Tibetan Signs and Symbols: the Impression of Tibet

Last updated: October,25 2018

In Tibet, there are a huge number of things that define the region and the Tibetan people, as well as the culture and religion. Many of these signs and symbols of what it is to be Tibetan are clearly visible around you when you visit Tibet and are proof that you really are in the land at the Roof of the World. And taking photos with all of them and collecting all the symbols of Tibet could be an interesting thing to do during your Tibet tour.

Potala Palace

One of the most impressive and significant symbols of Tibet is the stunning Potala palace, sitting high on the Red Hill above the city. More than 300 meters above Lhasa, the spectacular red and white palace buildings can be seen for miles from outside the city and are one of the major symbols of Tibet.

Built in the 17th century, the palace lies on the site of a much older building, which was a palace and fortress built in the 7th century by the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo. Pars of this original palace still remain to this day, in the western end of the Potala Palace. The Potala palace was built to be the seat of government in Tibet and lasted until the new seat was built at Norbulingka, also in Lhasa. The palace remains the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and is one of the most popular tourist sites in Tibet.

Lama with Red Clothes

When you mention Buddhist monks, everyone thinks of the red-robed, shaven-headed monks of Tibet, and this image is known all over the world. An iconic image of Tibet, these monks and lamas can be seen all over Tibet and reside in all of the monasteries that remain in the region. Buddhism is the main religion in Tibet and is so much a part of the culture and lifestyle that it is a major part of every Tibetan’s daily routine. The lamas are also symbols of spirituality and philosophy, knowledgeable in the Buddhist scriptures and revered by the ordinary Tibetan people.

 Tibetan Buddhist monks Monks and lamas in Tibet are the symbols of spirituality and philosophy.

Religious Symbols

Religious symbols rarely define a country, yet in Tibet, the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism can be found everywhere you look. Often carved or painted on buildings, chortens, stupas, prayer wheels, and mani walls, they are representations of the teachings of Buddhism and the scriptures. The eight auspicious signs are:

Chhatra (Umbrella) - The Tibetan Buddhist symbol of wisdom and spiritual power symbolizes honor and respect for the Buddha.

Dharma chakra (Wheel) - The eight-spoke wheel of righteousness symbolizes the teachings of Buddha.

Dhvaja (Victory Banner) - The symbol of victory over the demons of the mind (passion, lust, death and emotional defilement) on the path to enlightenment.

Sankha (Sacred Conch Shell) - Represents the fame of Buddha's philosophy which spreads far and wide like the deep sound of the conch.

Padma (Lotus Flower) - The lotus is a symbol of the spiritual growth of a person following the teachings of the Buddha and treading the eightfold path.

Shrivasta (The Endless Knot) – The closed geometrical knot with a right-angled loop has no starting or ending point and represents Buddha’s infinite wisdom.

Suvarnamatsya (Golden Fish) - The golden fish always occur in pairs facing each other and are representations of joy and fertility, along with abundance.

Kalasha (Sacred Vase) - The sacred vase is symbolic of the inexhaustible riches that are the Buddha’s teachings. It represents spiritual abundance, prosperity, wealth, and long life.

Buddhism

While Buddhism may be a religion in many countries, and Buddha was actually born in Lumbini in Nepal, many people around the world think of Tibet when they think of Buddha. Tibet is well known to be one of the most devoutly Buddhist places on the planet, and it is a known fact that many of Buddha’s disciples spent a lot of time in Tibet, bringing Buddhism to the highest place in the world, closer to the heavens. Tibet is also the location of the most sacred mountain in Buddhism, Mount Kailash, which is believed to be the mythical Mount Meru, the home of the gods and he center of the universe.

 Jokhang Temple Jokhang Temple is the most revered monastery in Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhism in Tibet is split into five different schools, and the region has a total of 88 fully functioning monasteries from the 6,000 plus that were originally built in the region during the time of the Tibetan Empire. The most famous of all are the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, the Rongbuk Monastery in Shigatse (the highest monastery in the world), Ganden Monastery, and Sera Monastery, famous for its Buddhist semantic, theological, and philosophical debates.

Prayer Flag

Prayer flags can be found in many Buddhist and Hindu countries, but never in such huge numbers as in Tibet. Almost everywhere you look, houses, buildings, monasteries, and even the trees are adorned with prayer flags of all colors. Blowing vigorously in the winds on the high-altitude plateau, these prayer flags are a stunning sight to behold, and are one of the biggest symbols of Tibet.

Trekking around the region, you can often see prayer flags at the high-altitude passes between the mountains, and at any of the holy or sacred sites that you can travel to, such as Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, Lake Namtso, and even the Everest Base Camp.

 Prayer Flags in Kailash Colorful prayer flags hangging at the passes of Mount Kailash.

Prayer flags are traditionally used to promote peace and tranquility for all the living beings of the world and can be found everywhere in the Himalayas. Used to bless the countryside and the people of the world, the prayers written on the flags are believed to be blown by the winds around the globe, sending goodwill and good wishes to all living things. In Tibet, prayer flags are believed to have originated in the ancient Bon religion, the original shamanistic religion of the Tibetan people prior to the introduction of Buddhism and the defeat of Naro Bon-Ching by the Buddhist sage, Milarepa on the slopes of Mount Kailash.

