Origin of Khatag
In Himalayan traditional practices and oral narratives, ཁ་བཏགས ‘khatag’ is believed to be connected with the རྨུ་ཐག། ‘muthag’, a legendary sacred cord that connects the sky to the earth. Furthermore, it is believed that the first seven བཙན་པོ ‘tsenpo’ or kings of Tibet descended and ascended back to heaven through this very ‘sacred cord’ during their lifetimes. This particular narrative has left a long-lasting impact on the psychology of people of the region, and this idea of ‘muthag’ as a 'sacred rope' has shaped their belief system.
Over time, as a gesture of receiving and seeing off guests, family members, monks and laypeople put tsampa (roasted barley flour) on their collar for safety and good wishes. After which people even began to stitch white wool thread on the clothes specifically the shoulder or offered bunched wool, or a knitted white cloth. Today the symbolic function and use of khatag as a ‘sacred cord’ or a 'guiding rope/cord' can be seen in various ritual contexts like marriages, funerals and religious ceremonies within the Himalayan communities. Khatag is said to have multiple origin narratives, one of them being traced to Mongolian practices.
To appeal with a longer Khatag and a shorter folded hand.
The origin of the term khatag and its meaning/ Etymology
In folklore, it is said that on visits to lamas and officials, people offered a white scarf as an introduction for their requests for blessing or assistance. The presentation of a white scarf symbolized their pure intention and sincerity. This collective understanding came from 'white' being seen as pure and unstained within communities. Since, it is offered before verbalizing any word. Hence, it is called ཁ་བཏགས། Khatag and is made up of two syllables: ཁ། 'kha' which means mouth, and བཏགས། 'tag' which refers to adornment or decoration.
Others, traced this term khatag to ཁ་དར། ‘kha dhar', where it refers to the spread of good and auspicious conditions.
ཁ་ (kha) = ཁ་རྗེ་དབང་ཐང་ (kha je wang thang) Here, ‘kha’ is an abbreviation of good fortune.
དར། (dhar) = Spread
However, some believe that, since the khatag is ornamented with frays/fringes at its end, it is called the “frayed/fringe scarf”.
ཁ་ (kha) = ཁ་ཚར། (kha tshar) Frayed fringe
དར། (dhar) = scarf
Over time, the term ཁ་བཏགས། ‘khatag’ was used more often than the term ཁ་དར། ‘khadhar’.
ཁ་བཏགས། - khatag
ཁ་ (kha) - mouth
བཏགས། (tag) - refers to adorned, decorated, tied up, etc.
ཁ་དར། - khadhar
ཁ་ (kha) = ཁ་རྗེ་དབང་ཐང། (kha je wang thang) Here, 'kha' is an abbreviation of good fortune.
དར། (dhar) = spread (classical Tibetan)
ཁ་དར། - khadhar
ཁ་ (kha) = ཁ་ཚར། (kha tshar) frayed fringes
དར། (dhar) = scarf (classical Tibetan)
Types of Khatag
People present khatags to celebrate auspicious occasions and offer to the statues/images of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and lamas. Khatags are identified differently in different contexts and usage. The khatag offered to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas are called སྙན་དར། ‘nyan dar’ or སྙན་ཤལ། ‘nyan shal’. If it is presented to leaders, officials, parents, children, and close ones during various occasions are called མཇལ་དར། ‘jal dhar’.
In some instances, people even lay khatag on the cushion after a guest leaves their home. This khatag is called གདན་དར། ‘dan dhar’. The usage of khatag goes beyond just offering and presentations made during auspicious occasions. It is even presented at times of loss like funerals and referred as སྤུ་དར། ‘pur dhar’ at such time. The term སྤུར། ‘pur’ refers to a dead body or corpse, and དར། ‘dhar’ refers to silk fabric.
སོག་དར། Sog dar (sog dar)
ཨཤེ་འཛར་འགག་གཅིག་མ། a she ‘dzar ‘gag gcig ma (ashe zar gag chig ma)
དར་ཙོན་སྣ་ལྔ། dar tson sna lnga
(dart son na nga)
ཟུབ་ཤེ། Zub she
ནང་མཛོད་འཛར་འགག་གཉིས་མ། nang mdzod ‘dzar ‘gag gnyis ma (nang zoe zar gag nyi ma)
Though sometimes khatags are presented in five different colours, it is mandatory to have a white khatag to represent one's pure heart and uncorrupted intentions.
