Tibetan Community

Tibetan Performing Arts

For Tibetans, song and dance are an integral part of their cultural identity. In fact, a common expression in Tibet is that “Tibetans who can walk can also dance” and that “Tibetans who can talk can also sing”. Tibetan art forms comprise opera, dance and music. Traditional Tibetan Opera, also known as Lhamo (means "sister goddess") is a combination of dances, chants and songs, based on Buddhist stories and Tibetan history.

The Tibetan opera was founded in the 14th century by Thang Tong Gyalpo, a Lama and a bridge builder. Gyalpo and seven recruited girls organized the first performance to raise funds for building bridges, which would facilitate transportation in Tibet. The tradition continued, and lhamo is held on various festive occasions such as the Linka and Shoton festival.

To preserve Tibetan arts,The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) was founded by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama on reaching McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India in exile from Tibet in August 1959. It was then called Tibetan Music, Dance and Drama Society, which was one of the first institutes set up the Dalai Lama,and was established to preserve Tibetan artistic heritage, especially opera, dance, and music. TIPA is about fifteen minutes' walk from McLeod Ganj and is the home of Lhamo.


Tibetan Sculpture Art

Tibetan sculpture is influenced by two key traditions:

  • Statues modeled of clay that was not fired, but was allowed to dry and cure naturally
  • Statues made of metal, employing the lost wax process that is mostly used to cast smaller images and the “Norbulingka Institute process” in which colossal statues are wrought from copper sheet and gilded before being assembled.

Butter sculptures

These are offerings moulded from butter and are seen as being central to the spiritual development in Tibetan Buddhism. The height of some of the butter sculptures can be as much as thirty feet, and depict everything from goddesses and mandalas to flowers, animals and symbols considered auspicious in Buddhism.

Tibetan Music

Tibetan culture is rich in music and a variety of song and music forms are observed in Dharamsala.

Tibetan music has also acquired a contemporary element in Dharamsala, with the establishment of a new band, Aa Ka Ma, which composes its own modern Tibetan music combining the eastern melodies with the western instruments. Aa Ka Ma Band was formally launched in 1994 by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).

Tibetan Food

Momos: Ubiquitous momos are served steamed or fried and stuffed with spiced potato, cabbage, spinach, radish or carrot, with a dollop of chilli sauce on the side.

Noodles: Tibet was divided into three regions – Amdo, Ü-Tsang and Kham. Of these, Amdo is known for its traditional cuisine. Amdo is also the birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama. One of the dishes from Amdo which is popular amongst the tibetans is Thenthuk - a form of noodle soup (Noodle is called Thukpa in Tibet and comes in multiple variants, of which Thenthuk is one). This soupy pasta dish is made of wheat flour dough, mixed vegetables and some pieces of mutton or yak meat. Its vegetarian variant (Vegetable thenthuk ) is also becoming popular. It is traditionally served as dinner and sometimes lunch.

Shabalays: Shabalays are meat samosas or patties. The juice of the beef or meat that makes the filling is somewhat like a shepherd’s pie – only thinner in consistency, and the meat inside is drier than a pie. Shabalay is a staple food in Tibetan diet and comes in two variants - one is deep fried and another one is pan fried.

Shapta: Shapta (also called Shaptra) is a traditional beef dish sauted with spices. It is usually combined with Tingmo - fermented Tibetan bread, to form a complete meal.

Butter-tea: Butter tea (also known as po cha) made from tea leaves, yak butter and salt is a staple drink of the Tibetans. According to the Tibetan custom, butter tea is drunk in separate sips, and after each sip the host refills the bowl to the brim. Thus, the guest never drains his bowl; rather, it is constantly topped off. Butter tea is also used for eating tsampa by pouring onto it, or dipping the tsampa into it, and mixing well. Tsampa (a Tibetan staple foodstuff) is roasted flour (usually barley flour and sometimes wheat flour).

Guthuk: Guthuk soup is very popular amongst tibetans and is eaten on the night before Losar's eve. Guthuk is the only Tibetan food that is eaten only once a year, on the last day of the year, as part of a ritual dispelling any negativities of the old year, to make way for an auspicious new one. Interestingly, the base of the soup is a common noodle soup called thupka bhatuk which is consumed daily. Guthuk has two variants: vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

Tibetan Thangka paintings

Thangka is a Nepalese art form exported to Tibet after Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, daughter of King Lichchavi, married Songtsän Gampo, the ruler of Tibet (7th century CE). A thangka is a devotional image representing the most sacred aspects of the Tibetan Buddhist religion. It is traditionally used as an aid and focus for meditation and devotional practices. Thangkas are also commissioned and hung to increase good fortune and ward off negative energies. This sacred art is most popular and beloved to the Tibetan people, as well as to Buddhists worldwide, as they are representations of the enlightened potenital inherent in all sentient beings. Thangkas are also appreciated by the art community for their high level of refined skill and effort, unique techniques, exquisite materials and the finely detailed depiction’s of the deities portrayed.

