A feel for the fabric of life
Dolma, who started Dickey Orphanage, wears a bandigan / Picture: Stephen Scourfield

There is a life in this small piece of woollen fabric. There is a place in its colourful stripes. A person in its oily, smoky scent. And a moment shopping has led me to discover both of these.

It is not a usual shop. I am in a small square in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, about 350km from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

Founded in 1447 by the First Dalai Lama, Tashi Lhunpo is still very much alive and today, as every day, a stream of pilgrims circumambulate its temples, bowing before its Buddha statues, adding hot yak butter milk from vacuum flasks to its candle bowls, chanting the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, calling on benevolence, spreading compassion.

And some have gathered in this square, in the sun, under an indigo sky up here more than 3800m above sea level, where an impromptu shop is opened on the stone steps.

There is a long pile of gifted clothing, much from people who have died and, as these faithful believe, gone on to reincarnation.

I already have an interest in these traditional aprons, and step forward to the gentle scrum of women locked around them.

I pick one up, attracted by its strong but not-too-bright colours, and an elderly lady picks up the other end and looks at me. Blue fabric is plaited into the ends of her long hair and I have just watched her pull these up, wrap them around her head and secure the ends on top.

We hold either end, looking at one another but then I realise she is not challenging me for it. She is taking an interest in what I am interested in and I have the sense of her reading the life in this piece of fabric. The place and the person in it.

She nods at it, turns it over, as if she were conversing with not the fabric but the person who has worn it, clearly for many years. Probably from touch she can tell whether it is an xiema - the best kind of apron and woven from 14 to 20 kinds of yarn - or a pulu, the second-best quality and most common. Then she lets the end go, looks at me and nods.

She is about to move away, when she suddenly grabs the end I am holding, turns it over and looks at the price, written in yuan in a Tibetan character. This is clearly important, too. She nods again. yuan 35 ($5.40) is clearly right.

I hand money to the young monk standing above me in his maroon robe, his traditional red shoes at my eye level. The bangdian is mine but as I turn away with it, other women finger it, turn it over, consider it.

My bangdian was probably made very close to here and worn by a woman who came to pray and chant in Tashi Lhunpo's temples. For Shigatse is one of the three main areas in which they are made, along with Lhasa and Shannan. Their production can be traced back more than 500 years.

Traditionally, the aprons are worn only by married women but the young and unmarried have apparently started adopting this strong statement of traditional dress. They are tied around the waist, usually over the equally traditional long black skirt.

They are of finely woven wool, which has been spun into fine thread, dyed, brushed and woven into strips. Traditionally, the wool was thought purer if the animals had been fed on clean, uncontaminated grass.

Three strips are stitched together to make a bangdian, the stripes on them sitting horizontal.

The colour of these stripes is all-important. It must be both striking and tasteful, harmonious and gently exciting. Traditionally, natural vegetable dyes were used, but a chemical pink dye is also much favoured today.

It is said that women in agricultural areas prefer a stronger contrast in the colours. These bolder and brighter aprons have a wider stripe.

Women in towns prefer a milder mix and these more graceful colour mixes have a narrower stripe.

Some have pure primary colours mixed into numerous strips with secondary colours. Some are ordered, dark to light, by groups. Some seem just random.

But there is a plan and a story in the selection. For it is said that a Tibetan woman's home village can be read from the language of her apron's stripes.

And this takes on another aspect. For after China's invasion of Tibet and the failed uprising of 1959, and countless other waves since, many Tibetans live in exile, particularly in Nepal and India - away from their lands.

But they continue to wear these aprons, connecting them to place. To their past. To Tibet.

In the old part of Lhasa, I talk a little with a weaver of bangdians, before buying a new one for yuan 240. In fact, there is little word talk - his English is slight and my Tibetan non-existent - but he shows me around the shop.

The various mixes of colour; the little timber pit loom which, from my later reading, is unchanged in hundreds of years.

Tightly combining a warp usually woven from wool or cotton, and a weft from wool, it is simple and portable - and nomadic Tibetans carried their unfinished work with them as they drifted from place to place with their flocks.

Back outside Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, we walk down the wide street and stop at a little cafe to sit in the sun on raffia-style chairs, most of their seats fallen through, and order jasmine tea. A tall glass is brought with a few dried jasmine leaves in the bottom and a vacuum flask of hot water left on the floor by the table.

I am here in Shigatse on a bespoke cultural tour through China, Tibet and Nepal with the Leederville company Travel Directors - a trip which brings many such intimate encounters with people and place.

A travelling companion bought two aprons at the square in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. His are on the table now and an elderly woman stops to examine them. Again, there is an intimacy; a sense of her feeling she has the right to pick them up -to consider and greet the former owner. It is as if she is reading the bangdians. As if she is reconnected to the village they came from. As if she is touching the people who once wore them.


Leederville-based Travel Directors has a number of itineraries in Tibet - most starting in China and finishing in Nepal. They vary from 4WD cultural adventures to rides across the Tibetan Plateau on Royal Enfield motorcycles. Phone 9242 4200, visit 137 Cambridge Street, West Leederville or see traveldirectors.com.au.

Singapore Airlines flies from Perth four times daily (until March 30), with a direct connection from Singapore to Beijing. I left at 4pm and arrived at 7am the next day, local time. Travel agents and singaporeair.com.

Stephen Scourfield travelled as a guest of Travel Directors and Singapore Airlines.

The West Australian

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