Prayer flags normally come in sets of five, one in each of the colors. They should always be hung in a specific order, according to the color, which has its own meaning. The order, from left to right, is: Blue, White, Red, Green, and yellow, and the flags represent the five Buddhist elements and the Five Pure Lights. Blue is for sky and space, white for air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green is the water, and yellow symbolizes the earth.

Prayer Wheel

Made from metal, stone, leather, or wood, prayer wheels are cylindrical carved tubes around a central spindle which allows them to be turned. Known in Tibetan as “khor lo”, they are often found on the outer walls of the temples and monasteries and can also be seen in many places inside the chapels. The outside of the prayer wheel is often carved with the mantra, “Om Mani Padme hum”, the six-syllabled Sanskrit mantra that is often associated to the god Chenrezig, or Avaloketishvara. The six syllables are used as a mantra that, when spun on the prayer wheel, is as good as reciting them. The syllables each mean:

Om – Generosity
Ma – Ethics
Ni – Patience
Pad – Diligence
Me – Renunciation
Hum – Wisdom.

Prayer wheels are often hollow, and inside the drum a scroll of the Buddhist scriptures is inserted, so that the spinning of the prayer wheel allows these prayers to all be recited as well, since spinning the prayer wheel has the same effect as reciting them by mouth.

Mani Stone

Mani stones, which can be found all across Tibet, are plates of rock, stones, or pebbles that are inscribed with the six-syllabled prayer of Avaloketishvara, “Om mani padme hum”. They act as a form of prayer in Tibetan Buddhism, in much the same way as the prayer flags and prayer wheels do. However, they can be inscribed or carved with any of the Buddhist scriptures or mantras.

Mani stonesMani stones act as a form of prayer in Tibetan Buddhism.

The stones are often placed intentionally at the sides of roads and rivers, and in sacred and holy places, such as Lake Namtso, Lake Yamdrok, Lake Manasarovar, and Mount Kailash. Some are placed together in these auspicious spots to form cairns or mounds of stones, while others are built to form a wall and are often used as offerings to certain spirits in that holy place.

Often found on the routes of pilgrimage in Tibet, like the mani wall on the Kailash kora, these walls contain hundreds of stone tablets, and as with all things of religious significance in Tibetan Buddhism, the mani stones and mani walls should be passed on the left side, the clockwise direction in which the planet and the universe revolve.

Tibetan Buddhist Prostration

Prostration in Tibetan Buddhism is the ultimate form of prayer, a gesture used in Buddhist practice to show reverence to a venerated object. It is believed that prostration is beneficial to Buddhists for several reasons, including the experience of giving or veneration, as an act to purify one’s own defilements, as a preparatory act before meditation, and as an act of prayer that accumulates merits on the journey towards enlightenment.

In ancient Buddhist suttas, it is written that the disciples of Buddha would prostrate themselves before him, before sitting to listen to his teachings, and in Theravada Buddhism, the main practice in Tibet, it is often done three times both before and after meditation. The three prostrations are devoted to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Tibetan Buddhist practice the typical “five-point” prostration, which places five points of the body on the ground in a specific order; toes, knees, palms, elbows, and forehead.

Tibetan Language

One of the original Tibetic languages, of which there are several across China, Tibet, India, Nepal, and Bhutan, Classical Tibetan is a major literary language that was once used across the entire Tibetan Empire, extending into parts of China, India, Nepal, and Myanmar.

Tibetan actually has several dialects, which have regional variations from u-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo, all of which are parts of the Old Tibetan, which was spoken between the 7th and 11th centuries. Modern Tibetan came about in around the 9h century, when Tibetan literary practices went through a kind of reform, amalgamating all the Tibetan dialects of the plateau into one standardized vocabulary. This was undertaken by the monks and lamas that were translating the Indian texts and scriptures and resulted in what is now called Classical Tibetan.

Tibetan Wildlife

Wildlife in Tibet is varied and widespread, with many of the different animals that inhabit the plateau being found from north to south and end to end of the region. Most well-known, and popular with the tourists, is the Tibetan antelope, or Chiru, which once spread across the plains of Tibet in their millions. A medium-sized version of the antelopes of the African plains, the chiru has developed to be a natural inhabitant of the Tibetan plateau and can survive on the bare minimum of grass through the long cold winter in the north of the region. Hunted almost to extinction for their soft warm skins, they are now a protected species in Tibetan and Qinghai Province.

 Tibetan yaks Yaks can often be found on the prairies of Tibetan Plateau

Snow leopards are another native to the Tibetan plateau, and while their numbers have dropped over the centuries due to hunting and protection of the yak herds, there are still a large number of wild snow leopards on the plateau.

Wild yaks and donkeys can often be found on the plains and prairies of the Tibetan plateau, especially in the northern areas where there are fewer towns and villages. Wild yaks in Tibet are now down to less than 7,000 in total, and are a protected animal, to try and increase their numbers and bring them back into their natural habitats.

Probably the most likeable and cutest of all the Tibetan wildlife is the Pika, a small mammal, much like a mouse or hamster, with short legs and a small round body. The pika has small rounded ears, similar to most rodents, but has no long tail and is not actually a rodent. The live in the long grasses of the Tibetan meadows and can be found at heights of up to 6,000 meters. Pikas are herbivores, and live off the grasses, flowers, and young seedlings of the meadows, burrowing into the soil to make their nests where they will stay for the winter with their stores of food.

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