Tibetan people

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Tibetan people
bod pa · 博巴 [1]
Total population
c. 6.5 million
Regions with significant populations
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg  Mainland China 6.3 million [2]
Flag of India.svg  India 120,000 [3]
Flag of Nepal.svg    Nepal 20,000–40,000 [4] [5]
Flag of the United States.svg  United States 10,000 [6]
Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg  Canada 8,040 [7]
Flag of Bhutan.svg  Bhutan 5,000 [5]
Flag of Switzerland.svg   Switzerland 4,000 [8]
Flag of Australia (converted).svg  Australia 1,000 [9]
Flag of New Zealand.svg  New Zealand 66 (2006) [10]
Flag of Japan.svg  Japan 60 (1998) [10]
Tibetic languages
Predominantly Tibetan Buddhism; significant minority of Hinduism; minorities of Bon, Christianity, Islam
Related ethnic groups
Sherpa  · Qiang  · Ngalop  · Sharchop  · Ladakhis  · Baltis  · Burig  · Kachin  · Yi  · Bamar  ·Other Sino-Tibetan-speaking peoples
L'ambassade de la Compagnie Orientale des Provinces Unies, 1665 (Embassy of the Dutch East India Company) Nieuhof-Ambassade-vers-la-Chine-1665 0829.tif
L'ambassade de la Compagnie Orientale des Provinces Unies, 1665 (Embassy of the Dutch East India Company)

The Tibetan people (Tibetan : བོད་པ་, Wylie : bod pa, THL : bö pa; Chinese :藏族) are an ethnic group native to Tibet on the crossroads of South and East Asia. Their current population is estimated to be around 6.5 million. In addition to living in Tibet Autonomous Region, significant numbers of Tibetans live in the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan, as well as in eastern Pakistan, northern India, Nepal, Bhutan and the western world.


Tibetan languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman language group. The traditional or mythological, explanation of the Tibetan people's origin is that they are the descendants of the human Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa and rock ogress Ma Drag Sinmo. It is thought that most of the Tibeto-Burman speakers in Southwest China, including Tibetans, are direct descendants from the ancient Qiang people. [11]

Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although some observe the indigenous Bon religion and there is a small Muslim minority. Tibetan Buddhism influences Tibetan art, drama and architecture, while the harsh geography of Tibet has produced an adaptive culture of Tibetan medicine and cuisine.


As of the 2014 Census, there are about 6 million Tibetans living in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the 10 Tibetan autonomous prefectures in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan. [12] [13] The SIL Ethnologue in 2009 documents an additional 189,000 Tibetic speakers living in India, 5,280 in Nepal and 4,800 in Bhutan. [14] The Central Tibetan Administration's (CTA) Green Book (of the Tibetan Government in Exile) counts 145,150 Tibetans outside Tibet: a little over 100,000 in India; over 16,000 in Nepal; over 1,800 in Bhutan, and over 25,000 in other parts of the world. There are Tibetan communities in the United States, [15] Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, France, Mexico, Norway, Mongolia, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. In the Baltistan region of Northern Pakistan, the Balti people are a Muslim ethnicity of Tibetan descent numbering around 300,000. [16]

There is some dispute over the current and historical number of Tibetans. The Central Tibetan Administration claims that the 5.4 million number is a decrease from 6.3 million in 1959 [17] while the Chinese government claims that it is an increase from 2.7 million in 1954. [18] However, the question depends on the definition and extent of "Tibet"; the region claimed by the CTA is more expansive and China more diminutive. Also, the Tibetan administration did not take a formal census of its territory in the 1950s; the numbers provided by the administration at the time were "based on informed guesswork". [19]

