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Khata: The Tibetan Scarf Symbolizing Respect and Blessing



Khata, also spelled as Khada or Hada, is a special silk fabric scarf in the traditional etiquette of Tibetan people. It represents goodwill, auspiciousness, and respect, and is deeply embedded in the social and religious customs of Tibet. The offering of Khata is one of the most well-known customs in Tibet, and if you travel to Tibet, don’t be surprised when you receive Khata from your Tibetan guide upon your arrival.

Khata custom has been long in Tibetan culture
Khata custom has been long in Tibetan culture

Khata is often adorned with Tibetan symbols, such as the Eight Auspicious Symbols (Ashtamangala) of Buddhism, mantras or deities, adding further depth to its meaning. These intricate designs stand for different aspects of Buddhist teachings, creating a tangible connection between the giver, receiver, and the divine. In this article, we’ll delve into the rich tapestry of the Khata, exploring its history, significance, and uses in contemporary contexts.

History of Khata

Tibetan people believe Khata is a ribbon on the dress of a fairy, which of course is derived from folk tales. There are actually a few explanations for the origin of 'Khata'. 

First explanation: During the Han Dynasty, Zhang Qian was sent to the Western Regions as an envoy, he delivered silk to local tribal leaders when passing by Tibetan settlements. The ancient Han people used silk as a gift, symbolizing pure and flawless friendship. Tibetan tribes believe that presenting silk scarf is a friendly and blessing etiquette, which has been handed down to this day. 

Second explanation: After meeting with Kublai Khan, the first Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, ‘Phags-pa (the well known Tibetan scholar-monk who was honored as “imperial preceptor” by Kublai Khan) brought the first silk back to Tibet. The silk was decorated with the pattern of the Great Wall and the words "Good Luck and Happiness to You", which then evolved into a tribute to Khata. That’s why you can find Khata custom in Mongolian culture as well.

Khata custom can also be found in Mongolian culture
Khata custom can also be found in Mongolian culture

Third explanation: Tibet had no silk in the past, so Tibetans used animal skins to make gifts. The Bön (the indigenous religion of Tibet) history records that people worn sheep wool around their necks during the reign of Degong Jayshi (the ninth king in ancient Tibet). Since then, the tradition has been passed on. Over time, people began to make scarves using silk. The scarf was used to replace the plain wool, and the scarves became Khatas gradually.

Types of Khata

There are different types of Khata, often varying based on the occasion, relationship between the giver and receiver, and the cultural context. For instance, the length and quality of the fabric can vary, with longer and higher-quality Khata being reserved for more important or revered recipients. Also, there are white, yellow, red, blue, green, and multi-colored Khatas, each having a specific purpose and meaning.

Khatas made of silk
Different colors of Khatas adorned with auspicious symbols

White Khata is the most common one. White is the color of white clouds, white horses, vast snow fields in winter, and Mount Everest. It symbolizes purity, beauty, auspiciousness, and kindness, and is highly valued by the people of the Qinghai Tibet Plateau and Inner Mongolia grasslands.

Blue Khata is popular on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Mongols people advocate blue because it is the color of the sky. The herdsmen on the grassland are particularly fond of blue robes and accessory patterns. 

Yellow Khata symbolizes the land and is usually used to express the owner's respect, gratitude, and respect. It is used when meeting important people or elders, or for religious activities.

Green Khata symbolizes the river, reproduction, and prosperity. Green is the color of grassland, representing the harmonious coexistence of life and nature. The herdsmen on the grassland use green Khatas to pray for health and longevity.

Red Khata is for personal use and cannot be given as a gift. It represents vitality, enthusiasm, celebration, blessings, and protection.

The Five Colored Khata is the most precious gift given to Bodhisattvas and close relatives to make colorful arrows. The Buddhist doctrine explains that the colorful Khata is the clothing of a Bodhisattva. So, the multi-colored Khata is only used in specific situations.

The Meaning of Offering Khata

In Tibetan culture, the most basic meaning of Khata is blessings, so it can be used in many occasions, such as birthday, weddings and funerals, welcoming and farewell, and expressing gratitude, etc. Khata is made of exquisite silk, with a beautiful and elegant image and meaning, representing auspicious, festive, and happy. In celebrations such as Losar (Tibetan New Year), people use Khata to pray for a better future and a happy life.

Meanwhile, Khata also serves religious purposes. When people worship temples, monasteries, pagodas, sacred lakes, hermitages where living Buddhas have practiced, and other holy places, people offer their Khatas on tables, statues, mani stones, or hang them somewhere as a gesture of respect and reverence. 

In Tibetan monasteries, Khatas mean greetings to monks and Buddha
In Tibetan monasteries, Khatas mean greetings to monks and Buddha

The Etiquette of Presenting Khata

The act of offering a Khata is a ceremonial affair. The giver usually holds the scarf folded in half lengthwise, symbolizing the interweaving of the giver's and receiver's lives. The giver then bows slightly and presents the Khata with both hands. The receiver will accept it in a similar respectful manner.

Khata Culture Influences

In Mongolian culture, the Khata holds a similar significance as in Tibet. It's presented during events like Tsagaan Sar (the Mongolian New Year), weddings, and other special occasions. Beyond Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Mongolia, the custom of offering Khatas has spread to other regions influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, such as Bhutan, and parts of Nepal and India.

Tibetan people see Khata as a very important gift, and it is a traditional custom to offer this “greeting scarf” to friends, relatives or guests as a way of indicating your honorable intentions, and wishes of happiness. Also, as a symbol of respect and goodwill, Khata adds an auspicious touch to almost every occasion, making it a cultural gem worth cherishing and preserving.

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