Material History of Tibet

Nicknamed the “Roof of the World” for its towering peaks, Tibet is on the northern side of the Himalayas, governed as an autonomous region of China. Tibet today serves as home to many communities including Menpa, Han, Chinese, Sherpa, Dengs and Luopa. Tibet’s landscape is rich in minerals, with forests and grasslands occupying a large part of the country. Agriculture continues to be a large part of Tibet’s economy. There is still a nomadic population in Tibet that keeps moving from place to place herding their yaks and sheep.

Buddhism, introduced in the seventh century, is the most practiced religion among the Tibetan people and is central to their everyday lives. Due to decentralization from the rise and fall of various monarchies throughout their history, Buddhism has been split into some 20 sects. The five most common ones are Nyingmapa (750 AD), Kahdampa, (circa 1050 AD), Kagyupa (circa 1060 AD), Sakyupa (1073 AD), and Gelugpa (1407 AD).

Tibetan clothing is deep rooted in the beliefs of each Buddhist sect, cultural heritage, personal preference, environment and climate conditions. Each area of Tibet has its own distinct style of clothing. In Northern Tibet, the weather is cold and extreme, therefore the locals wear fur-lined robes year-round. In the southern region of Tibet, clothing is hand woven wool, hemmed in colorful silk or cloth. Clothes worn for festivals and special occasions are different from those worn daily.

Some of Tibet’s most opulent ceremonial festivals are the Butter Lamp Festival, Saga Dawa Festival, Horse Racing Festival, Yarlong Cultural Festival, Ganden Festival, Harvest Festival, Ongkor Festival, Bathing Festival, Losar Festival (or Tibetan New Year) and Shoton Festival. People gather at these events dressed in their best. The Nagchu horse racing festival is the grandest annual event in northern Tibet where ceremonial clothes are on full display. Some of the most expensive costumes displayed at this event are worth hundreds of thousands.

Attire and accessories are significant to Tibetan culture. Tibetans wear chunky, bold, and colorful jewelry to complement their custom clothing, such as embroidered robes with intricate designs. Common jewelry materials are coral, turquoise, amber, gold, silver, and dzi beads. Must of the gold, amber, and dzi beads are heirlooms handed down through generations. The nomads in eastern Tibet store their wealth in portable art forms from beautiful fabrics to ornaments. Tibetans today still value jewelry and other accessories to represent social status and for sentimental value as physical remnants of their ancestors.

From decorative pigtails with beads to tassels made with precious metals and fabrics, here is a collage of Tibetan traditional festive jewelry and accessories.