PRC officials attribute growth of the Tibetan population to the improved quality of health and lifestyle of the average Tibetan since the beginning of Chinese governance in Tibet. According to Chinese sources, the death rate of women in childbirth dropped from 5,000 per 100,000 in 1951 to 174.78 per 100,000 in 2010, the infant mortality rate dropped from 430 infant deaths per 1,000 in 1951 to 20.69 per 1,000 by the year of 2010 (infant mortality in China as a whole was officially rated at 14 per 1,000 in 2010 [20] ). The average life expectancy for Tibetans rose from 35.5 years in 1951 to over 67 years by the end of 2010. [21]

In China

According to the Sixth National Population Census of the People's Republic of China (2010), there are 6,282,187 Tibetans nationwide: [22]

There are 2,716,388 people in the Tibet Autonomous Region, 1,496,524 people in Sichuan Province, 1,375,059 people in Qinghai Province, 488,359 people in Gansu Province (mostly in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Bairi Tibetan Autonomous County, and 142,257 people in Yunnan Province (mostly in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture). Tibetans account for 0.47% of the total population of the country. Tibetans account for 90.48% of the total population in Tibet Region, 24.44% of the total population of Qinghai and 1.86% of the total population in Sichuan.

Of all Tibetans in China, 315,622 people live in cities, 923,177 in towns, and 5,043,388 people (80.3%) live in rural areas.

In India

In India Tibetic people are found in the regions of Ladakh (Ladakhi and Balti [ disambiguation needed ]), Spiti valley, Uttarakhand (Bhotiya), Sikkim (Bhutia), and Anurachal Pradesh (Khamba, Lhoba and Monpa people). There are also nearly 100,000 Tibetans living in exile in India since 1959. [23] The majority of them living in Tibetan enclaves such as Dharamshala and Bylakuppe.

In Nepal

Tibetans are known as Bhotiyas in Nepal, where they are majority in regions such as Upper Mustang, Dolpo and Limi valley. Nepal is also home to other Tibetic people such as the Sherpa and Thakali. There are also more than 10,000 Tibetan refugees in Nepal. [24]


Tibetan people
Chinese name
Chinese 藏族
Tibetan name
Tibetan བོད་པ་
Areas in which concentrations of ethnic Tibetans live within China TAR-TAP-TAC.png
Areas in which concentrations of ethnic Tibetans live within China
Tibetan peddler living in Nepal chibetsutoRen noWu Mai rinepalImg188.jpg
Tibetan peddler living in Nepal

The Tibetic languages (Tibetan : བོད་སྐད།) are a cluster of mutually unintelligible Sino-Tibetan languages spoken by approximately 8 million people, primarily Tibetan, living across a wide area of eastern Central Asia bordering the Indian subcontinent, including the Tibetan Plateau and Baltistan, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan the northern Indian subcontinent. Classical Tibetan is a major regional literary language, particularly for its use in Buddhist literature.

The Central Tibetan language (the dialects of Ü-Tsang, including Lhasa), Khams Tibetan, and Amdo Tibetan are generally considered to be dialects of a single language, especially since they all share the same literary language, while Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Sherpa, and Ladakhi are generally considered to be separate languages.

Although some of the Qiang peoples of Kham are classified by China as ethnic Tibetans,[ citation needed ] the Qiangic languages are not Tibetic, but rather form their own branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Physical characteristics

Tibetan Middle aged woman in Sikkim Tibetan Middle Aged Lady.jpg
Tibetan Middle aged woman in Sikkim

Tibetans are phenotypically diverse, and exhibit high-altitude adaptations. The genetic basis of Tibetan adaptations have been attributed to a mutation in the EPAS1 gene, [25] [26] and has become prevalent in the past 3,000 years.

Recent research into the ability of Tibetans' metabolism to function normally in the oxygen-deficient atmosphere above 4,400 metres (14,400 ft) [27] [28] [29] [30] shows that, although Tibetans living at high altitudes have no more oxygen in their blood than other people, they have ten times more nitric oxide and double the forearm blood flow of low-altitude dwellers. Tibetans inherited this adaptation thanks to their Denisovan admixture. [31] Nitric oxide causes dilation of blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely to the extremities and aids the release of oxygen to tissues.

