In Tibet, red is the color of the sacred realm. While all shades have their place in temples and monasteries, burgundy belongs to the ordained monks or nuns, of whom there are thousands spread over the whole plateau. This hue also adorns religious buildings, usually in the form of a frieze made of neatly cut branches which are stacked over the beams, and painted over in a deep brownish red. Though red paints are now more commercially available, they were originally painstakingly obtained from lac (insect based) and cinnabar (mineral based).
Monks robes, which originated in India, were worn in various shades of yellow, ranging to orange and saffron, as they are today by monks in Thailand, Burma and other countries in South East Asia. Though yellow is still present in Tibetan monk’s robes, the dominant hue is burgundy red. The original monk’s robes were designed for warm weather and adapted to Tibet’s cold climate by adding upper garments.
Today, a complete set of Tibetan monk’s robes comprises the following:
This sleeveless upper garment was created in the time of Tsong Khapa, in the 14th century. Made of burgundy and yellow woolen cloth, its protruding shoulders are said to represent the fearlessness of one engaged on the path of enlightenment. The blue piping stands for the blue worn by Chinese monks. Following the destruction of Buddhism by King Langdarma in the 9th century, three monks escaped north to Amdo province from where they revived the Sangha, or religious community. To ordain new monks, the Vinaya requires a quorum of five ordained monks, and they invited two blue clad Chinese monks to join them. This detail in the chogeu is in homage to them.
This lower robe is sewn to look like patched up cloth, a deterrent from possible attachment to an object of value, such as a piece of quality cloth. In the past, the shamthab was sewn up from many pieces while today it is merely made to look patched.
The Gelugpa tradition dictates that the shamthap be draped with the fold on the right side turning towards the back, symbolizing a monk or nun’s renouncement of worldly life and negative actions. The folds on the left turn towards the front, meaning their commitment to the Buddhist path and the virtuous activities that will contribute to accumulating merit.
A wraparound maroon shawl measures 5.5 meters for a full size and half of that for the smaller size in length and 1.25 meters in width. It can be draped to leave the right shoulder bare, but can also be fully wrapped. According to Vinaya rules, monks are not to wear sleeves, and the zen, which can be made of thick wool, provides shelter from Tibet’s cold weather.
The chogeu is large yellow shawl, only worn by fully ordained monks, or gelongs. It is usually donned during the tunshag or confession ceremony or during teachings. It is similar to the Hinayana robe, and is also made up of many pieces, like the shamthap.
The namjar is a ceremonial wrap also made from yellow material, which is like, but larger than the chogeu. It is worn on special occasions, mainly ordinations or initiations. It has more patches than the chogeu, and was sometimes made of silk.
The dagam is a large cape with a pleated back that monks wear in Tibet to attend monastic assemblies. The generous folds allow warmth when seated for long periods of time.
While in Southeast Asia monk’s robes were made of cotton, Tibetan climate dictated a warmer fabric, and they were made of wool. Their quality was measured by the fineness of the wool, the best being woven from handspun lamb’s wool, or shenma, then dyed red with natural dyes. The result was a cloth of exceptional quality, which lasted a lifetime.
Norlha began weaving monk’s robes ten years ago. Our aim was to bring back the unique quality of indigenous Tibetan fabrics. Norlha material is woven from different blends of yak wool and silk for finer fabrics, and our finest 100% yak wool. Red and yak khullu go well together, with the natural shades of the yak interpreting the colour in different ways. Working with monks, we recreated the reds worn by the Tibetan clergy, dyeing Norlha fabrics and sewing them into the various robes that comprise a monk’s attire. All the edges are hand sewn, and the belts are specially woven.
Black and white photography by Nicholas Vreeland