If you’ve booked a Tibet tour and want to go shopping in Lhasa, then this Lhasa visitor’s guide to shopping in a destination frequently referred to as heaven on Earth is the very thing you need. The result of hours of diligent research, and drawn from the wisdom and experience of our local guides, we’re confident you’ll find this list of where to go and what to shop for in Lhasa delivers what every ChinaTours.com adventurer seeks in a travel memento. A treasure that is truly covetable and continues to return beloved memories long after your vacation in Tibet is over.
Of course the guide includes many items you’d expect. You’ll find Tibetan thankgas and traditionally handmade Tibetan incense, however, there are a few surprises too, along with details of districts in Lhasa where treasures can be found. Admittedly this incredible city is not one driven by a consumer culture, but with the influences and an influx of visitors from around the world - both religious and adventurous - artisanal items are available, allowing them to be cherished by those with an appreciation of Tibetan craftsmanship and culture. With all that in mind, let’s explore Lhasa’s shopping.
The ChinaTours.com team are lovers of the beautiful and bespoke, so it’s any wonder we’ve included a section on Tibetan treasures in our Lhasa shopping exposè. Travelers and Tibetan Buddhist devotees come from across the globe to pay homage and feel the presence of divine inspiration, however, if you’re looking for something that is perhaps a little more temporal in nature, you’re bound to find just what you’re looking for in the list below.
Tibetan thangkas are a unique art form particular to Tibetan culture. In short, thangkas are colorful sacred paintings that have fulfilled many purposes since they first appeared over 1,300 years ago. Holding religious and spiritual significance, thangkas are used in meditation, to request longevity, as thanksgiving, or to accumulate merit. You will find these bright and intricately detailed works of art in one of six forms: painted, surface embroidered, as embroidery, printed, cotton, and Kesi weaving. Typically featuring themes of Buddhism and Tibet, such as its rich history, the stunning landscape, religious studies, Tibetan medicine, astronomy, and the religious calendar. Read more
No doubt you’ll be wondering about how much does a thangka cost? Understandably, prices will vary depending on size, materials, and authenticity. A genuine thangka is no small undertaking. Apart from the extended duration of the creative process - which can take from six months to ten years - it is an intricate 12 step marathon that includes gluing, polishing, drawing and coloring. Authentic traditional Tibetan thangkas are created with mineral colors. Some are even colored with powder from gold or gems, allowing these monumental works of art to be stored without fading for decades or even hundreds of years. While in Lhasa, we highly recommend a visit to the Tibet Thangka Art Academy, or one of the many other thangka studios in Lhasa, if a beautiful thangka is on your beautiful travel memory wishlist.
Wander Lhasa’s streets and the intoxicating scent of incense is pervasive and unmissable. A true icon of traditional Tibetan culture, many visitors are unaware of how deeply ingrained incense really is and that it continues to fulfill religious and medicinal purposes, as it has done for over a thousand years.
Like Tibetan thangkas, Tibetan incense undergoes a lengthy (albeit not a decade long) production process, with every ingredient - herbs, spices, and medicinal ingredients - carefully and artfully gathered, dried, blended, and formed into incense sticks. Among the most frequently used ingredients you’ll find Tibetan saffron, snow lotus, musk, golden root, clove, sandalwood, angelica, and cinnamon, however, there are many more. Read more
Perhaps the most well known of all Tibetan incense is crafted at Nimu County. With Tibetan incense production identified as part of intangible cultural heritage to be preserved, dedicated locals have gained employment, skills, and income by learning the production process from Tibetan monks. Monasteries also have a name for themselves as incense makers, with Mindrolling Monastery, Tsurphu Monastery and Sera Monastery all highly regarded for their incense.
Keep in mind Tibetan incense is typically used at shrines and forms part of religious worship. While this may not be your driver, you are bound to appreciate the meditative, healing, and relaxing qualities that help soothe and calm a restless mind and cleanse the environment.
Tibetan rugs, carpets, and Kardian
A far distant cry from mass production, Tibetan rugs, carpets, and Kardian continue to be produced by skilled craftsmen and women according to traditional design and methods and using traditional materials.
One thing that makes Tibetan rugs special is the wool used to create them. It is said Tibetan highland sheep produce some of the finest wool in the world and it is this wool, or changpel, which provides the material for the rugs, carpets, and Kardian produced in Tibet. Appreciated by locals and those further afield who love beautiful materials, it is the wool’s softness - function of the high lanolin content - that keep it in high demand. Read more
Other unique features include the fact that wool continues to be hand spun - a feat in itself. Dye masters create the exquisite colors formed from natural plant dyes, while the method of weaving maintains a craft and skills with heritage that dates back many centuries, although exactly how many is a point of debate. Historically considered a lowly craft, rug making did not feature in religious decorative art, and was only first acknowledged for its beauty - ironically by a Westerner - early in the twentieth century.
