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Taboos in Tibet

All Tibetan people believe in religion. As one of the minorities with a long history, Tibetan people live as a compact community in the plateau where there is little contact with outside world. In a unique social living environment, their culture is mysterious and colorful, hence forming a set of customs and taboos different from other nationalities. A good many of taboos place great constraint on people's daily conducts like an unwritten law.

We can deeply feel their faith and strength when we travel to Tibet, which also requires us to do as the Romans do. It’s not only a respect for the Tibetan people to observe local customs and taboos, but also can help us to avoid many unnecessary troubles.

The following customs and taboos must be known if you are going to have a trip in Tibet.

I. Interesting Customs in Tibet

The Tibetans have many novel and interesting customs that reflect the simple and pious of the Tibetan people. Tourists always have many questions, so we have listed some of the most frequently asked questions from tourists and answered them one by one.

1. Why Do Tibetan People Stick Their Tongue at You in Tibet

Please don't be surprised if you see Tibetan people smiling and sticking their tongue out at you. That is a way of showing humility and respect to you instead of mockery. You can also smile in return politely.

2. Why Do Tibetan People Offer Khata

Offering Khata is the most common etiquette of the Tibetan people.

In Tibet, people have the custom of offering Khata in weddings, funerals and festivals. Moreover, they offer Khata when they meet with the elders, pilgrimage to figure of Buddha, communicate with others and see someone off, etc. Khata means purity, sincerity and loyalty. The Tibetan people think that white symbolizes purity and lucky since ancient times, and that’s the reason why Khata is generally in white. Of course, there is also multicolored Khata which includes blue, white, yellow, green and red. Same as the prayer flags, blue symbolizes sky, white symbolizes clouds, green symbolizes rivers’ water, red symbolizes guardian deities and yellow symbolizes earth. The multicolored Khata is used to make the multicolored arrow for consecrating the Bodhisattva or dedicating to close relative as the most grand gift.

3. What’s the Meaning of “Drinking One Glass of Wine in Three Times”

"Drinking One Glass of Wine in Three Times" is the main etiquette of the Tibetan people when they meet guests.

Here is the process of drinking one glass of wine in three time. Guests first dip wine with the ring finger of their right hand, then flick the ring finger three times in the air, mid-air and the ground to show respect to heaven, earth, and ancestors. Then guest can take a sip, and the host will fill the glass with wine. Take another sip and the host will fill it again. It will repeat three times and guests should drink up the wine at last. You may wish to interact with the Tibetan people if you have the honor to be toasted by them. This will be both a politeness and a special experience.

4. What’s the Kowtow

Kowtow is a ritual of believers and Buddhists when they are worshiping Buddha in the area where Tibetan Buddhism prevails. People kowtowing are often seen in temples with religious activities such as the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace.

Believers will follow the procedure to kowtow on the way. First they will stand at attention and chant the Om Mani Padme Hum (which is same as the Namah Amitabha of the Han Buddhism).

They will clasp their hands and raise hands overhead when they kneel down. Then they will make an obeisance with their clasping hands from top of the head to the forehead and chest for three times. Next, they will lie prostrate, stretch both hands straightly, lay their hands flat and row on the ground. After that ,they will stand up and repeat devoutly. Please asking the consent of the kowtowing believers if you want to shoot photos of them.

5. What's the Busiest Festival in Tibet

The Losar (Tibetan New Year) and the Sho Dun Festival are the grandest festivals of the Tibetan people. The Losar has the same meaning as the Spring Festival to Han people. People should not sweep the floor or say something that are unlucky on New Year's Day. The Sho Dun Festival is also known as the day of drinking yogurt in Tibetans. The biggest thing to watch in Sho Dun Festival is the showing of giant figures of Buddha which are fabric paintings or embroideries.

The Tibetan people are hospitable. You can join and enjoy the events if you go Tibet during the festivals.

It is said that prayer wheel turning is clockwise, why some people who turn it anticlockwise?

Most of Tibetan people believe in Tibetan Buddhism, and some believe in Bonismo which is also a ancient religion. Turning prayer wheel is clockwise in Buddhism while it is anticlockwise in Bonismo. From the perspective of Buddhism, you should turning from left to right if you encounter Marnyi Stones, pagodas or temples and the Bonismo is opposite.

6. How to Visit the Barkhor Street

The name of Barkhor Street is transliteration. It is more than 1000 meters long and surrounds the Jokhang Temple. Over the past thousand years, numerous pilgrims made this road by their steps and bodies. From the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, people should detour around the Jokhang Temple in clockwise to worship the Buddha statue of Gautama Buddha there. So you should walk in clockwise when you travel the Barkhor Street.

