The cultural heritage of Tibet emerged during the seventh century, coinciding with the Tibetan empire (seventh to ninth centuries AD) and the arrival of Buddhism. This is a heritage defined by a shared literature, history, language, religion (Buddhist or Bönpo) myriad cultural practices, and holidays, that contribute to a complex cultural identity that is also shaped by regional and ethnic differences.
Despite regional and ethnic differences, common to Tibet’s cultural heritage, is the equation of Tibet with gang ljongs or snowy lands and a creation myth identifying Tibetans as the offspring of the monkey Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa and the rock ogress Ma Drag Sinmo.
Within Tibet, villages and towns are concentrated in the river valleys with Gompas (monasteries) as centers of cultural activity. The Tibetan language is a part of the Sino–Tibetan micro family. There are an estimated six million Tibetan language speakers with an estimated two hundred dialects and varieties across the region. Regional and ethnic differences in language can be so pronounced that people from differing regions and ethnicities may not be able to understand one another’s spoken language.
The art of Tibet is rich and varied. Art forms include residential, monastic, and palace architecture; metal, clay, and stone sculpture; wood and stone carvings; painting; pottery, masks, block printing, textiles, and metal ware. Subject matter consists of religious iconography, folktales, history, geometric motifs (such as the mandala), and biographies of notable Tibetans.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) occupies approximately half of the Tibetan Plateau and includes about forty percent or approximately two million four hundred thousand, of the Tibetan population who live in the geographic region of Tibet. Within China, Tibet also includes a large portion of Qinghai Province, portions of northern and western Sichuan Province, southwest Gansu Province, and the northwest corner of Yunnan Province.
Tibet consists of three or four main regions. Utsang, or central Tibet, is the area in and around Lhasa. Utsang is within TAR. Ngari, also largely within TAR, in western Tibet, is at high altitude and sparsely populated. Amdo lies in the northwest region of the Tibetan Plateau and includes parts of China’s Qinghai Province, southwest Gansu Province and northern Sichuan Province. Kham is in the southeastern part of the plateau and includes the eastern part of TAR, southern Qinghai Province, western Sichuan Province and northwest Yunnan Province. Thirty five percent of Tibetans in the region, or about two million “Khampas” live in Kham.