In ancient times, the Tibetan ancestor quickly built a large shelter to protect the common people from storms. They were then invited to build houses for the Gods in heaven, after becoming the Big Dipper. This shows how Tibetans developed their architectural skills and way of living through their struggle against natural disasters.
During the Tubo period, the first palace, Yumbu Lhakhang, was constructed on a small hill in the Yarlong Valley. Subsequently, the following rulers built a series of palaces including Chingwa Taktse Palace and Potala Palace. In the time of Trisong Detsan, the first Samye Monastery was built based on the Buddhist belief system. This grand monastery, adorned with statues of Buddha, ceremonial practices, and monks, laid the foundation for Tibetan housing style and construction.
Yak Hair Tents
In the pasture, people reside in yak hair tents. They spin the yak hair into thread and weave it into striped cloth, which is sewn together to form a square tent. This type of tent is supported by eight pillars and measures approximately 20 square meters with a height of 1.7 meters. The top of the tent has a ventilated opening to release smoke and heat, while also providing protection from wind and rain when closed. The front of the tent has a pull string attached to the door curtain, allowing for air circulation on hot days. Despite its simplicity, the yak hair tent is durable and capable of withstanding wind and snowstorms. Additionally, it is easy to assemble and disassemble, making it suitable for the herdsman’s lifestyle.
Traditional houses in Southern Tibet
Traditionally, Tibetan homes have designated seating for men and women. In southern Tibet, houses have flat roofs with stone bungalows and wooden columns. The roofs are surrounded by parapet walls and decorated with scripture streamers during the New Year. Each house has an incense burner and a Buddha niche for protection. The layout includes a central scripture hall, living rooms on either side, and a kitchen near the living areas. Additional structures like tool rooms and animal pens are found within the courtyard.
Houses in Forest regions
In the forested regions of eastern Tibet, villages are typically situated halfway up hillsides. The local materials are gathered to construct wooden houses, featuring log walls and pitched roofs covered in wooden tiles. In the Kongpo area, houses usually have irregular stone walls. Generally, these houses consist of two storeys, with access to the upper storey provided by a wooden ladder. The upper storey is typically used for living, while the lower storey is used for livestock. The main room is located behind the entrance door and contains a cooking range measuring 1 square meter. The entire family gathers around the cooking range for meals and warmth. As the central hub of activity, the cooking range is also where guests are offered tea and engage in conversation.
Traditional Tibetan houses have unique and distinct characteristics. In the southern valley area of Tibet, people reside in castle-like houses, while those in the northern pastoral area live in tents. Along the Yarlung Tsangbo River in the forest area, people inhabit distinctive and diverse wooden buildings. In the Ali plateau, cave dwellings are commonly used as residences. These Tibetan residential buildings have a rich history, with architectural remnants dating back as early as 4,000 years ago among the Kanuo New Stone Age relics. Some notable examples of local architectural features include:
Houses made of earth, stone, and wood in Lhasa, Shigaze, Chamdo, and nearby villages are known as “castles” by locals. These are iconic structures in Tibet, resembling castles with their simple yet majestic stone-wood design. The inward-sloping walls add stability, even when built close to hillsides. These houses are usually two to three stories high and have circular corridors inside. They provide both shelter from the elements and a defense against the harsh climate.
The castle-like house has two stories with rooms separated by columns. The ground floor is a stable and store-room at a low height. The second floor is the living quarters, consisting of a larger living room, bedroom, kitchen, storage room, or stairs room. If there is a third floor, it is often used as a hall for chanting Buddhist scriptures or as a place for drying clothes. A well is always present in the yard, with the lavatory located in the corner. In the rural area of Shannan, people often add a sliding door to the outer corridor to maximize room usage, reflecting their love for outdoor activities and making their buildings distinct. Farmers not only design their living room, kitchen, storage room, and yard well, but also arrange their barns for animals and the lavatory location to ensure maximum functionality. These buildings have distinct features such as square living rooms, composite furniture, and low-storey heights. Most living rooms consist of four 2X2 meter units, covering a total area of 16 square meters. The furniture includes cushion beds, small square tables, and Tibet cupboards that are short, multifunctional, and easy to assemble. The furniture is often arranged along the walls to maximize space utilization. Residential buildings are primarily constructed using wood, earth, and stone. The adobe walls are typically 40 to 50 centimetres thick, while stone walls range from 50 to 80 centimetres in thickness. The roofs are flat and covered with Aga earth, providing insulation in both winter and summer and making them suitable for the plateau climate.
Houses in Eastern Tibet
Residential buildings in the eastern forest area have a unique style. The houses in Nyingzhi consist of a living room/kitchen, storage room, stables, outer corridor, lavatory, and an independent courtyard. The rooms are square or rectangular, composed of smaller units. Furniture and beds are placed around the fireplace. The building’s height ranges from 2 to 2.2 meters. Due to the abundant rain in the forest area, most houses have sloped roofs, which provide storage space for forage and other items. Forest dwellers rely on local resources, resulting in predominantly wooden structures. Walls are constructed using stone, slate, cobble, and lumber, as well as thin bamboo and wicker strips. Roofs are covered tightly with wooden tiles secured by stones.
Common tents are small and elegant, with a square or rectangular base. To set up a tent, people use sticks to create a two-meter high frame, which is then covered with black yak felt, with a 15cm wide and 1.5m long gap in the middle for smoke to escape and sunlight to enter. The tent is secured to the ground with yak wool ropes. Inside the tent, a 50cm high wall made of grass-earth blocks, earth blocks, or stones is built, on which barley, butter bags, or yak dung (fuels) are placed. The tent is sparsely furnished, with minimal furniture. Near the entrance of the tent, an earthy fireplace is set up, and behind it is a worship area with a Buddha statue. People often lay a sheepskin rug on the floor for rest or sleep. Overall, pitching and dismantling a tent is easy due to its simple structure.
In Ali, houses are typically detached. They are constructed with earth and wood, reaching a maximum of two stories. During summer, people reside on the second floor. However, when winter arrives, they move down to the first floor as it offers more warmth. While most individuals live in houses, there are still some who prefer cave dwellings. These dwellings are often built alongside hills or mountains and come in various shapes such as square, round, or rectangular. The majority of cave dwellings have a square layout, measuring 16 square meters, with a height ranging from 2 to 2.2 meters and a flat ceiling. Cave dwellings are a distinct type of residential structure found on the Tibetan plateau.