If you’ve ever seen footage of the Dalai Lama, you may have noticed him presenting his followers with white scarves.

What are these scarves and how do they relate to Buddhism?

The Meaning of a Khata

Khatas originate from Tibetan culture and can be found wherever Tibetan Buddhism is practiced (including Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan). Khatas are prayer shawls, but they are also devotional gifts. To present someone with a khata is to express sincere goodwill and deep reverence. A gesture of respect and well wishes, it is perhaps one of the most well-known customs of Tibetan culture.

When to Offer a Khata

In Tibetan Buddhism, it is common for a devotee to give a khata to a spiritual teacher or to a high lama when visiting a temple or monastery. However, khatas also have great importance outside of spiritual spaces. In Tibetan culture, it is popular to offer them at social occasions and for important life events. They can be given at weddings, funerals, and births. One may also offer a khata when receiving a guest. You can also offer them when saying goodbye to loved ones embarking on a long journey.

How to Offer a Khata

Giving a khata comes with its own set of rules and etiquette. For example, when offering the scarf to a lama or anyone of high standing, it is considered rude to place it around their neck. Instead, one must fold it length-wise and present it with both hands while bowing. If a khata is presented to a lama or monk, it is not uncommon for them to give it back to the giver as a type of blessing. However, offering a khata to a friend or loved one can be a little less formal: for these instances, it is acceptable to place it around their neck. If you happen to receive a khata at a special event, it is polite to keep it on until the event is over.

While khatas are associated with giving, many also like to incorporate them into an altar or ritual space. It is common for individuals to drape a khata around religious images or over the portraits of spiritual leaders.

Khatas are traditionally made from silk and are most often plain and white (the white symbolizes purity and peace). However, khatas can come in a variety of colors, each of which has its own significance. Sometimes they are woven or printed with auspicious symbols.

Understanding the khata’s significance makes them all the more special. Having learned the meaning behind this beautiful garment, you can truly treasure a khata should you ever receive one (or perhaps you are now motivated to offer one!).