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Nomads of Tibet and Bhutan

Daniel Miller

Nomadic pastoralism has been portrayed as one of the great advances in the evolution of mankind. It is an adaptation by people to grassland areas of the world where the raising of livestock is more supportive of human life than the growing of crops. People who specialize in livestock production requiring periodic movements of their herds are known as nomadic pastoralists, or, simply nomads. The survival of nomads on the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya provides examples of nomadic practices that were once widespread throughout Asia and Africa, but are now increasingly hard to find. As such, these portraits of nomads offer a rare glimpse into a way of life that is rapidly vanishing.

The lives of the nomads are tuned to the growth of the grass and the seasonal pulse of the grazing lands. The grasslands provide the theatre in which the nomads and their animals interact to make a living. Over centuries, the nomads acquired complex knowledge about the environment in which they lived and upon which their lives depended, which enabled them to persist in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. But, they did more than just survive. The nomads created a unique, vibrant culture, about which, even today, so little is known.

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all text & images © Daniel Miller and

The photos from Tibet were taken in 1997, when I worked in the Phala region. Here, at elevations of almost 5,000m on the Changtang, or the “northern plains” of Tibet, the nomads still maintain a vibrant culture. As these portraits show, there is remarkable beauty in the faces of the nomads despite the stark landscape.


The splendor of Tibetan nomads is also vividly portrayed in the four images from Litang in the area of eastern Tibet known as Kham. Taken at the annual horse race festival in 2000, the nomads of Kham – Khampas - proudly display their finery, maintaining their traditions and culture.


In northeastern Bhutan in the area of Merak-Sakten, a distinctive tribe of Tibetan-speaking nomadic pastoralists are found. Wearing a unique, five-pointed hat made of felted yak hair, these nomads continue to follow their herds of livestock on the seasonal movements to different pastures, as their kindred Tibetans do on the Tibetan steppe. For a number of years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had the rare opportunity to work with these nomads.


As long as there is grass and yaks, nomads on the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya will undoubtedly maintain their nomadic culture and the world will be richer for it. The nomads will provide expressions of beauty and grandeur, not only in their dress but in their personality.

all text & images © Daniel Miller and | exhibitions