Tibetan Nomads



Tibetan Nomads

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The Nomads of Tibet: Beyond the Grasps of Time

“Not wanting to enter the tent, I looked up at the sky. Brilliant sunlight shown from above. I could see far into the distance and I enjoyed it.”

“On the grazing lands of Tibet you live in the present.”
-Rangeland Ecologist, Daniel Miller

“The whole life of the nomads is organized so as to make the most of the scanty aids to living which nature provides. At night they sleep on skins spread upon the ground and, slipping out of the sleeves, use their sheepskin cloaks as bedclothes. Before they get up in the morning, they blow up the still live embers of their fire with a bellows and the first thing they do is make tea.”

“Men in sheepskin clothing and with long braided hair trotted past on stout ponies. Sitting on high-backed saddles on top of colorful saddle carpets, with rifles slung over their shoulders and long swords dangling from their waists, these horsemen had a haughty air of confidence about them.”
-Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet

Since time unmemorable, the nomads of the Tibetan plateau have lived in accordance with the ancient ways of the pastoralist. Forever in tune with the tidings of their environment, deities, and herds they travel yearly circuits up to the high Himalayan high planes and then back down to the fertile mountain valleys. With lives and economies completely divested in their herd animals and hearts fully devoted to their beloved Buddha Dharma, the Tibetan nomads continue to mark out an existence that has long been wrought from most of the world.
Please be aware that I do not intend on producing a complete document on Tibet nomadism, nor do I balk at the fantasy that this is even a possibility. The externally mandated time and spatial demands of this paper decree that I err towards brevity and conciseness. I simply want to provide the reader with a general introduction about a way of life that was once pan-inclusive of nearly all human societies but is now on the verge of extinction. My sole aim in writing this is to make a (perhaps fallow) attempt at shedding light upon the ways of the Tibetan pastoral nomad. Please also note that I do not even make mention of semi-nomadism, in which agriculture is engaged in for part of the year, nor former nomads who have since become either farmers or ranchers. Take note that the criteria by which we, who are external to Tibet, delineate nomads (as migrants) is much different than those of Tibetans; who consider a nomad as someone who, simply, derives their livelihood and resources from animal husbandry.


By Wade Shepard of http://www.VagabondJourney.com



The region that is now known as historic Tibet encompasses the entire distance from central Sichuan province (103- 104 degrees East longitude) in the east to the Pakistani and Indian borders in the west, from mid Yunnan province (east) and the Nepal border in the south to the frontiers of Xinjiang and Gansu provinces in the north. This area was once divided between the Tibetan kingdoms of Amdu (modern Quinghai) , Kham (Yunnan, Sichuan), Chang Thang (within Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR]), Ngari (western boundary of TAR), Nagchuka (eastern TAR), and Tsaidam (located in extreme north of historic Tibet). The total area that these kingdoms encompassed was over 2.5 million square kilometers; which is roughly the size of Western Europe.

Geographically speaking, Tibet is an incredibly mountainous region; with the Himalayas, the world’s highest mountains, and its associated ranges making up its entire southern and eastern portions. Nearly everywhere in the region is at an altitude above 3,000
meters, with many inhabited locales measuring up at far over the 5,000m mark. The northern areas of the Tibetan region are vastly sprawling grasslands which are utilized by nomads as grazing ranges. This portion occupies approximately half of the Tibetan land mass.

The eastern quarter of Tibet consists of dense forests which, “run the entire breadth and length,” of the area. The southern portion is somewhat agriculturally dominated and includes the main centers of Tibetan civilization: Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse, and Tsetang.
The climate of the Tibetan region can be generalized as being harsh, arid, temperamental, bright, dry, and, through the long winters, frigid. As the rangeland ecologist, Daniel Miller, puts it, “Even in the height of summer, snow and hail storms are common and when they come blowing down out of the mountains you better have your act together. There is little room for error.” But, even though it is very cold, precipitation over most of the Tibetan region is scarce; which results in the extreme aridity of much of the plains areas. This also has the effect of causing the atmosphere to be, often times, devoid of clouds, which in turn, allows the sun to pour through unimpeded. Tibet is one of the brightest regions on the planet, logging nearly 3,000 sunshine hours a year. In winter, the temperatures of many areas can plummet to far below negative 16 degrees centigrade. A testament to this extreme cold is made by Heinrich Harrer, “. . . my thermometer showed an unvarying temperature of -30 degrees Centigrade. There were no lower markings on the instrument. ”Owing also to the thin highland atmosphere, there is little to absorb the heat and rays of the sun; which results in harsh daytime ultraviolet light exposure followed up by frigid nights. In such a parched, harsh climate of the  region the communities that live here needed to adapted ingenious mechanisms, practices, and community initiatives just to survive.

Nomad Culture:

The culture of the Tibetan Nomads primarily revolves around the practices of herding, trading, religious devotion, and, encompassing all three, migration. The ways and practices of the nomads are ancient and have been shaped by the necessities created by the harsh mountain ecosystem that is their home. The impact that environmentally mandated necessity has on Tibetan culture can not be under-estimated and, the impact of which, occasionally results in a manner of light cultural amorphism- where the ideal social dichotomy is mandated by what is environmentally possible.

