan as a Liturgical, and to some extent, Literary Language, and also use the Tibetan alphabet to write their own languages. Most of these are spoken by small numbers of people, and I will only cover the costumes of the best known.
Tibetans call their county Bod, and themselves Bod Pa, བོད་པ་. Many of those who live in the southern nations use some form of this term to refer to themselves. 

For most of their history, Tibet was independent, although not necessarily unified. They all had a special respect and devotion to the Rgyalba Rinpoche, who outside of Tibet is usually called by the title the Mongols gave him, the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, The Lord of Compassion, whom the Chinese call Kuan-Yin, and the Japanese Kanon, a Buddhist Saint. For the most part, other people looked upon the Tibetan homeland as not having much to tempt them. This changed in 1951 when Communist China in their insatiable thirst to control the whole world, invaded and annexed Tibet. For a short time, they allowed some semblance of Tibetan government and culture to continue, but after the Tibetan people made it clear that they did not accept this domination by the Chinese Empire, they brutally and bloodily repressed all attempts of the Tibetan people to regain self government in 1959. The Rgyalba Rinpoche has since then lived in exile, and the Communist Government in China has declared reincarnation to be unlawful unless sanctioned by them. 
 The territory inhabited by the Tibetan People is mostly controlled by China today, but some of the Tibetan people also inhabit Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Kashmir, where they are generally called by different names, Dzongkha, Bhutia, Sherpa, Ladakhi, etc. basically for political reasons.

All together, there are about 6.5 million Tibetans, inhabiting an area of over 850,000 square miles within the Chinese Empire, as well as some areas in nations in the south of the Himalayas. This is roughly the same area as Alaska and Yukon combined.  All of this territory lies on the Tibetan Plateau, as well as in the Himalaya Mountains. In China, the Tibet_Autonomous_Region  makes up just about half of this territory. The rest is subdivided into 10 Autonomous Prefectures and 2 Autonomous Counties, which make up almost all of Qinghai Province, half of Sichuan Province, and small areas of Yunnan and Gansu Provinces. If you mark all of these on a map, they form one continuous area. This, of course, is to dilute the Political influence of the Tibetans.

 The culture and the costume are remarkably uniform over this vast area, differing in small details and in the headgear and ornaments. This is likely due to the unity of their religion, which includes great emphasis on pilgrimages.The Tibetans are mostly devout Buddhists, but they eat meat and wear fur and sheepskins, because the climate in which they live leaves them no choice. 

 Men wear high boots which resemble those of the Mongols, having upturned toes and thick soles. They also wear wide pants, a shirt, and the main garment, which is called chuba. This is a type of robe or coat which is belted at the waist, the upper part often forming a capacious pocket. In very cold weather, both sleeves may be worn, but most of the time the left arm is put into the sleeve, and the right sleeve is allowed to hang down by itself. In hot weather, both sleeves are left loose, and the whole hangs to the knees rather resembling a kilt. The chuba is of sheepskin among the nomads, and generally of woven wool otherwise, although it may be of any material for dress, including silk brocade, and often includes fur trim on the cuffs and hem. It has been recorded that originally the nomads wore the chuba, boots, a hat, and nothing else. A vest may be worn with the outfit, usually for performances or dress. A variety of hats and other headgear may be worn, as well as a wide array of ornaments, although not as many as with the women. 



The womens' chuba is much like the mens' except that it is longer, reaching the ankles or the floor and not as full. As with the men, very often only the left sleeve is worn. The right sleeve is then often tucked under the sash. Again, as with the men, both sleeves may be left hanging. This garment may be plain and utilitarian, or it may be highly ornamented. The blouse worn with this overlaps and has a closure on the side. Married women may wear a distinctive three panel apron of striped cloth called pangden.


Both men and women may wear shirts with extra long sleeves for dancing, to accentuate the arm movements, as in this video from Kham. Note that the women have the left sleeve rolled up, and the right tucked under the sash. Often the women have long sleeves but the men do not.