Ethnic origins


Modern Tibetan populations are genetically most similar to other modern East Asian populations. [32] They also show more genetic affinity for modern Central Asian than modern Siberian populations. [32]

Released in 2010 by UCLA at Berkeley, a study identified more than 30 genetic factors that make Tibetans' bodies well-suited for high-altitudes, including EPAS1, referred to as the "super-athlete gene" which regulates the body's production of hemoglobin, [33] allowing for greater efficiency in the use of oxygen. [34]

Genetic studies shows that many of the Sherpa people have allele frequencies which are often found in other Tibeto-Burman regions, in tested genes, the strongest affinity was for Tibetan population sample studies done in the Tibet Autonomous Region. [35] Genetically, the Sherpa cluster closest with the sample Tibetan and Han populations. [36] Additionally, the Sherpa had exhibited affinity for several Nepalese populations, with the strongest for the Rai people, followed by the Magars and the Tamang. [36]


Within Tibetan mythology, the origins of Tibetans are said to be rooted in the marriage of the monkey Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa and rock ogress Ma Drag Sinmo. [37]


Three monks chanting in Lhasa, 1993 Three monks chanting in Lhasa, 1993.jpg
Three monks chanting in Lhasa, 1993

Most Tibetans generally observe Tibetan Buddhism or a collection of native traditions known as Bön (also absorbed into mainstream Tibetan Buddhism). There is a minority Tibetan Muslim population. [38] There is also a small Tibetan Christian population in the eastern Tibet and northwestern Yunnan of China. Also there are some Tibetan Hindus who mainly live in China, India and Nepal.

According to legend, the 28th king of Tibet, Thothori Nyantsen, dreamed of a sacred treasure falling from heaven, which contained a Buddhist sutra, mantras, and religious objects. However, because the Tibetan script had not been invented, the text could not be translated in writing and no one initially knew what was written in it. Buddhism did not take root in Tibet until the reign of Songtsän Gampo, who married two Buddhist princesses, Bhrikuti of Nepal and Wencheng of China. It then gained popularity when Padmasambhāva visited Tibet at the invitation of the 38th Tibetan king, Trisong Deutson.

Today, one can see Tibetans placing Mani stones prominently in public places. Tibetan lamas, both Buddhist and Bön, play a major role in the lives of the Tibetan people, conducting religious ceremonies and taking care of the monasteries. Pilgrims plant prayer flags over sacred grounds as a symbol of good luck.

The prayer wheel is a means of simulating the chant of a mantra by physically revolving the object several times in a clockwise direction. It is widely seen among Tibetan people. In order not to desecrate religious artifacts such as Stupas, mani stones, and Gompas, Tibetan Buddhists walk around them in a clockwise direction, although the reverse direction is true for Bön. Tibetan Buddhists chant the prayer "Om mani padme hum", while the practitioners of Bön chant "Om matri muye sale du".


Tibetan wearing the typical hat operating a quern to grind fried barley. The perpendicular handle of such rotary handmills works as a crank (1938 photo). Bundesarchiv Bild 135-BB-152-11, Tibetexpedition, Tibeter mit Handmuhle.jpg
Tibetan wearing the typical hat operating a quern to grind fried barley. The perpendicular handle of such rotary handmills works as a crank (1938 photo).

Tibet is rich in culture. Tibetan festivals such as Losar, Shoton, Linka, and the Bathing Festival are deeply rooted in indigenous religion and also contain foreign influences. Each person takes part in the Bathing Festival three times: at birth, at marriage, and at death.[ citation needed ]


Tibetan art is deeply religious in nature, from the exquisitely detailed statues found in Gonpas to wooden carvings and the intricate designs of the Thangka paintings. Tibetan art can be found in almost every object and every aspect of daily life.

