Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/November 1885/Home-Life of the Thibetans



THIBET! how little does the name of that unexplored and jealously exclusive country convey to the average European! To the scientific it is known as the most extensive and highest table-land in the world, the water-parting from whence the majority of the largest and longest rivers in the world derive their sources. It is also the Rome of the Buddhist religion of the present day, and upon the miscalled "Lama" priesthood is bestowed the undeserved reputation of much learning and the possession of the secrets of ancient mystical and occult science. While tempted to consider the Thibetans from a European stand-point as, if not effete, at all events a semi-barbarous people, it only requires a moment's consideration of the striking fact that, notwithstanding its thousands of miles of frontier, no European can now evade their frontier-guards at any point along those thousands of miles, for it to become apparent that a country with a government which can organize and maintain such a marvelous and efficient system can hardly in reason be called effete. Effete it certainly is not; and yet, strange to say, notwithstanding this apparent evidence of its power, there is probably no country in the world of equal size which contains within itself such real weakness from a political point of view, and which could be so easily made a prey of by a designing neighbor. To arrive at that conclusion it is necessary to thoroughly understand the internal economy of that strange country, and so little is known concerning its people that no apology is necessary for entering into such minute details as space will admit of in this glance at its people and their habits, customs, government, and religious system.

To begin, and in order to familiarize the reader with the surroundings and conditions of life of the people under description, let us picture a typical Thibetan house.

The outside walls are generally of stone, set in a very inferior kind of mortar, but oftener in a bedding of puddled mud. When clay is available the builders much prefer to have only the foundations of stone and the walls above-ground of well-prepared clay, which latter they build up between plank molds. These are removed as each layer is finished, and then raised to act as molds for the next layer.

The houses have two stories, and frequently there is a shed along one side of the roof, in which the inhabitants work when the sun is oppressive. A great part of their work is done on the flat roof, such as thrashing grain, etc. The ground-floor is devoted to the cattle—horses and pigs, etc. The fowls usually roost with the family on the first floor. The construction of the floor of the upper story is sufficiently curious. Its main supports are cross-beams; on these smaller beams are placed at right angles, on which are laid slabs of wood; on these again are laid small twigs like broom, and then a coating of mud plaster is spread, on which the planks are finally placed. A hole is left in this floor for their primitive ladder (a piece of wood with notches cut in it), up through which hole ascend all the effluvia from the animals below!

There is only one door for the whole house. In front of this door there is generally a court-yard surrounded by walls. All the manure and refuse is allowed to remain in situ under the house, and in the court, all the year through, till shortly before the season for manuring the fields, when it is all collected into a big heap and left to ferment there from a fortnight to three weeks, after which it is spread over the land.

The larger houses have one or more wings and a veranda. The floor forming the roof is made in the same way as the other, only there is an addition of cow-dung to the mud instead of planks, and the plaster thus made is beaten for days with sticks to make it amalgamate, as in India. All cracks, as the plaster dries, are carefully filled up with fresh plaster till the whole is a good solid roof and floor combined, and very well adapted for thrashing.

The common-room is the kitchen on the first floor in which they all sleep, with their heads toward the fireplace, never with their feet toward the fire, as that is considered an insult or affront in their etiquette. In summer they sleep on the roof.

The Thibetans who live in the valleys are not as a rule fine men physically, but the highlanders, or hill-men, such as the shepherds, etc., up in the high Thibetan mountains, are massive beaux hommes, having somewhat the appearance of having been hewed out of solid blocks.

The people of the valleys are more or less idle gossips, disliking work intensely. The men do no work in the fields except plowing, and few who can afford to pay another to do it for them will do even that much. When not in repose—i. e., when not absolutely doing nothing—the men occupy themselves by sewing, spinning, looking after the mules, horses, and cattle, but above all in attending to the petty business of the family. The women sow, irrigate, weed, cut the harvest, thrash, winnow, carry the grain to the granary, and do all the housework as well. If there are loads to be carried, the women carry them. If a man be asked to carry a big case or heavy load, he is certain, on seeing it, to say at once, "That! that's a woman's load," and of the baggage he will select the smallest parcel he can find as his burden. In the pasturages, the women milk, make the butter, and look after the flocks when these are grazing near the tents or encampment. The men herd the flocks when grazing at a distance. The women ride as well as the men, and in the same fashion. From constantly throwing stones at the cattle the women are adepts at this, and can and do make it very unpleasant for any person who may have irritated them into putting their science into practice. Dirt is the ruling feature everywhere in Thibetan households. It pervades their houses and their persons, prevails in their customs, and gives a tone to and bears fruit in their speech.

A European, an English official in India, once desiring to see the real color of the Thibetan skin, paid the parents of a child to have it washed in hot water, several waters, and with an unlimited supply of soap. Every effort was made in vain, the skin could not be reached through such an armor-plating of dirt It is said with every show of truth that it would be quite impossible to wash an adult Thibetan down to the skin. The beauty of a woman in Thibet consists in her being stout, broad, thick-set, and heavily membered, and the accomplishments to be desired are that she should be above all things audacious, a good hand at a bargain and at repartee; in fact, a typical Billingsgate virago, if massive enough, would pass as a Venus in Thibet.

