A tale of Tibet

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 14 minutes

Few of us will ever meet anyone who has been to Tibet. Getting into the country is a chore: non-residents require a Tibet Entry Permit (which itself requires a Chinese visa) and must join a group tour with a Chinese travel agency.

These requirements - and the cost - mean that most of us will only see Tibet from permitted images: Buddhist monks in maroon robes, mountainous temples, and a much-loved llama.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 14 minutes

Few of us will ever meet anyone who has been to Tibet. Getting into the country is a chore: non-residents require a Tibet Entry Permit (which itself requires a Chinese visa) and must join a group tour with a Chinese travel agency.

These requirements – and the cost – mean that most of us will only see Tibet from permitted images: Buddhist monks in maroon robes, mountainous temples, and a much-loved llama.

Other details – war, destruction, sadness – paint a grimmer picture.

A brief history of Tibet

First unified in the seventh century AD under King Songtsen Gampo and his successors, Tibet was once one of the most powerful countries in Asia.

In the 13th century, the Tibetan Lama offered Genghis Khan political loyalty, blessings, and teachings in order for Tibet to remain independent. As a result, the Mongol empire respected Tibet’s borders, and the two peoples have long shared many religious and cultural ties.

Later, the Manchus of China’s Qing dynasty (1644-1911) also embraced Tibetan Buddhism, with the Dalai Lama of the time even becoming a spiritual guide to the Manchu emperor.

In 1904, Britain briefly invaded Tibet to counter the Russian Empire’s advances in the East. The invasion resulted in the signing of the Convention of Lhasa between Great Britain and Tibet. Despite this loss of influence, China’s imperial government continued to claim authority over Tibet. When China’s Manchu empire ended in 1911 and Chinese troops surrendered to the Tibetan army, the Dalai Lama reasserted Tibet’s independence. But in 1949, Chinese troops crossed into Tibet and quickly defeated Tibet’s small army, taking over much of the city. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China claimed the invasion was necessary to ‘liberate’ the Tibetans from a theocratic feudal system. This was followed by the imposition of the 17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet in 1951, which called for Tibet’s government to actively assist the PLA to occupy Tibet.

The occupation changed life in Tibet forever. From 1959 to 1960, some 80,000 Tibetans fled their homeland, followed by thousands more in later years. Many religious buildings were destroyed, and religious figures imprisoned. Massive demonstrations and protests resulted in the deaths of 87,000 Tibetans in the Lhasa region alone.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama fled to India shortly after China’s invasion and remains the head of the Tibetan Government-in-exile in Dharamsala. In 1963, he created “The Charter of Tibetans in Exile”, a democratic constitution calling for freedom of speech, belief, assembly, and movement, along with guidelines for Tibetan administration in exile.

Despite the charter, Tibet continues to suffer religious persecution and violations of human rights. Over 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives since the Chinese occupation – more than one-sixth of the country’s population.

The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), created by China in 1965, now has a population of around 2.6 million, 93% of which are Tibetans and 6% Han Chinese. Other Tibetans live in areas outside the TAR, while around 150,000 refugees are scattered across 40 countries including India, Nepal, the United States, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. While the TAR is not seen as the ‘authentic’ Tibet, some have managed to maintain their traditions and culture within and outside the region.

Life on the Tibetan plateau

As the highest and largest plateau in the world, Tibet is sometimes referred to as “the roof of the world”. The cold, dry climate means that arable land is limited. Most families engage in subsistence agriculture, farming either sheep, cattle, goats, camels, yaks, donkeys, or horses. Rural Tibetans in the open grasslands are generally nomadic or semi-nomadic, living in tents and moving around the plateau with their animals.


Crops that can be grown include barley, wheat, rye, oats, rapeseeds, cotton, and some fruits and vegetables. Barley is a major staple of the diet and is used to make tsampa, a nutty-tasting flour eaten in many different ways: in fact, Tibetan people are often referred to as tsampa-eaters or po mi tsamsey. Traditionally, tsampa is mixed with tea and rich yak butter, and may also be combined with dry yak cheese. Other major dietary staples include yak meat, mutton, and dairy products, but the most well-known is butter tea. Made from tea leaves, yak butter, water, and salt, the tea is more like a salty soup. It is usually taken at breakfast together with tsampa.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibet’s unique culture is largely influenced by Buddhism, which was established in the eighth century. Buddhist missionaries arrived in Tibet from surrounding India, Nepal, and even China, bringing art, literature, and music from their respective countries.

The 14th Dalai Lama explains that eighth-century ruler King Trisong Detsen turned to India for help in introducing Buddhism to Tibet. Together, Tibetan and Indian scholars translated the collection of the Buddha’s words into 100 volumes, followed by another 200 volumes of works from subsequent Indian masters. This marked the beginning of Tibet’s cultural heritage. According to His Holiness, Tibetans’ intense study of the Buddhist scripts has allowed them to adhere strongly to Buddhist traditions: “We regard Indians as our teachers. Because we paid such close attention to the Buddhist literature we had acquired, I believe ours is now the most comprehensive Buddhist tradition.”

