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Tibetans and Their Dog


Three baby mastiffs.By Zhang Meng.
Three baby mastiffs.By Zhang Meng.

Bring ethnic Tibetans and their dogs together and you will get an inextricable union.

The earliest dogs descended from wild beasts of prey-being fierce, tough, strong, and prepared to fight to death against any rival. However, having been tamed by human beings, dogs became companions to mankind and could form a strong bond with their masters. Tibetans have considerable knowledge of how to choose, feed and tame dogs, showing their natural wisdom in the whole process. As a loyal companion to Tibetans throughout history, dogs have already become not only "best friends" to Tibetans, in particular regarding their spiritual well being, but also invaluable assistance in their economic production. Dogs are usually loyal to their human masters, never look down on the poor, and are tough, intelligent and friendly.

In the Tibetan mastiffs's show organized by the association of Tibetan mastiffs of TAR,a mastiff named Sika with his master is on show.By Sonam Lozang
In the Tibetan mastiffs's show organized by the association of Tibetan mastiffs of TAR,
a mastiff named Sika with his master is on show.By Sonam Lozang

There are various legends regarding how dogs contribute to the lives of Tibetans. The stories include Prince Achu, Happiness Comes from Dogs' Grace and Barley and Dogs from the Amdo region. All of these stories reflect the dogs' kindness, benevolence, and profound sympathy with human beings. In the story Barley and Dogs, it is told that in an early period of Tibetan history, no grain was planted on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and the people followed a nomadic lifestyle to survive, living a rather hard life. Having seen this situation, the divinity in the heaven sent dogs to another universe to seek grain seeds. Enduring terrible hardship, the dogs brought back barley seeds to Tibet. Since then, Tibetans have been enjoying good lives. The story Prince Achu, it tells of how prince Achu, while trying to rescue Tibetans from famine and hardship, took the bull by the horns in order to grasp grain seeds from the king of snakes; unfortunately, he fell for the trickery of the snake king and became a dog. The seeds he took back eventually became Tibetans' favorite food- Tsampa. The second story Happiness Comes from Dogs' Grace tells that, when grain was available, people didn't value it but rather they wasted it by making Tsampa as a toy. On observing the scene, the divinity was upset and took the ears off barley (In legend, there were nine ears on barley). As the other eight ears were removed, the dog suddenly shouted: "Please leave me one." The barley was therefore left with one ear, and that is the barley we actually see today. For these reasons Tibetans, from generation to generation, have always paid sincere respect to dogs and appreciate them very much. For thousand of years, Tibetans reverence for and fondness toward dogs have become a custom rooted deep into the hearts of Tibetans.

The older people leading dogs while walking ground holy places,become one part of the moving scenery in the streets of Lhasa.By Sonam Lozang
The older people leading dogs while walking ground holy places,
become one part of the moving scenery in the streets of Lhasa.By Sonam Lozang

Dog involvement in Tibetan lives has also been fragmentally recorded in historical materials. According to the records, Quan Rong was an ancient nationality in the north China. In accordance with the evidence of history and archeology, quan was the idol of Rong-the ancestors of Tibetans. Thereafter, Tibetans naturally followed the custom of Rong.

In Tibetan history, as a prevailing custom, dogs were slaughtered in order to form an alliance or to worship divinities. During the period when the Bon religion prevailed, whenever an alliance ceremony or worship took place, a big group of animals were killed, including dogs-recognized as the most precious animal. According to records, "Tsenpo (the highest leader of Tubo) always conducted a small alliance meeting with his ministers once a year and a large scale meeting every three years. During this meeting a large number of animals, such as sheep and dogs, were slaughtered by cutting off their feet first and then killing them. The whole activity was conducted by male witches in order to inform all divinities in the Heaven, the Earth, the mountains, and the universe: 'If we cheat each other through conspiracy against each other, your Excellency will surely know it well and we permit you to punish us, just like these slaughtered sheep and dogs."  When the three-year alliance meeting took place, Tibetans convened at the altar by night. A number of dogs, horses, yaks, and donkeys were sacrificed. The invocation would be something like: 'You should work together with me in order to safeguard my homeland. All divinities in Heaven and Earth witness our common will. On breaking your word, you will be torn asunder, just like these animals'"(cited from Old History of the Tang-Tubo Biography).

Tibetan mastiffs in front of the Potala Palace.By Cui Lijun
Tibetan mastiffs in front of the Potala Palace.By Cui Lijun

Both dogs and also their blood were acknowledged as having miraculous power to control and expel evil spirits. Holding a special place in Tibetan hearts, dogs always embodied mighty and incredible power. They were believed to have the power to condemn as well as drive out demons and evil spirits to safeguard their masters. In ancient Tibet, whenever armies were sent into battles or before any kind of large-scale communal activities, people were accustomed to slaughter dogs to obtain blessings. Today, customs such as burying dogs in a house or at the entrance still prevail in the Amdo region. When harvest season comes, people are buried dogs in sacrifice to wish for a successful harvest and to ward off catastrophes.

Tibetans mainly live off grazing sheep and yaks. However, on such a extensive grassland, only dogs could loyally and reliably safeguard the livestock from attacks by wild animals; it is only a dog that could protect the property and maybe also the life of his master; besides, dogs are easily tamed which it is the key reason that human beings could form a mutual dependence with them. Dogs are not only a domestic support for people and their lives, but also protect them, and eventually become the intimate friends of Tibetans.

Mastiff in the grassland.By Dekyi
Mastiff in the grassland.By Dekyi

In addition, the adoration of dogs in Tibetan society is manifest in different ways. For instance; in Gonpo area, people traditionally invite a dog for a meal on New Year's Eve. They offer all kinds of dishes on a wooden plate, including Tsampa, lamb, beef, peach, walnut, butter, sweet roots, and barley. They pour tea and wine into the putamina. When everything is ready, the master calls on his dog and politely says: "Comfortable and happy dog, please have this meal!"After three such calls by the master, the dog starts to eat. Some experienced dogs usually show their dignity by firstly sniffing all dishes available on the table, and then decide what it is going to eat. Gonpo people believe that the dogs are directed in what dishes to eat or leave by the divinities. Thereby, the whole family is showing their reverence and awe and paying great attention to every gesture of the dog; for instance, if the dog tastes Tsampa, people will believe that the grain will be abundant this year; if it chooses butter and milk dregs, it symbolizes that animal husbandry is going to have a good season; however, they are scared if the dog eats meat on the New Year's Eve. If it does, people believe somebody will die or diseases will spread. The big surprise is that usually the dogs rarely eat meat on the Eve. Only after the dog is full, can the householders partake in their final meal for the year.

In Tibetan custom, there are always rules regarding dogs. For instance dogs may not be killed, eaten or mistreated; if the family's dog has passed away, the family must hold a solemn funeral for it.


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