An orderly pre-industrial medieval society revolving for the most part around organized Buddhism, Tibet was home to about 5 million people in 1900. As in any pre-industrial society the vast majority were what we would call poor, living subsistence lives with rough possessions and clothing. One must be careful about labels, however, as these poor people, like most in pre-industrial societies, had vastly more free time than we do today in our societies. Their simpler world was given context by the all pervading presence of the dharma and with that a high degree of respect for what we would now call spiritual accomplishment.
People on Pilgrimages
An important feature of Tibetan life was pilgrimages, long journeys from one place to another with some kind of religious intent as part of the mix. I don’t mean to say this lightly; pilgrimages could have focused intent and be hundreds of miles and many months. Some pilgrims traveled vast distances one hands and knees to the ground prostration after another (something you can still occasionally see in modern Lhasa). Other pilgrimages, however, were part of a nomadic lifestyle. Lhasa, the capital in central south Tibet was the preeminent pilgrimage site.
The couple facing towards the camera are typical pilgrims,all their possessions, including whatever they needed to make a fire and produce a meal, on their backs. You can see the man is turning a prayer wheel, one of the contemplative practices for the common pilgrim. The family photo with all the big smiles are of nomads just returned from their winter’s warm weather journey to Northern India. Note that the man and boy are barefoot while the women have shoes. They’ve just walked hundreds of miles including tough climbs through high mountain passes and look none the worse for the wear.
People in Commerce
On the left is a commercial traveler, a trader whose clothing is finer and longer than the poor. All those discs you see on her back are silver and the beads in her hair highly valued turquoise.
Women in Tibet fared better than in many parts of Asia, especially in their ability to be on their own and in public. You can see typical women of on hundred years ago in this picture of a shop. Their heads are uncovered, they are obviously free to interact with anyone who comes along, male or female and they are the ones negotiating the transaction and handling the money. The status of women in old Tibet was such that it was no unknown for a woman to have more than one husband, though in most cases the multiple husbands were brothers.
Photographs by Charles Bell
Photos © the British Library Board and used by permission.