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Tibetan Culture and Religion

Ritoma's Four Sacred Peaks

Across the valley from our house stands the highest peak in Ritoma, the Amney Tongra. Shaped in the hump of a crouching animal, it is the abode of a local deity whose name it bears. Our hill, at the bottom of which stands the workshop is known as the place where Amnye Tongra keeps his horses. It is said that he is very particular as to the character of those inhabiting what he considers his turf and that only those of pure intention, dedicated to the welfare of others will be allowed to remain there.

Amnye Tondra is one of four sacred peaks in Ritoma, the others being Amnye Northa, Amnye Huarga, and Amnye Danyi, the latter being the conical hill that stands out of its near perfect symmetry. Each of these are the abode of a local deity, recognized and revered for centuries before Buddhism was established in the region. Later, they were all endorsed by various lamas and absorbed into Buddhist practice.

When I began coming to Ritoma, I noticed the associations that people had with particular clans, which in turn held allegiance to one of the local deities. Amnye Tondra, Ritoma’s most important local deity and revered by all the clans, is associated with the largest, the Dzopa, which gathers more than one hundred families. During its Laptse, the ceremony during which clan members demonstrate their allegiance and seek the deitie’s protection by making offerings, clans from all over Zorge come to pay homage in a yearly celebration. The smaller clans have their own laptses, which take place mostly in summer.

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From Pasture to Street; Men's Wear in Tibet

The chuba is the core of Tibetan men (and women)’s dress, a full length cross over robe tied with a sash. The chuba’s shape varies from region to region; larger in Kham and Amdo, more fitted in Central Tibet. It can be sheep lined in winter, light wool in summer, or made of sheep skin in nomadic regions, bordered in felt, brocade or otter fur.

No one exactly knows how old the chuba is; what is certain is that it is rooted in Central Asia, and travelled East and West from there. It adapted its shape and material to the conditions of its wearers, as well for horse riding as for ceremonial use.

The chuba’s look is closely tied to the way it is accessorized; The type of sash and the tying style indicates the age and particular area of the wearer; Young men from Machu wear voluminous chubas tied very low, and the accompanying swagger is part of the look. In Kham, they wore extra wide buray (a raw silk from Assam) wrapped around their legs, which the older generation found preposterous and wasteful. Long sleeves falling knee length are the norm in Kham and Amdo, and unless outside in very cold weather, the left arm emerges and the sleeve is thrown over the shoulder or the whole top part wrapped around the waist. Chubas were usually worn over shirts made of buray, though the ultimate sign of virility in the old days was to be shirtless in a sheep skin chuba leaving the right arm to the elements in the dead of winter. Most nomads in Chang Thang and remote areas in Eastern Tibet wore nothing under their sheepskin chubas. 

In Central Tibet, chubas were made from the varying qualities of hand woven cloth, the finest being the celebrated shema which lasted a lifetime and was accessorized with brocade and fur hats and a large golden earring.

Nowadays, the chuba is still very much the center of Tibetan dress, though in summer men tend to reserve it for occasions such as religious ceremonies, gatherings or weddings, preferring to herd in parkas, now readily available in the market. Winter brings back the chuba to its full, and there are working chubas for the nomads and ceremonial ones made at considerable expense. For more casual occasions, they are mixed and matched with light parkas or stylish Tibetan shirts, accessorized with American cowboy boots, expensive running shoes and broad brimmed hats. Jewelry is essential; large earrings, coral necklaces, saddle rings. In Central Tibet, shirts and ties are sometimes wore under the chuba, which is smaller with sleeves that allow it to be worn in full and where modern fabrics are preferred over traditional ones.

Norlha created a men’s collection made from our signature yak khullu cloth that includes shirts, chubas, both in Eastern and Central style, and hats. Trends are going towards lighter, more comfortable wear, that allows a degree of integration with ongoing trends. 

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Kangtsa Medical College

Kangtsa is a small monastery situated on the border between Zorge and Karkya. Along with Shakyong and Takster, it is among the oldest Gelukpa monasteries in Amdo. Founded by the 4th Panchen Lama’s disciple Ngomar Ritropa, it remained an independent institution for some time, then went under the administration of Labrang in the late 18th century and remains connected to its medical college to this day. Kangsta was built flanking a hill looking over a beautiful valley full of juniper trees. Its medical college is an active part of the monastery. Tibetan monk doctors, trained at Labrang, maintain a clinic and a pharmacy of herbal medications made from plants collected every summer on the pasture. Five years ago a separate dispensary was built below the monastery to increase its access for the local population.
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Black Pottery

When looking to bring more charm to our Norden Camp dishware, we thought of Tibetan Black Pottery, which had undergone a revival in Gyethang, now commonly known as Shangri La. It was Spring and the guests were not due for another month, so we decided to drive down there, 1,500 km directly south of Labrang. It took three days and was a memorable trip, though I wish we had spent more time on the road, there was so much to see.

When we reached Gyethang, we saw black pottery everywhere, not always the most practical forms for dishware and visited a kiln, where we saw it being made. Clay has always played an important role in Tibetan craft. It is used for statues, mixed with high fiber content Tibetan paper, and sun dried. Tea pots and earth ware requore more firmness and impermeability, so the pieces are fired in a kiln after completion. Each area had its particulars in terms of clay, and as in many places in China, Japan and around the world, some have very special qualities and are keenly sought after. In Gyethang, the clay naturally turns black after firing. Most of the pieces we saw were rather crude, but some small wall decorations bearing the Eight Auspicious Symbols were very fine, and took more time and the hand of a talented artisan to make.

Had we had time, I would have loved to work with the clay artists and make clayware that better lend itself to everyday use, but we didn’t, so Dechen, Yidam and I loaded the car with ready-made pieces; bowls, small flower vases, braseros, and hot pot ware.

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Thousands of white papers flutter in the air and land like snowfall on the celebrated hill, one of Ritoma’s four sacred peaks. They are printed with the Wind Horse, a galloping jewel-bearing horse, a symbol of good luck for the wind to carry far across the plateau. On the designated spot, fresh prayer flags are strung up, family staffs are added, and prayers are recited while making offerings of barley, grains and milk. The locals circle the tops of the sacred area, dressed in their best, accompanied by prized horses. They shout for the victory of the gods – "Lha Gya Lo!" It is the season of lhatses.

In Tibetan areas, each clan, village and region has its own celebrated lhatse, a mountain top that is the abode of a particular local deity. Once a year, the members of the clan or village assemble to pay tribute to this deity. This usually takes place during the summer months and is an opportunity for nomads to dress in their finest and gather from near and far. Horse races and various local games follow the morning prayers and can continue for as long as three days with the men spending the nights in tents, talking and laughing long into the early hours of dawn. Feasts of momos and boiled meat are prepared and for many this is seen as a celebration of summer – a short and much prized period on the plateau where the weather is mild, the days long and the pasture is a green expanse speckled in wildflowers. Some lhatse celebrations are drenched by summer downpours, though this doesn’t dampen the celebrations. Rain is a part of the life-giving nature of the plateau.

Norlha observes holidays during the main lhatses in the area, a total of six days annually. The grandest and largest local lhatse brings together in celebration a thousand horses and their owners, and nomads from over a thousand families.

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