If your search for shopping in Lhasa includes a Tibetan rug, you must learn there are three different types of Tibetan carpets. One is woven with yak and sheep wool, and made with brighter colors and more complex patterns. A finer version is woven with fine sheep wool. Relatively simple and crafted in a plain style, this type of rug has more patterns made with colored threads. Kardians are a traditional carpet with a long history. They are typically rectangular (about 2 meters x 1 meter), handmade, and can be either decorative or functional. Enter the home of just about any Tibetan family and you will find a Kardian. To add a Tibetan rug or Kardian to your own collection, explore the shops or carpet factories in Lhasa and Gyantse that are dedicated to their production.
Tibetan woolen fabrics (Pulu)
Regardless of where you travel in Tibet, you will see many versions of the traditional Tibetan pulu. Perhaps the most recognisable of these is the Pangden, the iconic rainbow colored Tibetan apron worn by Tibetan women. The pulu produced in Chanang, Gyantse, Nanggarze and Mangkam are best known. A traditional handwoven woolen fabric that has many applications, including clothing, shoots, hats, and robes, pulu is a wardrobe staple for Tibetans, even with the influence of western styles of dress. Recognisable as a densely textured cloth, pulu is often a combination of white, black, red, blue, maroon, and turquoise. Although this may not make it into your work wardrobe, a pulu can double as a decorative wall hanging when you return home.
It may be surprising to learn that Tibetan swords have been a feature of both traditional and everyday dress for centuries, and that Tibetan swords were the primary handheld weapon used from the seventh century. While useful for daily life and self-defense, swords served decorative purposes too. Read more
As with many aspects of Tibetan culture, different types of swords hold significance based on size, materials they are made from, and where they are housed. Ranging in size from one meter to 40 centimeters, a Tibetan knife may only extend a little over 10 centimeters in length. Everyday hilts may be crafted from ox horn, ox bone or wood, with decorative silver or copper wound around it, while the scabbard is typically more ornate with precious and semi-precious metals and gemstones adorning it in intricate designs featuring birds, animals, flowers and plants.
Swordsmiths continue to maintain this craft today with the finest to be found in Damxung, Lhatse, Qamdo, and Yi’ong, with the latter home of the famous “rainbow” swords made by local swordsmiths who keep this ancient tradition alive.
Experience any festival in Tibet and you will be struck by the colorful theatrical masks that are included as part of cultural and religious celebrations. In Tibet, masks form an integral part of a sacred, religious dance called the Cham lama dance, however, they are also a decorative feature in monasteries, worn for Tibetan opera, as well as traditional folk dancing and singing. Read more
Tibetan masks are synonymous with color. Just as other items of religious significance are made using bright colors, so too are Tibetan masks. Red, representing power, features heavily, while other colors such as yellow (signifying auspiciousness), blue, white, black and green are also commonly used. Traditionally made from clay (hard), wood or paperboard, or animal skin, cloth, paper and silk, the art of mask making continues today with the ancient skills carried on by artisans today. Whether you fancy a mask that does double duty as a wall hanging, or you plan on learning a few lines of song from a Tibetan operatic epic, these one of a kind pieces of art are definitely a collectible.
Tibetan jewelry and ornaments
What could be more collectible from your tour of Tibet than an exclusive item of jewelry? Tibetan culture and festivals dictate that jewelry is worn on special occasions and there are plenty of these throughout the year.
Still handmade, Tibetan jewelry and ornaments are crafted from natural gemstones, animal bones, as well as Tibetan silver and copper. Symbolism runs deep in Tibetan jewelry, so it’s worth understanding the meaning behind the vivid colors and materials that are combined to make these distinctive artworks. Expect to find jewelry and ornaments made from ox bone, sterling silver, Tibetan silver, three-color copper, agate, turquoise, beeswax, coral, and shells. Black and white dzi beads are favored for being a symbol of hope and light.
Both men and women adorn themselves with jewelry, however, it is Tibetan women who wear the Gawu box - a Ghau pendant, amulet, and Tibetan Buddhist ritual item. Considered a woman’s most significant and indispensable item of jewelry, these boxes are made from turquoise, amber, and coral, which represent heaven, earth and man respectively. A Gawu box also holds significance among Tibetans for its protective qualities.
Tibetan ritual items
Tibetan Buddhism is a mysterious religion that is characterized by many ritual items, many of which hold religious or cultural significance. Ornate and beautifully crafted, they are often best understood when seen in practice. Take your pick from the list below and carry home a beautiful treasured travel memory.