Tibetan Yak Bone: Practical & Spiritual Purposes

Like the significance once held by wild bison roaming the plains of North America to the lives of Native Americans, the yak has been an invaluable resource to the people of Tibet and the Himalayas for thousands of years.

Yak are a type of domestic cattle native to central Asia. They are similar to the cattle found in the US in most ways, but are generally larger, sturdier animals, with long shaggy coats that help them survive in the rugged landscape and harsh weather found at the foothills of the world’s tallest mountain range- the Himalayas.

Yak with mountain backdrop

Since their domestication toward the end of the Stone Age (approx. 2000 BC), the yak has become intertwined with almost all aspects of rural life in Tibet- both as a working animal and as an important resource. In life, the yak serves as transportation between mountainous and remote villages, creates milk, produces fuel (in the form of dung), and provides wool. After life, nearly all parts of the yak's body are used to create precious resources. Their meat is highly nutritious, their thick hides make for high quality leather, and the bones of the animal are used for making jewelry, buttons, combs, religious and ritual items, and other small tradable goods.

In Tibetan Buddhist beliefs- the primary religion of Tibet- the use of yak bone in mala and other “jewelries” is not seen as insensitive or wasteful of the animal, but rather the opposite. Tibetan yak bone mala and similar items are a way to show appreciation for the multitude of valuable resources the animal brings to the Tibetan people and acknowledges their heavy reliance on yak for prosperity. On a grander scale, yak bone jewelry serves as a physical reminder of one of the 3 marks of existence in Buddhism: the concept of impermanence (anicca). The cycle of life and death shows us that nothing in the natural world will last forever, and the bones of these precious creatures remind us of all beings’ impending death- not from a morbid perspective but rather a spiritual and enlightening one.