Here is the ocean of colors ▎the visual art of Tibetan people

Here is the ocean of colors ▎the visual art of Tibetan people

A Tibetan girl dressed in festive attire

Photography by Michael Yamashita


Overture: The Aesthetic of Tibetan Culture


Each city has its own unique charm and characteristics. The sounds, smells, structures, shapes, temperatures, and people living in a city, their language, facial expressions, clothing, lifestyle habits, and ways of expressing emotions, can all become unique labels for that city. These aspects often leave a lasting impression on those who have visited, making it a memorable experience.


The unique topography and climate of the Tibetan plateau create an environment and way of life that are distinctly different from anywhere else. This has led to the development of a culture that is pure and vibrant, with its own special characteristics. From any perspective, in any field of study, approaching or understanding Tibet, the experience is like reading a magnificent poem that is beyond ordinary.


Natural mineral pigments used to paint thangkas

Photography by Sophy Roberts


The colors of Tibet are the most eye-catching feature. They come like a sudden burst of light, welcoming all newcomers with their rich and vibrant first impression, capturing hearts with their beauty.


Color is the prelude to the Tibetan aesthetic, with the vibrant and colorful hues of the plateau’s ethnic traditions capturing the hearts of travelers. Slowly, like the petals of a flower unfolding, the mysterious and magnificent beauty of the region is revealed layer by layer. Every newcomer to Tibet is almost instantly embraced by the ocean of colors as they set foot on this highland.


Hidden expression ,Photography: Abo sodo


The sky above the plateau is a breathtaking blue, under the fierce sun; the five-colored prayer flags dance in the wind, shaking the hearts and minds of people, bearing the reverence of the Tibetan people for nature and the divine in the original colors of blue, white, red, green, and yellow; the majestic Potala Palace, standing for a thousand years, quietly exhibits the supreme and solemn faith in white and crimson; ancient murals and exquisite thangkas that have endured through the ages, beautiful Tibetan furniture, and vibrant paintings on walls, wood, and canvas continue to exude their mystery and beauty in silence.


In the 12th century, during the Kingdom of Guge, the murals at the "Lodang Temple" were created.

Locals also refer to "Lodang Temple" as "Zhaburang Temple".


Storage cabinet, late 19th century, Tibet, Private Collection

Decorated with painted mineral pigment depicting Vajradhara (Buddhist deity)


The Tibetan women strolling through the streets, immersed in the daily life atmosphere of the market, exude a lively and cheerful vibe. Their braids are adorned with colorful and eye-catching natural gemstone headpieces, while they wear colorful striped Tibetan dresses, with the hems fluttering joyfully and auspiciously. Occasionally, a monk in a crimson robe and a golden hat stands out prominently in the crowd, adding a touch of splendor. The faithful, holding prayer wheels that spin at a steady pace, emit dazzling golden light in the sunlight, echoing the golden domes of the temples. The fragrant smoke from the juniper incense drifts in the distance, swirling and lingering among the white stupas...


Therefore, the Tibetan people have become particularly skilled at using colors to convey and express emotions.


Prayer flags dancing in the wind. Photography by Kevin Jin


Blue · approaches the divine


There is no one who can resist the enchanting beauty of the sky in Tibet. Almost every friend who first arrives in Tibet will be captivated by the pure and boundless blue sky overhead. I believe that when they step on the land of the plateau and gaze at the sky, they cannot help but capture this open and pure blue with their cameras. Then, they will accompany it with a heartfelt admiration and praise, sharing this extraordinary and ethereal beauty with the world.


Under the blue sky, Mount Kailash stands as a symbol of transcendence.

Photography by pri-ide.


Under the blue sky, scattered among the towering mountains and rivers, lakes, and glaciers, the waters meet the sky in a magnificent and harmonious display of blue on blue.


The deep blue of the Tibetan sky reflects the purity and natural beauty of the snow-covered plateau, embodying the Tibetan people's pursuit of transcendence and spiritual purification. The eagle soaring freely through the sky seems to be cleaning the azure canopy above, flying towards the highest and most remote place, closest to the sun. This place, closest to the sun, is also the most transcendent and spiritual, symbolizing the closeness to the divine. The indescribable beauty of this scene forms a metaphor for Tibetan beliefs. Such profound and exquisite imagery can only be fully appreciated and experienced in person, creating a magical encounter that resonates with one's whole being in the midst of the Tibetan landscape.


The fluttering prayer flags, echoing in the distance with the blue sky,

Looking into the distance, it seems as if one can transcend the worldly troubles from here.

Photography by Sanjay Hona

There is a type of blue that we are most familiar with, called "Tibetan blue." In the murals of Tibetan religious themes and the creation of Tangka paintings, it is an indispensable color used to highlight the majesty of the deities. Even after thousands of years, the vivid images outlined and shaded with bright colors continue to evoke a sense of awe in viewers, as the power released through the continuity of colors allows them to feel as if they have crossed time and space in a single glance at the painting.


