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Etiquette and Taboos in Tibet

  • by Nance
  • Last Updated: 2024-07-18

Tibetans believe in Buddhism, and they have a lot of etiquette and taboos related to their religious beliefs, customs, and traditions. When you travel to Tibet, you should respect local etiquette and taboos, to make sure you don't offend anyone by mistake. Here's something you should know and how to behave well before your Tibet trip.

Dining Etiquette and Taboos

Dining in a Tibetan family
Dining in a Tibetan family.

Tibetans have very different dining etiquette from most Western countries. In Tibet, you should follow the local dietary restrictions. In general, they will use bamboo chopsticks to pick up food instead of Western tableware. Before you start eating, you should always wait until all the guests arrive. If the host is praying, please wait for a while until they start eating. In Tibet, for certain religious reasons, Tibetans don't eat meat such as horses, dogs, donkeys, and fish. When the host gives you a cup of wine, please do not drink it up immediately. You should first dip your right ring finger in wine; use your ring finger and thumb to pop up the wine in the air three times to express your respect for heaven, earth, and the ancestors; and say Tashi Delek. Take a sip of wine, your host will refill your cup. Take another sip, and the host will fill the glass again. On the 3rd time, please drink it up when the host fills the glass.

When Visiting a Tibetan Family

Visit Tibetan family.
Visit and have dinner with a Tibetan family.

When you visit a Tibet family, it's good for you to carry some small gifts. Traditionally, you can package some butter tea and barley beer in a gift basket. You can also bring some small gifts, such as pens, pencils, and candy as Tibet children love them very much. But you’d better not touch their head as the head is considered the holy part of the body. Only Tibetan monks or Lamas can touch their heads. When you provide tea and beer, the Tibet family usually gives you something in return. When you go with them, let the oldest go first. When you enter a tent or house, you’d better not step on the threshold. If you have a chance to have dinner with Tibetans, do not eat with your mouth full, and do not chew or drink noisily. When the host/hostess hands you something, for example, a cup of tea, take it with both hands to show your respect and appreciation. A good guest will never completely drink out his bowl of tea because the host will always add more tea to make sure that your bowl is not empty.

When Visiting Monasteries in Tibet

Visiting a Tibetan monastery
A group of tourists with Tibetan monks at Sera Monastery.

Buddhism is an important part of the daily life of the people in Tibet and is closely related to the cultural customs of Tibet. It shapes the whole way of life of Tibetans, including art, literature, and music. Tibet Buddhism is well known for its elaborate rituals and prayers. The Lama plays a highly respected member of the Tibetan community and is regarded as a teacher and mentor. In many families, at least one family member is a monk or nun, which is a kind of honor of the family.

Buddhist monasteries in Tibet are very hospitable, even some monasteries in remote areas can provide simple accommodation for travelers. Some monasteries don’t accept visitors wearing short skirts or short pants, so please dress modestly. When getting inside a chapel of monasteries, please take off your hat and sunglasses. If monks pray or recite in the monastery, you need to keep quiet. If you want to greet them, it is not appropriate to embrace or shake hands. The correct way is to put your palms together in front of your chest and lower your head. When you visit the Buddha statues in the monastery, you’d better not touch any of the religious holy objects or the prayer flags. Walking around the monastery, you should always walk by clockwise, except for Bon temples by counterclockwise. Taking photos of Buddha statues is not allowed in many monasteries, and some require an extra fee of USD2 for taking photos. Always consult your local guide if you are not sure about the thing, same as anywhere else in Tibet. When you want to take a photo of local Tibetans, please ask their permission first.

Brief Summary of Etiquette and Taboos in Tibet

  1. When you get a chance to visit a Tibetan family, and the host toasts you, don't drink it all at once. You should take a sip first, and then the host will fill it up for you. Until the 3rd refill, drink it all.
  2. When drinking butter tea, the host will serve the tea to the guests. Thus you have to wait for the host to hold the tea with both hands in front of you before taking over and drinking it.
  3. When you encounter mani stones on the roadside or mountain pass, do not walk over them but go around it clockwise. Do not damage the prayer flags.
  4. When visiting the monasteries, do not make loud noises, and never touch, or take photos unless you get permission.
  5. You'd better walk clockwise when visiting Barkhor Street because it is the direction most people follow.
  6. Tourists are prohibited from visiting the sky burial ceremony and taking pictures.
  7. It is forbidden to visit places without entry notices.
  8. Don't touch the heads of Tibetan people including kids.
  9. Don't talk with lamas about their religions and political topics.
  10. Do not buy anything made from wild animals’ skin or bones as it may cause trouble when you leave there.

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