In what is one of the world’s most challenging environments

In what is one of the world’s most challenging environments — the high Tibetan plateau — the Tibetan people have created an exuberant and strikingly colourful response. The result is a unique and easily identifiable style of decoration and adornment that has spread throughout the Tibetan world, including down here to the milder and warmer climate around Benzilan. You can see it on window frames, doors, lintels and pillars, and also in the jewellery as earrings, rings or braided into a woman’s glossy black hair, and in silk brocades and fur-trimmed coats. This is decoration not as an idle afterthought to prettify and fill spaces, but in a kind of defiance to the often harsh conditions. It fits well with the Tibetan character: cheerful, tough, outgoing and stoic.

In and around the Tibetan house (see our other feature story How To Build a Tibetan House), decoration in strong, primary colours, put together with a bold self-confidence, turn the typical fortress-like building structure, built to withstand cold and earthquakes alike, into a joyful, welcoming home. The decorative themes all come ultimately from Tibetan Buddhism, which itself borrowed heavily from India and Nepal, and there is a strong connection between temple ornament and household ornament in a way that you don’t see in any of the world’s other religions. The outside frames of doors and windows are typically carved and painted, as are the wooden crossbeams, pillars and even walls inside. Partly for the same reasons, in the face of what were traditionally hard conditions, both men and women enjoy adornments, and historically, wealthier Tibetans imported coral and amber (the latter from as far aways as the Baltic), as well as using Tibetan gold, silver, turquoise and agate. There are also religious and spiritual reasons, with semi-precious stones considered to have different powers of protection and benefit.