A thangka is a painting on silk with embroidery, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala (the `sacred circle`, symbolizing the spiritual embodiment of the Buddha and the stages of spiritual realization) of some sort. These thangka paintings serve as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, various influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas.

Thangkas are used by Tibetan Buddhist practitioners to help them develop a close relationship with a meditational deity. They assist the meditator in clearly visualizing particular images. Commissioning a thangka painting is regarded as a way of generating spiritual merit. Thangkas are also used to portray members of a teaching lineage or, in a narrative form, to depict a spiritual master's life, often involving scenes of intricate detail. Based on technique and material, thangkas can be broadly grouped into two broad categories: those that are painted and those made of silk, either by appliqué or embroidery.

Appliqué Thangka

These are works of art created using appliqué technique*. In this technique, first, a stencil of the desired image is prepared by drawing a full-size image on paper and perforating the lines with a needle. This stencil is then placed over the cloth that will form the background and is dabbed with a cloth laden with powdered white chalk to render the drawing visible. The individual figures assembled from silk brocade are stitched onto this background and outlined with silk-wrapped strands of Mongolian horse tail. The completed image is mounted on a plain white cotton backing before finally being framed in a brocade border.

Silk thangka and appliqué work were revived at Norbulingka Institute under the guidance of the Master Thangka Painter, Temba Chöphel, who had briefly trained under Gyeten Namgyal, the 13th Dalai Lama's Master Tailor. Later, Temba Chöphel trained as a thangka painter, but he never forgot the sewing skills he had acquired earlier.

Appliqued thangkas are often thought of as superior to the painted thangkas due to their choice of high quality materials, durability, suppleness and their ability to last many generations. There is no brittle paint to crack. There are no glues to come unstuck. All pieces are masterfully hand stitched using special embroidery techniques. This type of thangka has the potential to last many generations.

Dharamsala is home to Thangde Gatsal Thangka Painting Studio where traditional thangka paintings are taught and to Norbulingka Institute which provides training in both thangka paintings as well as Appliqued thangkas.Note: In the context of sewing, an appliqué refers to a needlework technique in which pieces of fabric, embroidery, or other materials are sewn onto another piece of fabric to create designs, patterns or pictures.

Sand Mandalas Painting

Mandalas are the 'sacred circle', symbolizing the spiritual embodiment of the Buddha and the stages of spiritual realization. The Sand Mandalas are integral to a Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from colored sand. This art form involves painting with colored sand wherein millions of grains of sand are painstakingly laid into place on a flat platform over a period of days or weeks. A sand mandala is ritualistically destroyed once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.

Tibetan rug making

Rug making is an ancient art and craft of the Tibetan people. These rugs are primarily made from Tibetan highland sheep's virgin wool and are used by Tibetans for almost any domestic use from flooring to wall hanging to horse saddles. The process of making Tibetan rugs is unique in the sense that almost everything is done by hand. Lately, a few aspects of the rug making process have been mechanised to control costs and due to the disappearance of rug-making knowledge. Moreover, some new finishing touches are also made possible by use of machine. Tibetan rugs are big business in not only Tibet, but also Nepal, where Tibetan immigrants brought with them their knowledge of rug making. Currently rug business is one of the largest industries in Nepal.

Tibetan Children`s Villages (TCV)

It is an integrated charitable organisation offering child care and educational services. Its mission is to ensure that all Tibetan children under its care receive a sound education, a firm cultural identity and become self-reliant and contributing members of the Tibetan community and the world at large.

TCV was formed under the guidance of His Holiness Dalai Lama to meet most critical needs of Tibetan refugees, such as, care for the many children who had been orphaned or separated from their families during the arduous escape from their homeland.
TCV's goals are to:

  • Provide parental care and love
  • Develop a sound understanding of Tibetan identity and culture
  • Develop character and moral values
  • Provide effective modern and Tibetan education
  • Provide child -centered learning atmosphere in the schools
  • Provide environment for physical and intellectual growth
  • Provide suitable and effective life and career guidance for social and citizenship skills

TCV operates Children's schools, supports Higher Education through scholarships, offers Vocational Training, Youth Hostels and Outreach Programs. Children's schools are in 3 formats: Residential School, Day School and Summer Camp. There are 8 residential schools including 1 each in Upper Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj) and Lower Dharamsala. There are 4 day schools including one in McLeod Ganj. Summer camps enable Tibetan children living abroad to learn Tibetan language, culture, history and basic principles of Buddhism, and experience Tibetan exile community firsthand.