A second form of chuba is often called the Lhasa dress, and is common in U Tsang and the south Himalayas. It is distinguished by having no sleeves, but rather a wrap skirt and attached bodice.  The top is secured by ties, and the skirt is wrapped around to the back. The blouse is folded and overlaps the chuba, forming lapels. It is usually made to order, because the bodice fits very closely.




Here is a video showing how to put on this type of chuba.

The hair is usually worn in braids, often a large number of them, ideally 108, which is a sacred number in Buddhism, and a remarkable number of different headdresses may be worn, as well as ornaments of silver, gold, turquoise, amber, coral, carnelian and other stones, some of them quite large, including chains, reliquaries, necklaces, etc. In some areas square mantles may also be worn. 

In the past, the ornamentation of the chuba and the ornaments worn indicated the origin of the wearer, but these distinctions have been lost. 

Amdo ཨ༌མདོ
The Tibetan region of Amdo lies in the northeast, more or less equivalent to Qinghai Province, with some small portion of Gansu Province as well. Amdo encompasses the area from the Machu (Yellow River) to the Drichu (Yangtze). The current Dalai Lama was born in this area, and there are many famous monastaries there still.
Mongols, Tu, Salar and other ethnicities make up a small portion of the people in this area. The few cities are dominated by Han and Hui.

The Lhasa style dress is little worn in this area. Amdo women often do not wear an apron over the chuba, or make one out of a single panel of woven cloth if they do. A wide ornament is worn down the back for grand occasions, and a double hooked ornament is often worn hanging from the sash in front. This is a stylized version of a milking hook, from which a bucket would be hung for milking livestock. 

A video of a stage performance of Amdo dances. 

Kham  ཁམས་
Kham lies in the southeast of the Tibetan region. It includes the western half of Sichuan Province, a small corner of Gansu Province, the northwestern corner of Yunnan Province, as well as the eastern part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It is a region of relatively low altitude, and has relatively more farmers. The Khampa, especially the men, are known for being tall and well built. In the east, the Tibetan regions border that of the Qiang, and the Gyarang, who are considered to be ethnically Tibetan, actually speak Qiangic languages rather than Tibetan languages.

Kham men traditionally left their hair long, and wore it wound around the head together with a full tassel of yarn, either red or black. They often still wear their hair this way even with western clothing. 

 In these relatively rich lowlands, the farmers often prosper. There are festivals held, especially in Sichuan and Yunnan, which feature horse races. These often include 'Fashion Shows', in which both men and women dress up in Tibetan Dress far in excess of what would be worn for any normal occasion. The sheer size of some of the ornaments is amazing.

Video of a performance of Khampa song and dance. 

Ü-Tsang དབུས་གཙང་
 This area is in south Central Tibet. This is the center of Tibetan Culture and Religion. It has had a profound influence on all other Tibetan areas. This region may be divided into two: Ü,
དབུས་, which is the area around Lhasa, the eastern part of Central Tibet, which in Chinese sources is called "Front Tibet", and Tsang, གཙང་, which extends from Gyantse to the west, and in Chinese sources is called "Back Tibet" 

Starting in Lhasa, and spreading to other parts of Tibet, are modern versions of Tibetan costume. We have already seen the Lhasa Dress. This is often made in commercial brocade and striped fabric by townswomen.


 Here are a few more modern variants on Tibetan Dress. On the left a blouse and chuba made of thin commercial fabric, then a variation of the Lhasa dress with sleeves included, not using a blouse, but the skirt still wraps around and ties. Then on the right two examples of blouse and wrap skirt. This is equivalent to the bottom half of the Lhasa dress; some have fake sleeves which hang from the waist, in imitation of the chuba, but others have dispensed with them.


 Men dress up to participate in horse races and other equestrian events.

 The people of Lhoka, in the southeast, have some distinctive features to their dress. 

A video of a dance from Lhoka.

 In Shigatse, part of Tsang, there are also some distinctive features of the dress. This area borders Nepal.

A video of a dance from Shigatse area.

 These two girls are from southwestern Tibet, near the Nepali border, from the area around Mt. Chomolungma, which the British call Everest. Note the back aprons worn over the chuba and front apron. 