The nomadic Tibetan family structure is one such social institution that lends credentials to the above statement. Nomadic Tibetan dwellings (generally tents) usually contain a single family unit which often times includes grandparents. When a couple is married it becomes a community decision as to which family (either bride’s or groom’s) they
should live with or if they should begin their own household. This is occasionally a matter of contestment; as issues of family pride, history, and practical circumstance are taken into account. An example of this is drawn out by Karma-Dondrub in his autobiographic account of his upbringing in Tibetan Nomad Childhood:

"Metog’s parents said that Ringchen should come to live with them. Tsormo (Ringchen’s mother) said that she would never Ringchen live under other’s control. She added that it was better if Metog (Ringchen’s bride) came to lived with us. I asked Ringchen his idea. He said he wanted to live with his parents. But I couldn’t agree, since our daughter-in-law comes from a family seriously affected by leprosy. I was afraid of ruining our claim to clean bones if she came to live with us. What I wanted was for the new couple to set up their own family."

The harshness of environmental and social conditions also leads to many family arrangements that can only be described as happenstancial. Polygamy and polyandry all have places within the Tibetan Nomad’s living strategy. During his journey through Tibet, Heinrich Harrer noted various domestic situations with puzzlement:

"She told us that her two husbands had gone out to drive in the animals. . . We were astonished to find polyandry practiced among the nomads. It was only when we were in Lhasa that we came to know all the complicated reasons that led to the simultaneous existence in Tibet of polyandry and polygamy."

The social structure of most Nomad communities are arranged hierarchically, with a sole leader and set chain of command. But although there is a single leader this is in no way a dictatorial system, as consensus and majority rule are often employed within the decision
making process. In most cases, all major decisions are made during mass meetings in which everyone is allowed to speak freely and decisions are usually made subsequent to open debate. It is also a regular occurrence for multiple community units to join together into federations that are lead by a single, collectively elected, leader. I stress that there are many different, situationally determined, variations in the organization of Nomad communities; I can only present a rough syntheses base upon my personal research.

The Tibetan Nomad lives and works in accordance with ebb and flow of the seasons. In summer it is time to lead the herds up to the high alpine pastures, trade with townsfolk, and prepare for the harsh season to come. In winter, the Tibetan Nomads move down into camps that are at a lower, warmer, altitude. In recent times, solid brick houses have been constructed to make the cold season a little mor bearable. The winter season is one of rest as there is not as much work to be done and, due to the extreme cold, synthesized activity is lessened to the bare essentials. As Heinrich Harrer puts it:

"In winter the men living a nomad life have not much to do. . . The women collect yak dung and often carry their babies around with them as they work. . . As one can imagine, the nomads have the simplest methods of cooking. In winter they eat almost exclusively meat with as much fat as possible. They also eat different kinds of soup- tsampa, the staple diet in agricultural districts, is a rarity here."

Religious devotion is a central, essential, part of Tibetan life. Their belief follows that of the Buddha Dharma with intensely strong traditional undercurrents. Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet in the early seventh century but did not take hold across the entire
culture until the ninth or tenth century. The Indian (and perhaps Chinese) Mahayana, Hinayana, yogic, and Tantra traditions that were introduced into Tibet were greatly synthesized and assimilated into the pre-existing spiritual tradition and the result, Tibetan Buddhism, arose as something new and pure. Tibetan Buddhist is centered around sutra recitation, meditation, and Tantra:

"Tantric systems transform the basic human passions of desire and aversion for the purpose of spiritual development. Rather than denying such primal urges, tantra purifies them into wholesome and helpful forces."

Tibetan Buddhism has, ultimately, became the religion of Tibetans across the entire plateau and has grown and expanded into multiple sects and subgroups. The life of the Tibetan Buddhist is, ideally, one of continuous devotion, compassion, ceremony, and role. Prior to the 1959 Chinese invasion, almost every family had at least one son in the monastic system and would provide a hefty portion of their family resources to the monastery. In turn, the Llamas and monks would perform the necessary life rituals- marriage, death-rites, births, divination, and other times in which a sage’s good wishes would be auspicious. The Nomad populace is, almost all-inclusively, highly devoted to the tenants of Tibetan Buddhism:

". . . one finds an alter in every tent, which usually consists of a simple chest on which is set an amulet or a small statue of the Buddha. There is invariably a picture of the Dalai Lama. A little butter lamp burns on the alter, and in winter the flame is almost invisible owing to the cold and the lack of oxygen."

The Tibetan moral system is based around the accumulation of merit and the prospects found in reincarnation. Merit can be roughly explained within the frame of idealized karma and reincarnation; in which deeds and actions that are considered “good” are rewarded with the potential of a higher re-birth and deeds that are thought to be “bad” add up to a lower reincarnation. “Taking of life, whether human or animal, is contrary to the tenets of Buddhism, and consequently, hunting is forbidden.” The fact that the Tibetan diet is meat dominant presents no contradiction; as the accumulation of bad merit falls upon the ones committing the deeds rather than whom they are doing it for (this is another example in which Tibetan culture adapts with what is environmentally dictated, as the Tibetan climate demands the consumption of animal products).