7. What Are the Marriage and Procreation Customs of Tibetan People

The Tibetans have many branches, and different branches have different marriage customs and traditions that include monogamy and polygamy. However, the whole Tibetans are forbidden to marry close relatives, as well as to love or marry between the paternal lineages and the maternal lineages.

It’s taboo to see unlucky omens such as dumping trashes, lifting patients, empty back baskets and buckets when Tibetan people fetch the bride or go on a long journey. But it will be a good sign on the contrary, people will offer Khata to express appreciation.

Tibetan women who lost their husbands in young ages will not wear some hair ornaments such as the three rings at the top or the conch in the middle. Neither will they wear the gold or silver earrings that set with turquoise or coral (except for remarried people).

Tibetan people will set a fire, hang scarlet, pile up stones or insert cypress branches as a sign at the doorway when there is a patient or a child is birthing in their family. They believe the outsiders may bring evil influence into the house which is bad for the patient or mother. So it’s taboo for guests to enter or even call someone, especially in the afternoon and night. If the guests must to enter the house, they have to jump over a fire that made by the host at the doorway before entering the house. In the past, Tibetan women could not give birth indoors. In general, they gave birth at outside of the tent or at cattle pen, because Tibetan people believed that feminine reproductive was obscene and brought bad luck. But the child brought joy after birth.

II. Taboos to Note for the Trip to Tibet

Tibet is a safe place, Tibetan people are kind and be with a straightforward personality. But they are very serious and never make a concession in matters of faith. You should respect their faith even you may not understand that. Therefore, you should do some researches in advance to avoid misunderstanding or dispute if you want to have fun and enjoy comfortably in Tibet.

Taboos of the Scenic Spots

1. Turning the prayer wheel in clockwise when you encounter Marnyi Stones, pagodas or temples. For now, many temples open to tourists in Tibet are of Tibetan Buddhism. Most of Tibetan people believe in Tibetan Buddhism, so we should turning in clockwise instead of in anticlockwise. However, temples of Bonismo that are small quantity are exactly opposite.

2. It’s taboo to smoke, to touch or to point the Buddha statues, to turn or even to touch scriptures, and to beat drums when you visit the temples. Moreover, do not touch the religious artifacts such as amulets and chaplets that be carried with lamas.

3. Do not step over the musical instruments that are used in Buddhist or brazier when you visit the temples. Do not step over the drooping prayer flags when you climb mountains.

4. Do not shoot photos or videos without the consent of managerial staffs when you are in the temples.

5. Be quite when you are in the temples. Keep your body upright when you sit. Do not sit at the seat of the living Buddha.

6. It’s taboo to talk loudly when you climb over the snow mountains or pass lakes.

7. Take off your caps and sunglasses when you enter the temples. Ladies should not wear revealing clothes such as miniskirts or shorts when you visit the temples.

8. It’s taboo to shout or disport near the temples.

9. Mind your diet before you go to visit the temples. You'd better not eat garlic. There is a say:“Do not let anyone who eats garlic enter the temple even if the temple catches fire”, which express a religious custom.

10. Do not drop litter carelessly when you visit the scenic spots. Do not drop litter into lakes especially.

11. Whether it is cattle, sheep, horse, dog, local people, child or even a stela in the scenic spots, most of these will take charges for photographing. Ask for the price in advance if you want to take a photo with them while do not turn your lens towards them if you don't.

Taboos of the Diet

1. Tibetan people are absolutely forbidden to eat donkey, horse or dog, and people do not eat fish in some areas.

2. It’s taboo to add tea or water by using a spoon with backhand which is a behavior used for the deceased people.

3. It’s taboo to place the bowl upside down on the table if you have dinner with Tibetan people, because only deceased people’s bowl will be turned over.

4. It’s taboo to step over the cooker or food of Tibetan people’s home.

5. Do not eat up your mouth when you take food. Do not make any noise when you chew or drink. Do not disport loudly or take food over dishes when you have dinner with Tibetan people.

6. It’s better to smoke less and breath more air due to the low oxygen level in plateau.

7. Tibetan people will treat you with bowls that be scrubbed by wet cow dung if they see you as distinguished guest. So don't be surprised if you encounter that.

Taboos of Religion

1. It’s taboo to point the Buddha statues, thangkas, scriptures or murals with your finger when you visit the temples. You can use your palm to show your respect.

