A folktale of “Dipper Brothers” is well known among the Tibetans: In the ancient time, one day seven brothers from the east cut trees, carried stones and built a giant building overnight to house the common people and to shelter them from the storm. Henceforth, the brothers were invited to the heaven Tibetan Houses to build houses for Gods, after they became the Big Dipper. The story shows that it was in the course of fighting against the natural calamities that the Tibetans improved the architecture skills and the way of inhabitation. During the period of Tubo I, the first palace Rongbuklakon was built on the top of a small hill in the Yarlung Valley. The following Tsenpo built a series of palaces such as Chingwa Thaktse Palace, Potala Palace, and etc. During the time of Trisong Detsan, the first Samye Monastery was built based on the fantasy world of the Buddhism tenet. The Monastery is magnificently consisting of Buddha, rites, bronze etc. From then on, the foundation of the Tibetan housing style and construction more or less had been laid.
In the pasturing area, people usually house themselves in a yak-hair tent. They spin the yak hair into a thread and weave it into stripped cloth, then sow the cloth into a square tent of two pieces, which are joined by ten couches or so to form a completed tent. This kind of tent is usually square-shaped supported by eight upright pillars. One end of more than ten strings of yak hair is tied to the pillars at the top of the tent while the other end is tied to the poles about three meters away, making the tent flat and firm. The tent is about 20㎡ and 1.7 meters high with a ventilator interstice at the top to give out smoke and heat when opened and to keep the tent warm and protected from wind and rainwater if covered. In the front of the tent, there is a tract string tied to the door curtain. On hot days the door curtain can be propped up to let air in making the inside cool and comfortable. Made of yak hair, simple as it is, the tent is wearable, thick and durable enough against wind and snowstorm. Meanwhile, it is convenient to be dismantled, put up and removed, suitable for the herdsman’s life.
According to the traditional customs, when guests visit a Tibetan’s home, men are always seated on the first seat on the right, which is called “guest seat”, women on the first seat on the left, which is called “kitchen range”
In the rural area of the south Tibet, flat roof houses can be seen everywhere. It is recorded in Annals of Tibet: “All houses have flat roofs throughout Tibet”. The average people live in a simple bungalow with stone bounding wall. Girders are used as framework, and the section of the wood column is shaped round; the upper is thin and the lower part thick; Chapter is equipped with square wooden bucket and wood pillow, with wooden beam and rafter laid on one by one; then tree branches or short sticks are added and stones or clay cover the surface; some houses apply the local weathered “Aga” earth against rain leakage. In the rural area residences most houses are U-shaped single-storeyed, which are usually southwards; around the roof are parapet walls of 80cm high, and stacks are made at the four corners. In the new year in Tibetan calendar, each stack table is inserted with tree branches which are decorated with colorful scripture streamers and will be replaced each Tibetan calendar year to show prosperous luck. There is an incense burner right in front of the house, which will be burnt and sacrifices will be offered; there is a small Buddha niche above the entrance door, with Kalachakra – the design of Gathering Ten Powerful Elements, which symbolizes mandala, to show praying to avoid demon and whammy and to let adverse predestined relationship become favorable circumstance. All the flat-roof houses are surrounded by bounding walls. In the layout of traditional residences, the scripture hall is in the middle, living rooms are at the two sides, a kitchen is closely adjacent to the living rooms, and toilet is at the two corners of the bounding wall far from the living rooms. Windows have eaves, the edge of which is folded with colorful square wood, so as to protect the windowsill from rain and show the beauty of the houses. The two sides of all residence doors and windows are spread with black painting, which set off the white walls. Generally, rural area residence courtyard has production tool room, forage grass storing room and sheep pen and cowshed, etc.
In the forest regions of the eastern Tibet, most villages are located halfway up the hillside. People gather the raw materials from the local countryside to build their wooden houses, with log walls and pitched roofs covered with wooden tiles. In the Kongpo area houses usually, have an irregular stone wall.Generally, the houses are two store high, with a wooden ladder to the upper store. People usually live upstairs and keep livestock downstairs. The main room is behind the entrance door, with a cooking range of 1 square meter in the middle; the whole family will have their meal around the cooking range and warm themselves at the same time. The cooking range is the center of activity for the whole family. Guests will also have tea and talk there.
The traditional Tibetan houses, like other Tibetan culture forms, are unique and full of local characteristic features: in the valley area of southern Tibet, people live in a castle-like house. In the pastoral area in North Tibet people live in tents for most of the time. While in the forest area along the Yarlung Tsangpo River, people live in wooden buildings which are distinctive and different from each other. People in Ali plateau live even in cave dwellings.