The worship of nature deities continues to occupy a powerful place in Tibetan spiritual practice. Traditionally, Tibetans use mountains and their specific deities as a way of conceiving their place in the world and cosmos. Every clan has a local mountain that is tied to their community and it assists in allowing them to weave themselves into the landscape and heaven.
The worship of mountain gods and other local deities is not just a minor domain of Tibetan religion but a more general political and cultural phenomenon. The mountain cult is an essential element in Tibetan culture and is part of collective identities which are expressed in the form of specific local economic and political behavior.

The religion and spirituality of the Tibetan Nomads provides the cord by which the major aspects of their culture, landscape, climate, and the myriad beings are tied together. In times of celebration as well as tribulation Buddha and the Mountains are invited to accompany and console the people by whom they are deified.


The economy of the Tibetan nomads is focused around pastoralism and, by extension, the transactions that are derived from such. The lifeblood of the Tibetan nomad’s way of life is derived from their pack and herd animals; which require continuous adherence to seasonal
migration routes:

"Mobility is a characteristic of Tibetan nomadic production systems. Herds are regularly moved between different pastures to maintain range land productivity. Tents, such as yak hair tents, enable Tibetans to move easily. Without the yak it is doubtful if people could survive in Tibet. In addition to providing hair for tents, yaks also provide wool for clothing, bags and ropes. They are milked and milk is made into butter and cheese. Their dung is used for fuel wood in a land where trees can not grow. Yaks also carry supplies and are used for riding."

Much of the Nomad’s sustenance comes directly from their animals. Their food largely consists of sheep, yak, and goat meat, tsamba, and various dairy products. The Nomad’s produce their clothing from the hides and wool of their sheep and yaks. Horses and yaks also serve as the predominant sources of transportation; as the Nomad communities are nearly completely devoid of any vehicles.

Most Nomad communities engage in at least some form of trade with other Nomads and villagers. Certain agricultural and, contemporarily, industrial commodities are needed by the Tibetan Nomads, which necessitates bartering with outsiders who have access to these resources. Often, Nomads take selected animals into village markets to sell and then purchase various agriculturally derived produce to take back to their communities. By current standards a high quality yak will sell at market for 2,500 yuan.

Seasonal migration circuit:

The Tibetan nomads generally travel along arranged paths to particular pasture lands that correspond in altitude with the season. In the summer, they usually travel up into the mountain highlands so that their animals can feed upon the fallow growth. In the winter, the nomads usually move down into the valley pastures and wait out the season. In this way, the nomads of Tibet live a very natural life; forever moving with the cycle of nature, rather than in opposition to it. This feeling of effervescent unity is explained by Miller:

"Here is a landscape full of energy. You quickly become charged. There is simple enjoyment in getting back to the basics. You know when the sun comes up. You watch every sunset. You know the phases of the moon. You're on moon time out there."

Under the traditional system (prior to the 1949 Chinese invasion) the nomads grazed their herds on large land masses that were the property of a particular religious leader; who would act in capacity very similar to that of an overlord of a fiefdom. “Like peasants on agricultural estates, these nomads were hereditarily tied to their estates and did not have the right to take their herds and move to the estate of another lord.” But although they did not own the land that they grazed their herds upon, they did own the animals themselves, as well as all of their personal property. They were obliged to pay taxes to the estate owners; which consisted of pre-arranged amounts of their animal’s produce. In exchange for this, the property owners allowed the nomads free range of access upon the land. The owners also did not engage in the practice of evicting pastoralist from the grazing land that was, essentially, their home.

The political organization of the nomad estates were drastically changed as a result of the Communist takeover of 1949. The nomads were impeded by a barrage of “reforms” which tried to influence them to take up the sedentary life of ranchers or other such controllable professions. In the Phala region of Chang Thang (as well as in many other areas) the Chinese attempted to round the nomads up into pastoral communes, in which the nomads became “owners” of shares of the commune but in reality were simply laborers who worked in accordance with the commune leaders’ orders. The pastoral technology remained basically the same, but the social and political organization were dramatically restructured by transferring ownership of the means of production and all marketing and production decisions from the household to the commune.

Chinese policy during this period, therefore, sought to maintain pastoral production but destroy the social and cultural fabric of traditional nomadic life.

As is evident from the above statement, the nomads were far more autonomous under their traditionally created Theocratic “feudalistic” system than they ever could be within the bounds of their Communist mandated “liberation.” Although these Chinese “reforms”were highly invasive, many of the Tibetan nomads endured the imperialist onslaught and now continue on with their traditional way of life in accordance with the laws of spirituality and nature.

Written by Wade Shepard of Vagabond Journey.com in the spring of 2006 in Hangzhou, China.

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