Thangka paintings, a syncretism of Indian scroll-painting with Nepalese and Kashmiri painting, appeared in Tibet around the 8th century. Rectangular and painted on cotton or linen, they usually depict traditional motifs including religious, astrological, and theological subjects, and sometimes a mandala. To ensure that the image will not fade, organic and mineral pigments are added, and the painting is framed in colorful silk brocades.


Tibetan folk opera, known as lhamo, is a combination of dances, chants and songs. The repertoire is drawn from Buddhist stories and Tibetan history.

Tibetan opera was founded in the fourteenth century by Thang Tong Gyalpo, a lama and a bridge-builder. Gyalpo and seven girls he recruited organized the first performance to raise funds for building bridges to facilitate transportation in Tibet. The tradition continued uninterrupted for nearly seven hundred years, and performances are held on various festive occasions such as the Lingka and Shoton festival. The performance is usually a drama, held on a barren stage that combines dances, chants, and songs. Colorful masks are sometimes worn to identify a character, with red symbolizing a king and yellow indicating deities and lamas. The performance starts with a stage purification and blessings. A narrator then sings a summary of the story, and the performance begins. Another ritual blessing is conducted at the end of the play. There are also many historical myths/epics written by high lamas about the reincarnation of a "chosen one" who will do great things.


The most unusual feature of Tibetan architecture is that many of the houses and monasteries are built on elevated, sunny sites facing the south. They are commonly made of a mixture of rocks, wood, cement and earth. Little fuel is available for heating or lighting, so flat roofs are built to conserve heat, and multiple windows are constructed to let in sunlight. Walls are usually sloped inwards at 10 degrees as a precaution against frequent earthquakes in the mountainous area. Tibetan homes and buildings are white-washed on the outside, and beautifully decorated inside.

Standing at 117 metres (384 ft) in height and 360 metres (1,180 ft) in width, the Potala Palace is considered the most important example of Tibetan architecture.[ citation needed ] Formerly the residence of the Dalai Lama, it contains over a thousand rooms within thirteen stories and houses portraits of the past Dalai Lamas and statues of the Buddha. It is divided between the outer White Palace, which serves as the administrative quarters, and the inner Red Quarters, which houses the assembly hall of the Lamas, chapels, 10,000 shrines, and a vast library of Buddhist scriptures.

Tibetan nomad and tent, 1938 Bundesarchiv Bild 135-S-03-17-14, Tibetexpedition, Nomade vor Zelt.jpg
Tibetan nomad and tent, 1938


Traditional Tibetan medicine utilizes up to two thousand types of plants, forty animal species, and fifty minerals. One of the key figures in its development was the renowned 8th century physician Yuthog Yontan Gonpo, who produced the Four Medical Tantras integrating material from the medical traditions of Persia, India and China. The tantras contained a total of 156 chapters in the form of Thangkas, which tell about the archaic Tibetan medicine and the essences of medicines in other places.[ citation needed ]

Yutok Yonten Gonpo's descendant, Yuthok Sarma Yonten Gonpo, further consolidated the tradition by adding eighteen medical works. One of his books[ specify ] includes paintings depicting the resetting of a broken bone. In addition, he compiled a set of anatomical pictures of internal organs.[ citation needed ]


Buddhists on the Tibetan Plateau posing in front of a glacial lake Local Tibetan Buddhists on the Tibetan Plateau.jpg
Buddhists on the Tibetan Plateau posing in front of a glacial lake

The Cuisine of Tibet reflects the rich heritage of the country and people's adaptation to high altitude and religious culinary restrictions. The most important crop is barley. Dough made from barley flour, called tsampa, is the staple food of Tibet. This is either rolled into noodles or made into steamed dumplings called momos. Meat dishes are likely to be yak, goat or mutton, often dried or cooked into a spicy stew with potatoes. Mustard seed is cultivated in Tibet and therefore features heavily in its cuisine. Yak yogurt, butter and cheese are frequently eaten and well-prepared yogurt is considered something of a prestige item. [39] [ citation needed ]