Tibetan Buddhism focuses deeply on shamatha (concentration) and vipashyana (insight meditation). “We not only cultivate warm-heartedness and compassion; we use our intelligence and look at things logically.”

One of the unique features of Tibetan Buddhism is the belief in the tulku, or incarnate lama. Tibetans believe in the cycle of rebirth, and that each passing lama is reborn into another being. “Sentient beings come to this present life from their previous lives and take rebirth again after death,” explains the Dalai Lama. It is also claimed that many Tibetans can remember their immediate past life or even many past lives and can recognise places and relatives from those lives.

Prior to 1959, around a quarter of all Tibetans were Buddhist monks or nuns, and Buddhism was a way of life for most. However, China’s Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 eradicated much of Tibet’s traditions and religious practices.

Tibetan nun

Today, fewer than 100 monasteries and nunneries are operating in Tibet, all of which are run under the eye of Chinese authorities. Despite this, Buddhism is still active, and the remaining monasteries and temples are sites of religious pilgrimage and ritual.

Tibetan cultural life

Tibetan visual art is deeply Buddhist in nature, and Tibetan artists have played a key role in cultural life for over a thousand years. Art is particularly influenced by Vajrayana Buddhism – also known as Tantric Buddhism – and most artworks reference the practice of tantra.

Vajrayana meditation encourages visualisations, and the art represents meditational deities, mandalas, and other ritual elements that aid this. Thangka – Buddhist paintings on cotton or silk appliqué – usually depict a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. Wall paintings and statues of deities in bronze or wood are also popular.

Music is central to Tibetan culture. Since the 12th century, storytellers have travelled between villages, telling Buddhist parables in song – a tradition known as Lama Mani. The singers often used Buddhist thangka paintings to depict their narrative and help the audience understand their teachings.

Today, Tibetans have a vibrant presence in Chinese popular culture. Tibetan singers are known for their powerful voices, which have been attributed to the high altitudes of their homeland.

Tibetan momos

Tibetan New Year (Losar) is the first lunar month of the year and the nation’s most important holiday. Preparations for the 15-day festival begin as early as December with the making of new clothes, cleaning the home, baking Rebgong bread, and creating table displays. The holiday itself is celebrated with family, friends, traditional foods, and Tibetan barley wine. Momos (steamed dumplings) are enjoyed, along with boiled yak and lamb meat, and butter tea. Monasteries are visited for prayers, and, in rural areas, homage is paid to the local mountain deity. Offerings are made of juniper branches, roasted grains, and candies, and butter lamps are burned in the family shrine. Fireworks finish off the celebrations.

Of course, the reality of life in Tibet is kept from the public eye, and only those who have left can tell us the truth.

Tibetans on the outside

Sherab Chompel grew up in Dzoege, Ngaba, in eastern Tibet. Dzoege is best known for its vast grassland and nomadic communities across the region.

Sherab fled from Tibet in 2007, aged just 16, crossing the border on foot to arrive at the Tibetan Refugee Centre in Nepal. He spent two months at the centre before travelling by bus to Dharamsala, India. Now 31, he is currently completing a PhD in Philosophy and Religion at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.

Although happy in India, Sherab admits he has faced considerable challenges over the past 15 years: “Everything from the foods to the weather and transportations, living conditions have changed. The change of weather has affected me the most, I guess. But I’m well adapted to everything here now.”

Around 85,000 Tibetans live in India, and Sherab has plenty of Tibetan friends who share his beliefs and traditions. “I think I still do maintain most of my cultural identity and traditions, but certain practices aren’t possible in India – like some of the food, horse racing, and yaks,” he says. “I miss my childhood the most. I had so much fun playing around with kids from our neighbourhood. I also miss some of the festivities and gatherings.”

His family still lives in Tibet, and he maintains contact through the Chinese messaging app WeChat. But going back to Tibet isn’t an option – the situation there simply isn’t favourable, he says. Instead, he hopes to continue studying and possibly one day move to Germany.

Sonam Topgyal still visits Tibet at least once a year. Born in Lhasa, Sonam moved to India with his parents in 1979. Now aged 50, he lives in Delhi and recently opened FabTibet Bonam, a store specialising in ancient Tibetan weaving. Over his lifetime, Sonam says he has seen Tibet change dramatically in almost every way – in culture, economy, and appearance. Tibetan festivals are still held, he says, but Chinese law requires that anyone working for the state – around 70% of the population – must refrain from attending temples or monasteries during the celebrations.

Monasteries and temples are also forbidden from displaying any portraits of the current Dalai Lama. They get around this by instead keeping a portrait of the 13th Dalai Lama on the spiritual throne.

For Sonam, the hardest part to accept has been the change in Tibet’s spiritual life. “Mostly all monasteries have been rebuilt. They are beautiful and more grand,” he says. “But there are very few monks. There is a police post outside every monastery to control the monks. “Without monks, it is like big body with very small heart.”

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