Cultural significance of Tsampa རྩམ་པ
Culturally significant, nutritionally rich, and simply made with an ancient grain, barley, Tsamba (AKA Tsampa) has been a fast and honest food of Tibetan people for centuries. It is not only a predominant staple of our diet but is also used for Buddhist and mystical rituals.
The word “tsamba” refers to coarse ground roasted barley flour, similar to a coarse cornmeal, as well as the savory bite-sized tsampa meal this nutty flavored flour eventually becomes, with the help of a few key ingredients. The meal is then enjoyed, often for breakfast, in solid form or as Thuma (གཏོལ་མ, porridge). It’s an everyday food, especially in nomadic areas as much as it is a celebratory food for all: the educated and uneducated, herders, farmers, government officials, the wise and the young.
It is believed celebrating Tibetan rituals with tsampa flour predates the adoption of Buddhist beliefs in the region. Revelers toss it in the air to mark their joy at weddings, births, Losar (Tibetan New Year) and religious ceremonies; it is offered to animistic mountain gods and local deities for protection. It is also burned during the 49-days of mourning a loved one’s passing and long after to help release and carry the soul to hereafter.
Freshly ground or incorporated into Tibetan cakes (ཞུན), Tsampa is always a treasured gift to give and receive. In my hometown Regbong, it is often donated as part of honoring to celebrate ones’ life. Many Tibetans also believe that the grain even has medicinal uses. The flour is commonly applied to the gums to help relieve a toothache; it serves as massage oil for a headache or sore neck and elders munch on for a quick energy boost.
Tsamba is well ingrained in ancient lore and everyday life in my culture. It is even the name of a popular Tibetan typeface, as it reflects so profoundly our culture and its roots.
Continue reading part 2: Tsamba: First Food of the Tibetans, Part 2
Another wonderful post. I am wondering if I will still be able to eat barley. Recently I have been having some digestive problems and it seems I can’t digest wheat properly anymore. I’ll be going back to Qinghai at the end of next month and I’m wondering what I will be able to eat. Well, if I can’t eat tsampa, at least I can enjoy the interesting sculptures. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Nama-mama, sorry to hear about the wheat problem. Barley is known for its wholesomeness and rich nutrition, but I know very little about whether or not it’s easy to digest. Thuma/tsampa porridge might be okay (with less butter of course). Maybe try rice? Or bread made of barley flour or the combination of wheat and barley? These types of breads are easy to find in Qinghai.
More nutrition facts on barley
Good luck, Nama.
Very nice article. Beautiful photos. I look forward to your posts!
Thank you, Sara. Much appreciated.
Hello Jolma, I have never heard of Tsamba before and as always, I’m pleased to learn these interesting points that you share with us. The sort of conical shape is fascinating. I would like to learn more on the 49 days of mourning too, why that number of days and what happens during that time besides the burning of Tsamba, why is this done? What are the floral shapes attached to the Tsamba in the lower photograph? Your photos are beautiful. Thank you for sharing this interesting story and Tibetan cultural insight.
Great question and loaded one, Peggy. It feels like a senior Buddhist Lama should answer this but here is mine (and the best). 🙂
49 days of mourning has to do with Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Buddhists hold the view that one’s passing is part of the ongoing cycle of life: born, die and reborn (reincarnation).
During the 49-day mourning period, it involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals. As part of the ceremony, a soul lama guides and eases the consciousness of the dead step by step between death and entry into reincarnation. But it also provides loved ones the chance to honor the dead and let go. In the communities of my youth, food and drink also commonly offered to villagers, visitors and monks for days or until after the funeral.
The floral shapes attached to the Tsampa figurine are made of butter and is part of the ceremony for either death or donation ceremony. This picture was captured during the donation ceremony honoring my mother’s life last year. We celebrated her life when she could take part of it.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is good source for this if you are interested.
And thank you for being part of my journey, Peggy.