Tibetan Culture: Yak Hair Tent

Tibetan Black Tent

Traditional Tibetan black tent

Black Tents

The most precious possessions to Tibetan nomads are their black yak hair tent and livestock.  Yak hair is sheared from a family’s yaks and collected over a number of years until there is enough yak hair to make a tent. The yak hair is then hand-woven by nomad women into a tough, durable material. A family’s wealth can be seen in the size of its tent.  Made entirely of yak hair, Tibetan black tents are warm, especially when insulated by the family’s leather bags, which surround the inner tent walls. Yak-hair tents are also water-resistant, providing shelter from rain and snow.

The Stove

In the center of a Tibetan tent lies a traditional earthen cooking stove.  For Tibetans, the stove is a precious site and the residence of a stove god.  Tibetans therefore will not step over the stove, out of respect, nor is the stove ever destroyed, even after the family gathers its belongings and moves to a new pasture with the change of seasons.

Where to Sit and Sleep

Family members tend to sit at different sides of the tent based on traditional roles. Women and children normally stay on the left side of the central stove.   Guests, highly-respected individuals, monks, and the men of the family sit on the right side of the stove. Dried yak dung, used as fuel in cooking, is kept on the left-hand side of the stove, where the women and children sit making it convenient to tend the fire. Leather bags are placed at the far back of the tent and around its sides – tsamba, butter, cheese, and tea are kept within these bags. In front of the bags stands the family’s altar.  Family members pray and prostrate before the religious images and offerings displayed there.  At night, guests, elders, and parents sleep on the right-hand side of the stove, while children sleep on the left-hand side.

The Significance of a Black Tent’s Poles

A standard tent will have eight ropes holding it to the ground.  The interior of the tent is held in place by three main poles connected by a ceiling board. The first pole, the one furthest inside the tent, is called the sacred pole. Usually a khatak (a traditional Tibetan silk scarf), juniper leaves, and wool are draped around the top of this pole. Only the wool of a sheep that has died or the wool of a ‘tse thar’ sheep is used to adorn the sacred pole. ‘Tse thar’ sheep are sheep which are neither killed, sold, nor is their meat eaten, since a family has set these sheep aside from their other livestock and has vowed to spare these sheep from death as a religious practice and an act of compassion. The second pole is called the warrior’s pole.  Swords, guns, and horse’s bridles adorn this pole.  The last pole is the wife’s pole. Women’s household implements such as, a cloth and sewing implements are hung from this pole.  The household’s cooking utensils are all placed underneath the wife’s pole.

Protocol for Being Received as a Guest

As a guest, when you approach a family’s tent, the entire family will exit the tent to receive you. Only those old people and children who cannot move or get up easily will stay inside. As a guest, you will be allowed to enter the tent first, before the other family members do. Traditionally, guests bring their own bowl with them, and receive tea and food from the family in their own bowl, as the family will not have extra bowls for guests to use.