Importance of Yak to Tibetan Culture




Thubten Jigme Norbu, the elder brother of the 14th Dalai Lama, reported on his journey from Kumbum in Amdo to Lhasa in 1950:

"Before long I was to see the vast herds of drongs with my own eyes. The sight of those beautiful and powerful beasts who from time immemorial have made their home on Tibet's high and barren plateaux never ceased to fascinate me. Somehow these shy creatures manage to sustain themselves on the stunted grass roots which is all that nature provides in those parts. And what a wonderful sight it is to see a great herd of them plunging head down in a wild gallop across the steppes. The earth shakes under their heels and a vast cloud of dust marks their passage. At nights they will protect themselves from the cold by huddling up together, with the calves in the centre. They will stand like this in a snow-storm, pressed so close together that the condensation from their breath rises into the air like a column of steam. The nomads have occasionally tried to bring up young drongs as domestic animals, but they have never entirely succeeded. Somehow once they live together with human beings they seem to lose their astonishing strength and powers of endurance; and they are no use at all as pack animals, because their backs immediately get sore. Their immemorial relationship with humans has therefore remained that of game and hunter, for their flesh is very tasty."

- Thubten Norbu, Tibet is My Country

Tibet is My Country: Autobiography of Thubten Jigme Norbu, Brother of the Dalai Lama as told to Heinrich Harrer, p. 151. First published in German in 1960. English translation by Edward Fitzgerald, published 1960. Reprint, with new chapter, (1986). Wisdom Publications, London. 



It would be hard to underestimate the importance of yak to traditional Tibetan culture. The yak (འབྲོང་། ) is considered the backbone of nomad life in the Himalayas, with this animal being important to the economic and personal wellbeing of the family. From the products crafted from yaks, the nomad family is able to clothe, shelter, and feed their family, so it is little wonder that some say their yaks are treated with respect and honor. The wide and endless grassland in Tibetan plateau is scattered with a group of yaks which are regarded as the "family heirloom" by the Tibetan people.

Yak Milk is the yak's first contribution for human. Female yaks can produce three to four jin of milk every day, which is three times as much as that the local cattle produce. Yak milk is thick and of rich nutrition. Herders drink milk every day. They drink milk after boiling it. They also make the milk into yogurt and slag refined oil and residue from the milk. Yak milk has a high fat content.5km of yellow butter can be refined from 50kg of yak mild. Tibetans rarely eat vegetables and fruits, but they eat butter tea and milk residue every day. They also use butter to light the lamp and to make Zanba.

Yak meat contains high protein. It tastes fresh and delicious. Especially in winter, it is a kind of nourishing food. If you go to Tibet, yak meat is the most delicious food that you should not miss. Flexible and smooth hair is used to make advanced textiles and Tibet wool. The yak's tail hair can be used to make wigs and false mustache for opera performance. Yak leather is used to make Tibetan high boots and senior leather shoes which are of high quality. These shoes are quite popular with customers from all cities in China. Dried yak dung is the main fuel for herdsmen. They rely on it to keep warm, cook tea and cook meal. Even the bones which are grinded into powder are also very good for fertilizing the farmland.

In a word, the yak is definitely the treasure of which make great contribution to Tibetan people and to the Qinghai - Tibet Plateau.

Thank you  Wang Yiguang  and Del Yak for sharing the artwork.

Thank you Wang Yiguang and Del Yak for sharing the artwork.


Nicole Porter-Salvato, PhD is one of the owners of Prairie Sky Sanctuary and Ranch, a horse and Tibetan yak ranch in South Western Wisconsin. She’s trained in epigenetics and epidemiology, an avid IYAK supporter, BOD member and yak lover. She and her husband, Dan, love to talk about yak and are always available to answer questions or provide resources.

Nicole Porter-Salvato

Prairie Sky Sanctuary

Nicole Porter-Salvato