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Have you ever noticed Tibetan women with microbraids? In fact, many of them sport the look. While it may seem like an exciting juxtaposition, they’re most likely not paying tribute to American hip hop. They’re doing it to respect Buddhist teachings. But wait, why do monks shave their heads bald, then? Vicky Huang untangles the mess.

Lhakpa Tsamchoe wearing Tibetan microbraids in Seven Years in Tibet (1997).

Lhakpa Tsamchoe wearing Tibetan microbraids in “Seven Years in Tibet” (1997).

For Brad Pitt, 1997 must’ve been picking up on some monastic vibes. He’d recently ended a long-term relationship with Gwyneth “Goop” Paltrow, starred in “Seven Years in Tibet,” and, with the latter, enlightened the public that microbraids aren’t exclusive to Africans.

Microbraids are so prevalent and ingrained in Tibetan culture that one loses trace of their origin. Tibetans weave ornate jewelry, colorful strings, and fine plaits into their multi-layered microbraids. They’re more than fashion statements. They offer clues on marital status, tribal affiliations, spiritual aspirations, and more.

Who’d have thought? That’s high-level intel for basic keratins to relay.

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Hair is Love, Hair is Life

Buddhists say that hair is three thousand threads of trouble. Surprise surprise, just look at how much blood was spilled over Manchurian braids during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Qing (OG Manchu) emperors forced their subjects to adopt the in vogue hairstyle of the shaved forehead and long braided hair at the back. By the end of their reign, people viewed the braided hair as a symbol of enslavement by these rulers. As sensational as they once were, Manchurian braids are a thing of the past.

The well and alive Tibetan braids are sensational in their own right, and it’s unacceptable that #tibetanbraids Instagram posts amount to a whopping seven as of June 2020. Ergo Temper reckons…

Let’s get to know them with due attention, shall we? #temperteachings

The hair knows no gender. And neither did its wearers in old Tibet, at least when it comes to letting it flow freely. Both men and women kept their hair for life, never cutting it and always wrapping it up into a slowly but surely growing pigtail on top of the head, according to the China Embassy in Nepal.

On An Unsolicited Educational Note
When Delilah cuts Samson’s hair, he becomes powerless. Hair is linked with holiness in many cultures and religions.

In ancient China, hair was a parental gift that mustn’t be tampered with.

Sikhs don’t cut their hair out of respect for God’s perfect creation.

The Amish do the same but on the basis, that haircutting represents secular grooming.

The Mohawk believes the longer the hair, the closer the connection to the earth.

On the contrary, Hindus and Buddhists shave because they think beautiful hair impedes spiritual focus.

Guess we can only agree that hair is three thousand threads of trouble.

Honor Thy Hair

Hair is like babies – a force of nature they are. Don’t fight it. Just let it be. And when its life comes to an end, bury it with dignity. In one of the three traditional regions of Tibet, Amdo, some elders still pick up their hair after it falls out and store it somewhere secretive and sacred, like a recess in the wall of their house or a circumambulation path.

It seems that people are going through this trouble just for feeling good. Are there actual pressing reasons for picking up those keratins? Turns out there are.

If you don’t pick up your own hair, somebody else might. Presumably, an enemy will use your hair as a medium to perform aggressive rituals and annihilate you. Even if scheming humans don’t pick up your hair, birds might. While they won’t ravage you Hitchcock-style, it’s believed that when they collect your hair to build a nest, you will experience premature greying (well, “whitening”, actually) of the hair.

So unless you dig Rogue’s “X-Men” look, it’s best to pick up after yourself.

Tibetan headdress secured by braids. Source: Huaban

Tibetan headdress secured by braids. Source: Huaban

Don’t Burn Thy Hair, Unless You’re Dead

Much like how hair is not to be cut, it shouldn’t be burnt either. But once you’re dead, if your family can afford it, your hair would be gathered along with that of all the other well-off deceased in a “hair house,” which supplies hair for the annual fire-offering in May.

Again, this peculiarity with hair and fire joins Tibetans with other cultures.

On Another Unsolicited Educational Note

Tibetans aren’t alone in their peculiarities with hair and fire.