When one offers the khatag they can symbolize different expressions or feelings. For example, the offering of khatags to Buddha, Bodhisattvas, lamas, and monks represent the devotion, respect, and good intention of a devotee. The presentation of khatag to leaders and officials to address one's problems, represent sincerity without any kind of dishonesty and deceit. The exchange of khatag among parents, children, and dear ones symbolize their love, affection, and genuineness.
Photographs for 'Types of Khatag' taken from བློ་བཟང་དོན་ལྡན། Lobsang Dhonden, དབང་འདུད་ཚེ་རིང་། Wangdu Tsering, སངས་རྒྱས་བསྟན་དར། Sangye Tandar. 1997. བོད་ལུགས་རྟེན་རྡས་ཁ་བཏགས་ཀྱི་གླིང་བ། bod lugs rten rdzas kha btags kyi gling ba/. བོད་ཀྱི་དཔེ་མཛོད་ཁང་། Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
Benchung | སྤེན་ཆུང།
Folk tales on the origin of Khatag
Not much is known about the art of knitting in ancient Bon civilization. However, in terms of khatag, a few folk tales bring to light the origin of how the use of khatag came into practice.
During the time of king གྲི་གུམ་བཙན་པོ། ‘Drigum Tsenspo’, a descendent of གཤེན། ‘shen’ (Bon priest), was believed to have donkey ears. So, in order to hide his donkey ears, a woollen thread was bound around his forehead. Since then, the phrase “འཕྲུལ་གཤེན་བལ་ཐོད་ཅན།,” “wool fore-headed shen” came to be used which later got popularized. From then on, people in the agricultural and nomadic community started to bind a white woollen thread, which later is said to have evolved into the knitted khatag around their water and traditional beer containers during the new lunar year. This traditional Bon practice is believed to be one of the origins that brought about the use of khatags.
The origin of སྤུ་དར། ‘pur dhar’ which is offered during funeral has a different story. It is traced back to a folk story about two friends, who were very loyal and kind to each other. Although one of them was rich and the other poor, this never bothered them. Sadly one day, the rich friend passed away suddenly due to uncertain conditions. His sudden death made the poor friend very sad. Since, he was poor and did not have much to offer, in his grief he removed the white woollen thread which was tied around his cow's neck and put it on his dead friend's neck as a symbol of his loyalty and appreciation for his good friend. This was later adopted as a practice now known as ‘pur dhar’. The term སྤུར། ‘pur’ refers to a dead body or corpse, and དར། ‘dhar’ refers to silk fabric.
Basic Khatag Etiquettes
Khatag being folded.
Khatag with an envelope.
How an envelope is usually offered with the khatag.
Khatag etiquette, a younger person offering to an elder.
Khatag etiquette, an elder presenting it to a younger person.
Khatags are usually offered with the open fold, facing towards the person holding it.
Usually, an exchange of khatag seen among higher lamas when they hold an equal status in respect to each other.
Khatags used at funerals are plain and white. They are usually offered folded like in the image above with an envelope.
Khatag as an Art
Tenzin Tsomo | བསྟན་འཛིན་མཚོ་མོ།
"This cloth is my version of a ཁ་བཏགས་ | khatag. Plain weave: each copper or gold wire crosses over and under linen warp threads. this weave is the simplest weaving structure, but also the most poetic. When I’ve taken a long break from the studio, I like to weave these again to clear my head and start afresh.
Artist Unknown | ངོ་མ་ཕྲོད་པའི་སྒྱུ་རྩལ་བ་ཞིག་གིས།
Mahakala or Gonpo (Protector Deity) painted on a khatag - (170 x 110 cm)
Image depicting Mahakala in a wrathful form painted on an old khatag. Image courtesy from The Himalayan Art Gallery, Kathmandu.
Chemi Dorje | འཆི་མེད་རྡོ་རྗེ།
Photograph | Archive 2014- Mugu, Karnali.
"Women from Mugu, welcoming Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche at the inauguration of the 20 ft Buddha statue built by the community at Mugu Village which lies near the Nepal - China border."
Artist Unknown | ངོ་མ་ཕྲོད་པའི་སྒྱུ་རྩལ་བ་ཞིག་གིས།
Zeeba or Kirtimukha painted on a khatag
Image depicting Zeeba painted on an old khatag. Image courtesy from The Himalayan Art Gallery, Kathmandu.