Tibetan warrior in chainmail reinforced by mirror plate Bundesarchiv Bild 135-S-14-13-33, Tibetexpedition, Neujahrsparade, Rta pa.jpg
Tibetan warrior in chainmail reinforced by mirror plate

Many Tibetans wear their hair long, although in recent times due to Chinese influence,[ citation needed ] most men do crop their hair short. The women braid their hair into multiple tiny braids called "Rhe-Ba" or just simply put their hair up in a braid or pony-tail in more rural areas. In more urban areas, women wear many different kinds of hairstyles such as pony-tails, braids, buns or just leaving it down.

Some men and women wear long thick dresses (chuba) in more traditional and rural regions. The men wear a shorter version with pants underneath. The style of the clothing varies between regions.[ citation needed ] Nomads often wear thick sheepskin versions. In more urban places like Lhasa, men and women dress in modern clothing, and many choose to wear chuba during festivals and holidays like Losar.


Tibet has national literature that has both religious, semi-spiritual and secular elements. While the religious texts are well-known, Tibet is also home to the semi-spiritual Gesar Epic, which is the longest epic in the world and is popular throughout Mongolia and Central Asia. There are secular texts such as The Dispute Between Tea and Chang (Tibetan beer) and Khache Phalu's Advice.

Marriage customs

Polyandry is practiced in parts of Tibet. This is usually done to avoid division of property and provide financial security. [40] However, monogamy is more common throughout Tibet. Marriages are sometimes arranged by the parents if the son or daughter has not picked their own partner by a certain age.

List of Tibetan states

Kingdoms of Kham

Gyalrong Kingdoms

See also

Related Research Articles

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This is a list of topics related to Tibet.

Bhutan–China relations Diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Peoples Republic of China

The Kingdom of Bhutan and the People's Republic of China do not maintain official diplomatic relations, and relations are historically tense. The PRC shares a contiguous border of 470 kilometers with Bhutan and its territorial disputes with Bhutan have been a source of potential conflict. Since the 1980s, the two governments have conducted regular talks on border and security issues aimed at reducing tensions.

Tibetan diaspora

The Tibetan diaspora are the diaspora of Tibetan people living outside China.


According to the beliefs of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, Beyul are hidden valleys often encompassing hundreds of square kilometers, which Padmasambhava blessed as refuges. Tertöns may reveal them from terma at specific and appropriate times. Their locations were kept on scrolls hidden under rocks and inside caves, monasteries and stupas. They are places where physical and spiritual worlds overlap and Tantric practice effectiveness increases with multiple perception dimensions.

Tibetan dual system of government

The Dual System of Government is the traditional diarchal political system of Tibetan peoples whereby the Desi coexists with the spiritual authority of the realm, usually unified under a third single ruler. The actual distribution of power between institutions varied over time and location. The Tibetan term Cho-sid-nyi literally means "both Dharma and temporal," but may also be translated as "dual system of religion and politics."

Anti-Tibetan sentiment refers to fear, dislike, hostility, and racism towards Tibetan people or anything related to Tibetan culture in general. Anti-Tibetan sentiment has been present in various regions of Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal at various points in time. Anti-Tibetan sentiment in South Asia is due to the presence of Tibetan immigrants in those countries. Anti-Tibetan sentiment in China is due to the fact that Tibet has been annexed by China on several occasions over the centuries which has created tension between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese.

Eastern South Asia

Eastern South Asia is a subregion of South Asia. It includes the countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal. Geographically, it lies between the Eastern Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. Two of the world's largest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, flow into the sea through Eastern South Asia. The region includes the world's highest mountainous terrain and the world's largest delta, and has a climate ranging from alpine and subalpine to subtropical and tropical. Since Nepal, Bhutan, and northeast India are landlocked, the coastlines of Bangladesh and East India serve as the principal gateways to the region.



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