2. Whether the Tibetan government or tourism agencies won’t allow tourists to see the celestial burial. Tibetan people, especially the families of the deceased people are not willing to let outsiders watching which is a national custom as well as a constant occurrence in human relationships. Please mind your words and deeds if you meet that. It is strictly forbidden by law to take photos or any other activity on the celestial burial.

3. It’s taboo to use bowl or cup with crevice or chip, because Tibetan people believe that the broken implements will obstruct luck.

4. It’s taboo to use papers that are written or printed with scriptures as toilet paper or to wipe things.

5. It’s taboo to throw bones into fire, because Tibetan people see fire as the divine thing.

6. Do not touch kids’ or adults’ head in Tibet, because only the living Buddha can touch their head.

7. It’s taboo to whistle at night, because local people believe that this kind of behaviour will draw ghosts or elves.

8. Do not drive or hurt cattle and sheep with red, yellow and green marks when you see them in the countryside, because those are Tibetan people’s worshiping offerings.

9. Do not step on or take away the prayer flags or the Marnyi Stones that are often seen along the trip in Tibet. Especially for some beautiful stones, some tourists take them away secretly when they see the stones, which is absolutely not allowed.

10. You should bow to accept if there is hospitable Tibetan host offers Khata to you.

11. Do not step on the door sill when you enter Tibetan people’s home.

Taboos of the Dressing and Daily Life

1. Do not step over or on the clothes of Tibetan people and do not put your clothes upon theirs. Moreover, do not step over someone which is taboo.

2. Observe the custom to take a seat when you enter indoors that is male left and female right. Do not wear miniskirts or shorts when you enter the temples.

3. It’s taboo that outsiders inquire something about parents through their children.

4. Do not go to the Tibetan community alone at night, and that is for your own safety.

Notes of Social Words and Deeds for the Trip in Tibet

1. It is recommended to take some change with you for the alms giving in temples.

2. Housewife or child will pour the buttered tea for you if you go to a Tibetan people’s house as a guest. But you should not hold the tea cup by yourself, it’s considered to be courteous to take the cup from the host’s hands. Please do not finish the tea when you leave which is a sign of respect for the host.

3. Pay attention to avoid spitting or clapping behind Tibetan people whether it’s unintentional or not, because it’s a taboo to them.

4. It’s taboo to address venerable people, elders, Buddhists or teachers disrespectfully by name when you are communicating with them. The word “La” should be added after the address.

5. Do not bargain with local people if you don’t want to buy their goods.

6. Do not bend your arm around your Tibetan friend’s(if you have one) shoulder or touch his head no matter how intimate you are.

7. It’s taboo to say ominous words or say bestial words to curse others in Tibetan people’s house.

8. Some taboos you should know if you go to Tibet for a trip during the festivals. It’s taboo to sweep the floor or eat food that with stuffing on New Year's Day of Losar, as well as crying, cursing, quarreling and saying ominous words such as “empty”, “no”, “disease”, “pain”, “death”, “kill”, “shit of luck”. Tibetan people believe that these will forebode the bad luck whole the year. Moreover, people won’t borrow things from others which may cause lacking of richness whole the year.

9. Do not buy any furs of wild animals, horns of a wild Tibetan antelope or skull of a wild yak when you have a trip in Tibet. This kind of behaviour is same as supporting the poaching of wild animals which is increasingly rampant in Tibet. You will be in big trouble if you are found carrying these items when you leave Tibet.

10. Ask for the believers’ or inhabitants’ consent in advance if you want to shoot photos of them during your trip.

11. Sit upright with your legs crossed when you are in a temple or Tibetan people’s house. Do not straighten your legs and let soles of your feet toward people, and do not gaze around.

12. Do not enter into the white tent casually which you may encounter on the roadside, because there are still special customs of entering tent in some Tibetan areas.

13. Do not step over Tibetan people’s knife, shoulder pole, rein or saddlery casually.

14. Here we provide you some Tibetan languages that be commonly used in case you may need them(transliteration -- meanings): Tashi delek -- Good fortune as you wish; Ajia -- Elder sister; Togeekey -- Thank you; Quanta -- Sorry; Mingchra -- What's the name; Medoll -- No (you can say Medoll if a kid ask for money).

Now, you may find that all these taboos are complicated. In fact, there will be no problem as long as we think in the others’ place and pay more attention. If you choose our service of the trip to Tibet, our professional guides will also explain the interesting stories of Tibet in detail as well as remind you that the notes you should notice.

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