Native Americans see hair as a physical extension of thoughts and experiences, so burning hair (often with sage or sweetgrass) is seen as letting those rise to the Creator for guidance.

Sikhs burn hair that’s left the body as a reminder that it’s served its purpose and can be returned to the elements without attachment.

When in Doubt, Braid it Out

Hair is significant, so it’s natural to deliberate on ways to preserve and present it. Braids are born to tame and adorn the hair. As nomads roaming about the plateau, Tibetans braid to keep their hair neat. Moreover, braids match accessories better and can secure them with a stronger grip. Talk about functional aesthetics.

Braiding is usually a ceremonious four-people effort. The braiders are well-respected elderly women who are kind, auspicious, and philoprogenitive. The braidee’s (yep, that’s a word now) hair will first be thoroughly washed, then slathered with yak butter and hair gel. It takes hours to complete the braiding, but once it’s done, it can last for months. Accessories made of gold, silver, copper, shells, beeswax, agate, and turquoise will be added to show off wealth if the braidee is married.

Yet more complexities (read: three thousand threads of trouble) ensue.

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Not All Braids Are Created Equal

The hair knows no gender, but the braids do. They signal a woman’s marital status, social rank, and tribal affiliation. There is, however, no male equivalent.

This gender imbalance is best captured by the headdress that married women are expected to wear daily. It’s a physical burden and a declaration that being a wife is central to a woman’s identity when no equal outward reminder is imposed on her male partner.

Tibetan woman from Golok Amdo in traditional finery. Source: Voyage Visuelle

Tibetan woman from Golok Amdo in traditional finery. Source:  Voyage Visuelle

108 Braids, Take Me to Nirvana

To braid or not to braid. That is the “feminist” question. Within the former camp, there are other concerns as well, such as how many braids to braid.

In Central Tibet, two braids are the norm. But in the more traditional Eastern region of Kham, one braid means a lady is single, two braids mean she’s taken, and 108 microbraids mean she’s enlightened (or aspired to be enlightened).

There are lots of theories on the sacredness of 108. Firstly, it’s a Harshad (“great hoy” in Sanskrit) number, which is an integer divisible by the sum of its digits. Secondly, there are 54 Sanskrit alphabets, each with a masculine and feminine form, which total up to 108 letters. Altogether, 108 embodies the holy trinity of enlightenment because 1 is for God, 0 is for wholeness, and 8 is for infinity.

Given the many auspicious interpretations of 108, it’s no wonder that a mala, or set of mantra-counting beads, often have 108 beads or some fraction of the number. Surely, the power of 108 would be more potent when it’s braided onto your head than dangling between your fingers.

On A Final Unsolicited Educational Note

Rainbow braids rank high on the tourist checklist in Yunnan. But have you wondered why this supposed local hairstyle turns out to be a tourist trademark?

That’s because these rainbow braids signify widowhood in the Nahki custom. Back in the days, men in the area worked on the Ancient Tea Horse Road.

Their wives would braid in a colored thread in their hair every year of their absence. Once five colored threads are braided in, the wives were allowed to remarry, so these colorful braids gave signals of widowhood and availability.

Not the most auspicious thing to flaunt.

 

From Hair to Eternity

Tibetan braids are on the wane. The Chinese government discourages this hairstyle because they impede Tibetan assimilation into the mainstream Han culture. Lots of young Tibetan women, with influences from the outside world, also prefer to cut and style their hair according to modern secular aesthetics.

The most spectacular comeback of Tibetan braids starts with the tourists. Downtown Lhasa, much like the Caribbean beaches, has become a place for tourists to get their hair braided and a hub for locals to earn a living from braiding.

The hair and braids of Tibet are intricate, delicate, and complicated. They certainly deserve far more attention than seven Instagram posts. Considering the prevalence and appropriation of braids, hair them out and comb through the knots. Who knows?

It might come in handy. Someday.

They scream secrets in silence. But the Tibetans let them be, and make them be.

Ce sont des tresses, de style tibétain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FEATURED IMAGE: Tibetan female headdress in Kham Derge Mesho. Source: Wikimedia
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Vicky Huang