Here are some images of the nomads from further west, around Phala. The nomads also live further north, in the Changtang. Nomadic herding is the only type of human settlement which this land can support. They have to move to provide enough grazing for their herds of sheep, goats, yaks, and horses. Most of the time they live in tents woven of yak hair, although some build storage buildings and even houses at their winter camps.

A few designated valleys are left ungrazed, so they can come to cut hay to feed their horses, which otherwise would find it difficult to survive. 

Ngari  མངའ་རི

This lies in the west of Tibet, and borders Kashmir and other parts of Himalayan India west of Nepal. The local language, while still of the Tibetan group, resembles that of Ladakh. 

 An extremely complex and impressive festive costume has been preserved here, with square mantles, and horned headpieces and shoulder ornaments encrusted with turquoise and other gems. 



Here is a video of dances from Ngari done in simplified stage costume.

Ladakh ལ་དྭགས


 Ladakh is part of Indian held Kashmir.  It borders Chinese held Tibet on the east. The Aksai Chin is a mostly unpopulated area which is disputed between India and China. The Ladakhi people, as well as the Balti, are of Tibetan origin, unlike the Kashmiri. They maintain a separate identity, as well as a Tibetan language and the Buddhist faith.

Ladakhi traditional attire is unique, although it has obvious similarities to that of Ngari.


Video of a Lakakhi dance 


Nepal is an independent nation which was long a buffer state between British India and the Chinese Empire. The southern part consists of lowlands inhabited by people of Indic origin. The northern part, however, lies in the Himalayas, in which many of the people are of Tibetan origin. These people form various tribes, Bhotia, Thakali, Lopa, Dolpo, etc. but the most famous are the Sherpa. This name means "Eastern People" in Tibetan. The first man to climb Mt. Chomolungma, [Everest] was a Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, although he was apparently accompanied by some Englishman.

 The dress of the Sherpa is clearly the same as that of the Tibetans which live north of the border, some of the women wear the same sort of back apron as they do around Mt. Chomolungma to the north.

 This image is of a bride and groom.


 Sikkim - Bhutia འབྲས་ལྗོངས་པ་

Sikkim is a small territory which lies between Nepal and Bhutan. It was an independent nation untill the 1970's when it was annexed to India. The main population of the north of Sikkim are the Lepcha, who are related to the Tibetans, and the Bhutia, who are Tibetan, reportedly originally from Kham.



 Video of a Bhutia dance.

Bhutan - Dzongkha  རྫོང་ཁ་

The Dzongkha are the majority people in northwestern Bhutan. Most of the people of Bhutan are related to the Tibetans, but of a sister branch. The Dzongkha speak a Tibetan language, and are part of the Tibetan people.

The Bhutanese Dzongkha costume consists of a chuba like garment called kera or kira. The men wear it without pants and folded above the knee [except for the King]. The woman's kira is wrapped much like the Lhasa dress. A short jacket is worn with it. Bhutan lies near Lhoka, and like them, have developed the art of weaving, although to a greater extent. The traditional garments of the Dzonkha are made of extraordinary examples of weaving. 


 The King and Queen of Bhutan.

This concludes my article on the Tibetan Peoples, or Bonpa.
  There is much more that could be written but I believe this is enough for today.
Thank you for reading I hope that you have found this to be interesting and informative.

 Roman K.

Source Material:
Besides many online sources
Dalai Lama et al, 'My Tibet', Berkely, 1989
Melvyn Goldstein et al, 'Nomads of Western Tibet', Berkely, 1990
Zhao Qizheng et al, 'Tibetan Costume and Ornaments', PRC, 2000
Gina Corrigan, 'Tibetan Dress in Amdo and Kham',  London, 2017
George Schaller, 'Tibet's Hidden Wilderness', New York, 1997
Eleanor Olson, 'Tibetan Art', Newark, 1963
Persjis Muiznieks, 'National Costumes of Nepal', Oxnard, 2011
Jaya Jaitly et al, 'Crafts of Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh', New York, 1990
Poonam Rajya Laxmi Rana 'Nepalese Costumes and Ornaments', Kathmandu, 2016