The ordinary food of the country is barley that, having been parched, is afterward ground and called Tsam pa, or Tsang pa. This meal they moisten with tea made in the Thibetan manner—i, e., of boiled "brick-tea" buttered and salted—or else, if too poor to use tea, moistened with soup, by mixing it in a cup and working the paste round with the fingers against the side of the cup. They eat this paste soft and moist. Tea made of the filthy "brick-tea," boiled with butter, salt being added to taste, and the mixture well churned, is the ordinary drink of the country, soup taking its place among the poorer classes. There are, of course, other kinds of food, but the above is the staple. They have a kind of chupatti, or scone, a common food. They eat flesh, chiefly of pigs, and fowls, but all depends upon their locality and means. They have no established rules, customs, or fixed hours for eating, the nearest approach to a rule being to take what they can get on the spot when hungry. Tea, as stated above, is the chief drink, so much so that it has become the custom to ask people to come and "drink tea," when to come and eat dinner is really intended, and this even in cases where the family is too poor to provide tea, and no tea in such cases is expected. After tea, as favorite beverage, comes a kind of barley-beer called Khiong in the east, Tchong in the west, and then a kind of distilled barley-whisky called A ra. In the pasturages buttermilk is the ordinary drink, and curds and whey, called Ta ra, are in favor. On the days on which they boil their meat they prepare no tea, but use the broth as a drink instead, on economical grounds; and on broth-days they mix the Tsam pa with broth instead of tea.

Coming to the Thibetan costume. The men wear the Tehru ba, a long and thick woolen robe, sheepskin in winter, descending down till it would drag considerably on the ground if let loose. It is doubled well across the chest and front till the ends or edges almost meet the shoulders, where one edge is fastened under the right arm with a tape or string bow. In dressing, the man, having on his Tehru ba hanging loose about him, holds his sash or belt about on a level with the knees, or a little above them, and this he draws in to make a gather, and then the belt, with all of the robe above it, is drawn up and the belt fastened round the waist. This leaves a large pouch of course, falling over the belt all round, and leaves the foot of the robe about half-way between the knee and the calf. Into the pouch so formed they put anything they have to carry, such as their Tsam pa cup, and even little dogs, and sometimes little pigs.

At night, before lying down to rest, they take off their boots and belt, and with these make a pillow. They then judge their distance from the "pillow," and kick that part of their robe (now trailing on the ground after removing the belt) which they intend to lie on toward the "pillow"; thus by a kick converting one side of their Tehru ba into a mattress, and by this arrangement leaving themselves still the other side of the robe to act as a complete bed-covering on lying down; and all without undressing. Only the rich indulge in a carpet to sleep on, and rich people sometimes use a Chinese carpet. The above system of bed-making is almost universally practiced throughout Thibet, or at all events throughout Eastern Thibet.

Women often wear the above costume, but it is not their proper dress, which is as follows: a kilted petticoat of woolen stuff, sometimes considerably decorated in colors with flowers, is so worn as to fall to about the ankles. In putting it on they commence on the left hip, pass it round the body once, and again across the front, thus having a double thickness in front; they fasten it on the right hip. This petticoat is made up of many narrow strips each a few inches wide, these being sewed together and kilted in such a manner as to have the pleats only down the sides, being quite plain both front and back. For a waist-band it has a strong strip of long-cloth sewed to its inner side. Attached to this waist-band is a sleeveless bodice, generally of cotton cloth, which is supported by bands over the shoulders, and this garment carries the weight of the petticoat. The bodice is doubled across the chest and tied on the right side at the neck, under the right arm and again lower down. They also wear a sash or cummerband some six inches in width and about ten feet long, with the ends falling loose from under the belt on the right side. This is the ordinary female attire, but, when they wish to dress better, they wear a sleeved chemise under the bodice; this, however, is very rarely worn at home in their houses or at work. On state occasions they wear a jacket with longer sleeves and longer body than the Chinese ma quoi, or quen shen tze, but something like it. This jacket is of silk or cotton or woolen cloth, etc., and falls to about half-way down the thighs. The sleeves descend some seven inches lower than the tips of the fingers, and are very full, though not so much so as the ma quoi. From the wrist to the ends of the sleeves the color is always different and of a more vivid and striking nature (sometimes red, green, etc.) than the stuff or material of the main portion. The collar is nearly always of red broadcloth, and is fastened by a large silver and coral brooch on the chest. The jacket is closed down the right side with galloons or braids of mixed and pronounced colors. They wear boots like those of the men, the tops being of woolen or colored cotton material, and the soles of leather. They very seldom wear any kind of hat. The coiffure varies much. Their ornaments are generally of silver (very rarely of gold) and precious stones, but chiefly of coral. The stones used are turquoise, lapis-lazuli, agate, aqua-marina, and amber, if the latter may be classed with the stones. They also wear ornaments made of a colored porcelain, etc. The very great people, such as governors, have large ornaments in gold. Most of their precious stones come from the neutral ground, or Singpho country, north of Upper Burraah, between the British province of Assam and China, also from India via Cashmere. When a woman prepares for sleep she simply wraps a man's Tchru ba round her head, and lets the skirts fall about her, rolling herself up in these, and, with her boots and belt for a pillow, she requires to seek no couch.

On the subject of trade very little can be said. Not that the trade is insignificant by any means, but the system can be summed up in the one word "peddling." Every family trades; the Lamasseries trade; the officials trade; but it is in every case conducted on the peddler system. Members of a family attend to the trade of the family, and travel immense distances with their laden mule and yaks, exchanging their goods at different places as they go along. Shops are almost unknown on any scale.

  1. From an article on Thibet in the "Nineteenth Century."