Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Carrie Frederick Frost


Barley is by far the most important crop of the Tibetan plateau. It is the grain of choice for cultivation in Tibet because it grows well at high altitudes and it tolerates a short growing season. It constitutes a huge part of the traditional Tibetan diet. ‘Tsampa’ (rtsam pa or རྩམ་པ་) can refer to both barley itself and its form as a prepared foodstuff. The importance of tsampa in Tibet goes beyond its value as food; tsampa is intertwined with many other cultural associations.

Tsampa as Food and Drink

Roasted barley is a highly digestible foodstuff which allows its calories to be quickly incorporated into the body. It is also versatile; it can be prepare in a variety of ways, and it is a stable food; if properly stored it keeps for a long time.

Tsampa is eaten in one form or another many times a day in the traditional Tibetan diet. It is typically roasted or parched, hulled, and then ground into flour. In its most simple dish, tsampa is prepared by adding water or tea and then rolling the mixture into balls and eating them. The hands-on working with tsampa is likened to working with clay. These balls can be turned into a slightly more sophisticated meal by frying them and eating them alone or with meat.

Tsampa can also be rolled into noodles, or used in the making of momos: Tibetan meat or vegetable stuffed dumplings. Mustard is the only plant that comes close to rivaling barley as Tibet’s national crop.

The type of barley grown in Tibet is a high protein strain which is well-suited for the altitude and for the making of beer; the Tibetan form of barley beer is called chang (chang , ཆང་) and is generally a low-alcohol, mild, non-viscous beverage.

Ritual Use of Barley

Barley is used not just for sustenance in Tibet, but also as part of Buddhist and Bon ritual. One such ritual is the throwing of a pinch of barely in the air, which is a gesture of celebration and joy at weddings and New Years day and other occasions. During the Renaissance Period, the tossing of a pinch of barely marked all important occasions of Tibetan life.

Barley is also used in torma. Torma (gtor ma) are Tibetan ritual cakes used as offerings in Buddhist and Bon rites. Torma have many ritual functions. Torma offerings include codified rituals with particular mantras, meditation, mudras, and songs, and are often offered to the Buddha or Bodhisattvas. Torma are also used in rituals intending to produce practical results, such as a healing, exorcism, or rites for increased wealth. These torma are either broken up and scattered after the ritual (mchod pa bul ba) or consumed by the participants (dnos sgrub). Another type of torma is used in deity meditation, in which the torma is perceived either as the deity or the deity’s dwelling place.

Barley in the Blue Annals

Barley is mentioned many times in the Blue Annals, frequently within the same context: a payment a student to a teacher or potential teacher. Similarly, barley was considered to be a measure of wealth; so-and-so had 14 bags of barley when he ascended the throne, etc. We see in both instances that barley was treated as currency.

Barley is also given from one person to another as a present that coincides with a new level of learning obtained by one of the parties involved. Though not overtly stated, barley is clearly seen as an important, life-giving force that is endowed with special properties beyond mere sustenance.

Barley is also mentioned as the staple of monastic on ascetical retreat; there seems to be certain amount of boasting among their disciples: my teacher ate only four handfuls of parched barley on his retreat, etc. (R, 453) There’s also a loaves and fishes tale of a monastic being able to feed also his fellow monks with one small box of grain (R, 561).

As sustenance, as offering, as currency, we see barley’s many roles in the lives of Renaissance period Tibetans.


Blue Annals, Roerich translation. Butler, Claudia. “Torma: the Tibetan Ritual Cake.” Cho-yang. No.7 (1996): 38-52.

external link: The Government of Tibet in Exile

Kapstein, Matthew. The Tibetans. Malden, MA: Blackwell Press (2006).

Kohn, Richard J. “An Offering of Torma.” Religions of Tibet in Practice, Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1997): 255-265.

Tibetan Himalayan Digital Library