In daily life, the handsome Tibetan man, with his dark complexion, is dressed in a blue Tibetan robe, effortlessly exuding a strong and dignified presence that commands respect and confidence.


A Tibetan man dressed in a blue Tibetan robe. Photo by Abo Sodo.


Red · Above Faith


Red, perhaps, is the color that best represents Tibetan ethnic characteristics, as well as the color that best reflects the Tibetan people's personality. The faces of highland people, touched by the scorching sun and dry climate year after year, present a vivid and three-dimensional red, and no red is more vibrant than this natural blush red; the walls of the Potala Palace are red, the robes of the monks are red, and the beautiful and attractive red coral accessories are also favored by Tibetan women. They are accustomed to decorating their already natural beauty with this mysterious and symbolically auspicious red.


Well-dressed Tibetan women, photographed by Abo sodo.


The large, colorful coral accessories are the biggest highlight.

Paired with turquoise and a blue Tibetan robe, the ethnic characteristics are even more vivid and distinct.


It would be a regret to leave the Tibetan area without witnessing a debating ceremony in person. In the lively atmosphere of the clapping of hands in the palms of the monks, the monks' crimson robes dance with their intense debate, creating a strong energy field. The vibrant colors form a passionate ocean, witnessing and supporting the collision and exchange of thoughts among the monks.


Controversy - Photography by Will Pagel


The use of red in Tibetan religious settings is most common and widespread. In Buddhism, meditating on the color red represents transforming attachment and delusions into discerning wisdom. In the Tibetan prayer flags, the color red represents fire, a natural element that complements and contrasts with red. The Tibetan people's pursuit of spiritual enlightenment endows red with a sense of reverence and nobility.


Mural painting of the "Luodang Temple" during the Guge Dynasty in the 12th century.


Zhu Sha is an important mineral pigment traditionally used in Tibetan traditional painting.

This bright red pigment is known for its vibrant and delicate color without a rough texture.


King Kong Mandala, Tibet, 15th century. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In traditional Tibetan painting, the use of red symbolizes royal status.

White · Tashi Delek


Every time without exception. Upon arriving in Lhasa, the first thing to do is to head straight to the prayer wheel path surrounding the Potala Palace without any pause. It seems that only by immediately joining the devout crowd in spinning the prayer wheels can one truly find a deep sense of solace, like being embraced.


Tibet does not need to be beautified with a curious eye, friends who come here just need to integrate. Open up your mind and body, and experience and practice this way of life closely intertwined with faith.


Therefore, some say that in the Tibetan plateau, "souls, tainted by dust, can find salvation. The weary can find rest." Tibet will always be a homeland for some people's spirits.


The shore of Namtso Lake, white yak. Photography by Sergio Capuzzimati.

The yak is a totem of the Tibetan ethnic group.

In the eyes of Tibetans, the white yak is a symbol of good luck and happiness.


During another trip to Tibet, I met a Tibetan friend named Tenzin. As I finished my third circle around the square in front of the Potala Palace and sat down on the long bench to rest, the warm and cheerful Tenzin smiled at me. They say that in Tibet, a smile often conveys more than words, and a smile is better than speech. So I responded in kind. We then started chatting like old friends reunited, without any barriers between us.


A stranger named Mima expressed his friendship to me in such a way that I had never experienced before. He said, "Although we may look dark on the outside, our hearts are as white as snow mountains, as pure as a hada, and as pristine as a lotus flower." In that moment, I was deeply touched by these simple yet sincere words from my Tibetan friend Mima. He handed me a white conch shell that he held in his hand as a gift.


White Conch Shell Image: Xizang Art Antique


In Tibetan beliefs, there are eight precious items that are considered sacred. The lotus flower, endless knot, double fish, canopy, banner, wheel, treasure vase, and conch shell are known as the "Eight Auspicious Symbols". Each item is imbued with wisdom and auspicious meaning by Tibetan people. The white conch shell, in particular, holds extraordinary significance for devout Tibetan believers.


It is said in the scriptures, "When the Buddha Shakyamuni preached and expounded the Dharma, his voice was as loud as the sound of the ocean conch, resonating in all directions, so the conch is used to symbolize the Dharma sound." "The conch shell, when turned to the right, is considered most auspicious, symbolizing the spreading of the Dharma sound throughout the world, breaking through the ignorance of sentient beings, and also representing the meaning of wisdom."


Conch Shell, Tibet, Late 18th Century, Private Collection

The main body of the conch shell is intricately carved with various poses of Buddha images

Accentuated with pearl and lotus leaf inlay

Image: Michael Backman Ltd


For several days, I walked through the hidden corners of Tibet with Mima, spinning prayer wheels, drinking tea, eating meals, and visiting temples. On the day of my departure from Tibet, I met Mima at a Tibetan restaurant as per his invitation. He treated me to a formal Tibetan meal. As we bid farewell at the Potala Palace square, I presented Mima with a gift I had prepared in advance - a pure white khata and a collection of poems by Tenzin Gyatso.


