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The Fascinating Journey of Tibetan Dice Games: From Ancient Divination to Modern Entertainment

Explore the rich history of Tibetan dice games, a tradition that stretches back thousands of years on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. These games, rooted in ancient divination practices, have evolved into a cherished form of entertainment in Tibetan culture.

The Origins of Tibetan Dice:

Dice have been a part of Tibetan life for over a thousand years. Ancient Tibetans initially used dice in divination rituals, a practice deeply embedded in their early culture. According to documents from Dunhuang and other sources, Tibetan divination included various methods like bird divination, dice divination, sheep bone divination, dream interpretation, and water divination. Many of these practices are remnants of primitive cultures, adapted and transformed over time.

The Legend of Masang and Dice Invention:

During the reign of the tribal Masang brothers, it is believed that the Masang invented the dice. Masang, a demigod belonging to the one-legged ghost category, is a central figure in many ancient Tibetan tales, including the mythological stories of ‘Masang’s Nine Strongmen’ (མ་སངས་སྤུན་དགུ་). Masang, after being subdued by Guru Padmasambhava, became a protector deity who not only invented dice but also helped players win by invoking his name.

The Unique Language of Dice Invocation:

In Tibetan dice games, players use a unique set of words to call out numbers, different from the standard Tibetan language. Here’s how they announce each number:

  • For the number “2,” It is called “Para” (པ་ར་) instead of “Nyi” (གཉིས་).
  • 3 is “Sug” (མཛོ་པོ་སུག་) instead of “Sum” (གསུམ་).
  • 4 is “Dzig” (ཚིགས་) rather than “Shi” (བཞི་).
  • 5 is “Kha” (ཁ་), not “Nga” (ལྔ་).
  • For “6,” the term is “drug” (འབྲུག་) in place of “Drug” (དྲུག་).
  • 7 is “Ri” (རི་), not “Dun” (བདུན་).
  • 8 is “Sha” (ཤ་) instead of “Gyed” (བརྒྱད་).
  • 9 is “Gur” (སྒུག་/སྒུར་), not “Gu” (དགུ་).
  • 10 is “Chhu” (ཆུ་) rather than “Chu” (བཅུ་ without aspiration).
  • 11 is “Thog” (ཐོག་) or “Doo-ge” (རྡོག་གེ་) instead of “Chuchig” (བཅུ་གཅིག་).
  • Lastly, “12” is “Cham” (ལྕམ་) rather than “Chunyi” (བཅུ་གཉིས་).

This unique linguistic twist adds an interesting layer to the traditional Tibetan dice games, reflecting the rich cultural heritage of Tibet.

Dice Games in Tibetan Folklore:

Tibetan folklore is replete with stories about gods and deities using dice games to decide their dominions and the fates of mortals. These tales highlight the deep-rooted significance of dice games in Tibetan mythology and culture.

Dice Games in Modern Tibetan Society:

Even today, dice games remain a vital part of traditional entertainment in Tibetan areas. These games are not just pastimes but represent a brilliant facet of Tibetan folk culture, a testament to the enduring legacy of these ancient practices and their role in the cultural fabric of the Tibetan community.

The Strategic World of Tibetan Dice Games: Rules, Techniques, and Traditions

Discover the intriguing world of Tibetan dice games, a cultural treasure with deep historical roots on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. While variations exist across regions, the core principles remain similar, blending strategy and entertainment.

Basic Rules of Tibetan Dice Games:

Tibetan dice games are known for their simple yet strategic rules. Games can be played by 2, 3 or 4 players, with the latter two formats typically involving teams of two. The game begins with each player or team holding nine tokens. The oldest player starts the game in the morning, while the youngest takes the lead in the afternoon. Players throw dice in a clockwise direction, setting the game’s pace.

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Game Mechanics:

The first token placed is called the ‘mother token,’ requiring two tokens to be laid down. Special numbers like 2, 3, or 12 allow for three tokens to be placed. Subsequent turns involve placing only one ‘child token.’ Players aim to match the dice numbers with their tokens on the board, allowing for the addition or merging of tokens. The game involves strategic moves, including attacking opponents’ tokens, with specific conditions governing these actions.

Advanced Strategies:

Players have the chance to re-roll the dice under certain conditions. For instance, if a player’s token count is lower than their opponent’s and they roll a number matching an opponent’s token, they must hold their position. A player whose tokens are completely captured by an opponent can make a comeback by rolling a nine (specifically a combination of 6 and 3) and placing all nine tokens on the number nine spot, continuing the game.

Winning the Game:

Several scenarios determine the winner of a Tibetan dice game:

  1. A player successfully navigating their tokens through all 64 positions on the board, especially grouping all nine tokens and passing through, is deemed the winner.
  2. If a player continuously lands on an opponent’s mother token, moving their mother token forward until it completes the circuit, they win.
  3. Rolling the number two three consecutive times grants immediate victory.
  4. A special win occurs when a player rolls a unique combination and recites the corresponding specific dice chant accurately and promptly, winning not only the round but also the entire set of gaming tools. This achievement is considered highly auspicious.

The Cultural Charm of Tibetan Dice Games: Equipment, Rules, and Traditions


Step into the world of Tibetan dice games, a blend of history, culture, and entertainment. These games, unique to the Tibetan region, use simple tools and follow fascinating rules, making them a popular pastime.

Essential Equipment for Tibetan Dice Games:

  1. Dice: Typically made from bone, plastic, or other durable materials, with ivory dice considered premium. They are six-sided cubes with one to six dots, where one and four are usually marked in red, and the rest in blue or black.
  2. Dice Bowl: An important tool, usually crafted from high-quality wood. A small hole at the bottom prevents air pressure buildup and potential damage during play.
  3. Dice Tray: Often a round, soft leather pad about 20 cm in diameter and 3 cm high, providing a smooth surface for rolling dice.
  4. Tokens: Made from old coins, small wooden sticks, or wires, with nine tokens per set. Each set is distinctly marked for easy identification during the game.
  5. Counters: Used for scoring, typically sea shells, beans, or small stones, with sea shells being the preferred choice. The standard count is 60.
  6. Dice Mat: A smooth cloth, wool, or leather mat, about one square meter in size, used as the playing surface.

Unique Features of Tibetan Dice Games:

  1. Rich and Colorful Dice Chants: The soul of the game! These chants vary between pastoral and agricultural regions, reflecting environmental influences. Each number from 2 to 12 has its chant, often based on ancient texts and full of cultural nuances. For instance, chanting for number 2 might go like this: “If I climb the wish-fulfilling tree, even if my robes tear, it’s worth it.”
  2. Exciting Three-Player Games: This format is particularly intense and engaging. Players must strategize and sometimes collaborate to prevent an opponent’s victory, leading to dynamic and ever-changing alliances.
  3. Flexibility and Adaptability: Tibetan dice games require minimal equipment and can be played anywhere. Improvised dice from Tsampa (barley flour), counters from small stones, and tokens from matchsticks or twigs make the game accessible and adaptable to any setting, allowing players to immerse themselves fully in the excitement and joy of the game.

Conclusion:

Tibetan dice games are not just a form of entertainment but a cultural phenomenon. They encapsulate the spirit of Tibetan life, showcasing the region’s rich heritage and the community’s capacity for creativity and joy. Whether played in a cozy room or under the vast sky, these games continue to be a vibrant part of Tibetan culture.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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