Tibetan Festivals

Key Tibetan festivals observed in Dharamsala include Losar, Shoton, and the Saka Dawa.

Losar festival

Losar is the Tibetan word for "new year" and is celebrated by Tibetan buddhists, worldwide. In India it is celebrated for three days, during February/March with processions, music and dancing. The first day of the festival is known as 'Lama Losar' or the 'Festival of the Guru’, the spiritual head of the Tibetans. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other high lamas gather in a ceremony to make offerings to the high dharma protectors (dharmapalas), in particular the dharmapala Palden Lhamo (wrathful deity considered to be the principal Protectress of Tibet). The day also includes sacred dances and debates of Buddhist philosophy.

The second day of Losar, called Gyalpo Losar or "King's" Losar, is for honoring community and national leaders. Long ago it was a day for kings to hand out gifts at public festivals. In Dharamsala, His Holiness the Dalai Lama exchanges greetings with officials of the Tibetan government in exile and with visiting foreign dignitaries.

Choe-kyong losar is the 3rd day of the losar festival. On this day, laypeople make special offerings to the dharma protectors. They raise prayer flags from hills, mountains and rooftops and burn juniper leaves and incense as offerings. The dharmapalas are praised in chant and song and asked for blessings. This ends the spiritual observance of Losar. However, the subsequent parties may go on for another 10 to 15 days.

Losar festival is marked by splendid performances, especially the 'Chham Dance' that features elaborate masks and costumes. The dance presents the story of how the cruel Tibetan king, known as Langdarma, was killed in the 9th century, leading to the ultimate triumph of good over evil. The dance is also sometimes called the "Devil Dance" because of the weird masks used in the dance.

Shoton festival

It is an annual, 8 to 10 day festival featuring dance, chant and song performances. The traditional form of this festival mainly consists of 3 parts - Great Buddha Display, Tibetan Opera Show and Horsemanship & Yak Race Show. In combination these 3 elements represent the best of Tibetan religion, culture and tradition. In India, Shoton is celebrated as an annual Tibetan Opera (Lhamo) festival, held in March each year. Lhamo associations from Tibetan communities all over India and Nepal take part in the festivities. Each Lhamo association, including Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) perform a one day opera on the first day of the festival in front of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Lhamo stories, which in their current form date back to the late 14th century, are lavish historical tales of kings and queens, good and evil, love and devotion, all inter-twined and told within a Buddhist context. The operas are performed on an open stage surrounded by the audience on all sides. This provides greater interaction between the actors and the spectators. The stories are told through a specialized style of singing and dancing, accompanied by drums and cymbals.

Saka Dawa

Saka Dawa is one of the most important festivals of the Tibetans, signifying three stages of Lord Buddha’s life, namely, his death, enlightenment and finally, attainment of Nirvana. The celebration begins with morning prayers, involving taking oath of the Eight Mahayana precepts, which include not killing any living being, not to steal and not to lie among others. The festival has a special significance for the followers of Lord Buddha as all three stages of his life  are witnessed in the period known as Saka Dawa. According to the Tibetan calendar, Saka Dawa is celebrated on the 15th day of the 4th lunar month (The 4th month of the Tibetan Budhist calendar is called "Saka Dawa"). On this day, the devotees lit lamps, candles and incense sticks before a huge statue of Lord Buddha. They also do pious deeds and distribute food and alms to beggars.

Apart from the traditional festivals, McLeod Ganj is also home to the International Himalayan Festival (a three-day event) in December. The festival celebrates the receiving of the Noble Peace Prize by Dalai Lama. Dance and music mark the day with a resolve to promote peace and cultural amity. On this occasion, the Dalai Lama blesses Mcleod Ganj.

Beauty Pageant

In 2012, McLeod Ganj was home to the inaugural Miss Himalaya Pageant, aimed at providing a platform for young women from the entire Himalayan region to promote its culture and preserve its environment. Twenty-three-year-old Rinchen Dolma from Sikkim was crowned the Miss Himalaya 2012 at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in McLeod Ganj on 13 October 2012.