Tibetans reverence white color. The pure white khata is a typical symbol in Tibetan etiquette. They only offer white khatas to the most respected individuals and gods. I would like to respect the local customs and traditions by presenting a khata to my most esteemed friend as a gesture of my heartfelt appreciation.


Just as everything sacred in the snowy land, white represents the purity and cleanliness of the Tibetan people's hearts, qualities, and spiritual state. Under the blue sky, the extraordinary, solemn, and sacred nature of Tibet also becomes apparent.


Prayer flags, snow mountains. Photography by Kalle Kortelainen.


Yellow · Buddha's light infusion


Just like red, golden yellow is also widely used in certain places and ceremonies in the Tibetan religious sphere. The roles and meanings carried by the colors red and yellow can be equally regarded. Red and yellow are considered the traditional clothing of Tibetan monks. Golden yellow is also the typical color of temples.


Today, the yellow color can be found in the Chayeba Cave Temple in Shigatse, which was founded during the Tubo period, as well as the main building of the Minzulin Temple. Traditionally, only famous temples or the residences of high monks would be painted yellow. In the unique Tibetan opera, yellow masks often represent the identity of high-ranking monks.


Monk ,Photography: Mattia Passarini


"Golden and magnificent" may be a key phrase that best represents the aesthetic of the Tibetan people. It seems that anything shining with golden light is believed to bring prosperity, good luck, and auspiciousness. This almost reflects a natural instinctual aesthetic of humans. The color gold is always associated with sun worship and energy.


Prayer Pathway ,Picture: divinum-pacis


In both material and spiritual life, striking gold can be found in every aspect of Tibetan daily life. Golden pagoda umbrellas, golden Buddhist implements, golden thangkas, golden accessories, and Buddhist shops and accessory shops are scattered throughout the streets and alleys. If you happen to step into one of them, you will be surrounded by a dazzling golden light, with golden household items and accessories filling the room, making it truly mesmerizing and overwhelming.


Believer, Picture: insta_Xizang

 Green · Nature and Divinity


Green is perhaps the most mysterious, beautiful, and divine color on the plateau. This may be because around green, there are always many beautiful and moving legends circulating.


If we say that the lakes on the plateau are the gems left by the goddess on this land, the turquoise necklace of the snow mountain goddess. Then, turquoise, as a beautiful embellishment in the daily decoration of Tibetan women, is a natural and sacred manifestation of beauty in secular life.


Elegantly dressed Tibetan girl. Photo by Abo Sodo.


The goddess Green Tara, greatly revered by the Tibetan people for her wisdom and compassion, is typically depicted in a green hue. Legend has it that Green Tara was born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. When Avalokiteshvara shed tears in response to the suffering of sentient beings, her tears transformed into a green lake. The goddess Green Tara then emerged from a lotus in the lake. Therefore, Green Tara is often portrayed seated gracefully on a lotus, with her right leg casually hanging down and her foot touching a blooming lotus. This elegant posture symbolizes Green Tara's readiness to rise and help sentient beings at any time.


Focused and mesmerized on a green Tara thangka painting, one can almost feel the compassionate coolness emanating from Tara herself.


Green Tara Thangka Replica from 13th Century Tibet.

Image: insightstate


Green is considered a color with strong feminine characteristics in Tibetan areas. It corresponds to the green water in the Five-Color Prayer Flags. Generally speaking, green symbolizes the natural color of plants, representing abundance of vitality and energy. Therefore, the touch of captivating green on the headscarves of Tibetan girls always brings to mind the endless lush grasslands, allowing one's imagination to freely roam in the magnificent highlands.


Pastoral girl wearing a green headscarf, Photography: Abo Sodo


Colors · Spiritual Refuge


The wise and devout Tibetan people have assigned unique meanings to each color based on their own beliefs and lifestyle. Colors are closely connected to the spiritual world of the Tibetan people.


Perhaps this stems from the genuine and pure nature of the Tibetan people. Just like how they can almost instantly break into song and dance, bringing joy to any moment or occasion, expressing their current happiness. They are not accustomed to subtle or reserved ways, and will openly and solemnly present what they consider to be the most beautiful things to their acknowledged friends. When beautiful colors come into view, the mood is instantly brightened.


Tibetan expressions.Photo by Abo sodo.


Immersed in the daily life of the Tibetan people, all colors have evolved into a visual art with distinct ethnic characteristics that extends for years. It evokes imagination and intoxicates the senses. The spiritual sustenance of the Tibetan people is found in color, and in the flexible application of rich colors, their aesthetic sense, wisdom, and emotions are fully expressed. Walking in the colorful world created by Tibet, both the eyes and the soul are equally enjoyed, inspiring and healing.


Tangka, Photography: Raimond Klavins


The play of light and shadow, like a dream.


This article is translated from Sorang Wangqing's blog.

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