Tibetan houses offer a rich variety in architectural concept that differs from region to region. House building tradition is strongest in farming areas, where elaborate constructions can be up to three stories high. Animals occupy the lower area at night, sending warmth up to the upper floors. The family lives on the second floor and the third houses the family shrine.
Ritoma is a nomad area, and until fifty years ago, nomads lived all year round in their sprawling yak hair tents. In winter, they would surround the camp with double willow fences, stuffing the space in between with yak down for protection, and stacking the inside of the tent with yak dung to keep it insulated. There was no tradition of house building, so that when they became the norm in the sixties, they were simple, with a wooden structure of beams and pillars and mud walls, made from pounding earth between wooden frames and then removing the frames. This operation requires skill and technique and can lead to walls that hold for centuries, though people now prefer using bricks, which are widely and cheaply available.
A house must face south to capture the low winter sun, and in the last ten years, people began building glass verandas to trap heat and insulate the building. All around the house is a mud or brick enclosing wall, leaving space for a wide courtyard where animals are kept during winter nights.
Nowadays, a typical nomad house boasts three rooms. One is a dedicated shrine room with elaborately carved altars holding statues, sacred texts and photos of lamas. Offerings of clear water in silver or copper bowls and fruits line the front of the shrine. A large bushel of wool hangs off the side, a collection of strands of wool taken from each and every yak or sheep that a family slaughtered or sold for meat. It stands there in memory of the animals who fed the family, a focus of prayers to accumulate merit on their behalf, and for the family itself who bears karmic responsibility for having ended their lives. A kang, a heated platform covered in felt and sheepskins stands opposite to the shrine so that the room can be used for sitting, eating or sleeping. Tibetans always sleep with their feet away from the shrine and towards the window. During the day, they sit on the kang, offering the best seats, near the window, to elders or more important guests. Everyone sits cross legged and low lying table runs down the middle and through the length of the kang. Tibetans never step over tables or sit on them.
The second room is generally a large space used to host gatherings for dozens of people, in preparation to religious activity or for times of celebration or mourning when the entire village comes to pay their respects. A large earthen stove and one or two kangs dominate and the walls are lined with shelves embedded into wooden panels where the porcelain bowls for drinking noodle soup or kneading barley are stored. This too is in preparation for large gatherings.
The third room is usually a sleeping/sitting, all purpose room, also used for cooking. Here too are a kang and a dung or coal stove which has the dual purpose of boiling water and cooking meals. This room, where the family lives, is characteristically small to conserve the maximum warmth. More affluent nomads will also have a room dedicated to stocking animal products, from dried meat to animal hide to butter and cheese. A diligent nomad will never allow this stock, characteristic for its pungent smell, to run low.
To this day, most families have no plumbing and wash their faces and hands in metal basins usually placed on the veranda, away from stoves or tables used for eating. Bathrooms are a very new concept, and few families have even outhouses.
A Tibetan house is simple though filled with the warmth of generations who were born, lived and grew old within its walls.