The Tibetan residential buildings have enjoyed a long history. Plenty of architecture remaining has been found among the Kanuo New Stone Age relics as early as 4,000 years ago. Some typically local featured buildings are:
(1) Castle-like house
Houses constructed of earth, stone and wood in Lhasa, Xigaze, Chamdo and in their surrounding villages, looking like a castle, are colloquially called “castle” by the local people. This kind of house is the most representative ones in Tibet. Castle-like houses are often the stone-wood structure of primitive simplicity, looking dignified and stable. The inward-sloping walls also provide extra stability in case of tremors. Even the walls built closely next to hillside remain vertical for stability. Such kind of houses is usually two to three stories high with circular corridor built inside. A castle-like house is not only good for taking shelter from the wind and cold, but also for defense.
The castle-like house is usually two stories high and rooms are separated by columns. The ground floor is stable and store-room in a low story-height. The second floor is living quarter with living room (a larger one), bedroom, kitchen, storage room or stairs room (small one). If there is a third floor, it generally acts as a hall for chanting Buddhist scriptures or as a place for drying clothes. There is always a well in the yard, the lavatory lying on a corner. In the rural area of Shannan, people often add a sliding door to the outer corridor so as to make full use of room due to their fondness of outdoor activities, which makes their buildings quite distinctive. For most farmers, not only will they well design the living room, kitchen, storing room and yard, but also they will reasonably arrange their barns for animals and the location of the lavatory to make them exert their functions to a full extent.
Apart from that, some people would take the slope, on which their houses lie, into consideration. the lower story is usually used as the barn for animals while the upper story for living quarter. In this way, human beings are free of the smell and disturbance of animals.
These buildings have such distinguishing features as square living room, composite furniture, low story height. Most living rooms are composed of four 2X2 meter units. Generally, the living room is a square one with a total coverage of 16 square meters. Furniture includes cushion bed, small square table, Tibet cupboard that are short, multifunctional and easy to assemble. Furniture is often arranged along the walls so as to make full use of the room and spare more.
Most residential buildings are made of wood, earth, and stone, with an adobe wall as thick as 40 to 50 centimeters, or stone wall as thick as 50 to 80 centimeters. And the roofs are flat and covered with Aga earth. This kind of house will be warm in winter and cool in summer, suited for the climate on the plateau.
The residential buildings in the eastern forest area have a distinctive style. The houses in Nyingzhi are mostly composed of a living room (doubling as a kitchen), storage room, stables, outer corridor, and lavatory, with an independent courtyard. The room is square or rectangle made of smaller square units on the base. And the furniture and bed are put around the fireplace. The building is 2 to 2.2 meters high. Due to much rain in the forest area, most houses are built with slope roofs; meanwhile, the space under the sloping roof can be used for storing forage and miscellaneous articles. People in forest area would draw on local resources, so their buildings are mainly wooden structure. Walls are made of stone, slate, cobble as well as lumber, thin bamboo strips, and wicker strips. Roofs are covered closely with wooden tiles held stable by stones.
Tent, rather different from a castle-like house in the agricultural area, is a special form of architecture, which is suitable for a life nomad and good for traveling for Tibetans. The common tents are usually small and elegant, being square or rectangle at the base. To pitch a tent, people first use sticks to make a frame as high as two meters, and then they cover it with black yak felt, leaving a chink at the middle with a 15cm width and 1.5m length. This split will let the smoke out and sunlight in. At last, the four sides of the tent will be secured to the ground with yak wool ropes. Inside the tent, people will build a 50cm high wall which is made of grass-earth-block, earth block or stones, on which barley, butter bag or yak dung ( fuels ) are usually placed. The tent is poorly furnished, without much furniture. At the middle (near the door) of the tent, an earthy fireplace is set up, behind is a worshipping place equipped with Buddha statue. People often spread a sheepskin rug on the floor for rest or sleep. All in all, It is easy to pitch a tent because of its simple structure; it is not difficult to dismantle for traveling as well.
People in cities and agricultural areas like to live in Tibetan cloth tent.
People in pastoral areas are used to living in yak wool tents.
(3) Cave dwelling
In Ali, houses are usually separate from their neighbors. The houses are built of earth and wood as high as two stories. In summer people live on the second floor, when winter sets in, they move down to live on the first floor for it is warmer than the above floor. Although most people live in houses, there are still some people who would like to choose to live in cave dwellings. Cave dwellings are frequently built by the side of hill or mountain, and cave dwellings take many shapes such as square, round, rectangle and so on. The majority of cave dwellings are square one with an area of 16 square meters, a height of 2 to 2.2 meters and flat ceiling. Cave dwelling is a special form of residential building on the Tibetan plateau.
Made of silk or cloth with long sleeves inside, wide and loose robe outside and long boots of cattle hide. For the convenience of work or labor, they usually expose their right shoulder or both arms by tying the pair of sleeves around their waist. Both man and woman have pigtails, but a man always coils up the pigtails over the head while woman combs the hair either into two or many small pigtails flooding down onto the shoulder, at the end of which some beautiful ornaments are tied. A woman prefers to wear an apron with beautiful patterns.