Tea was first introduced to Tibet in the 7th century as a result of a royal alliance with the Yunnan province of China. Tea leaves were compressed into ‘bricks’ or ‘cakes’, which became valuable commodities traded between the two countries. This trade developed a network of caravan paths, known in Chinese as chamadao, or Tea-Horse Road, which still exist today. Although some Chinese tea utensils and brewing techniques were adopted, an alternative type of tea known as bo-jha, or ‘butter tea’, developed in Tibet and was equally as common. Lumps are taken from the pressed tea cakes and boiled in water to create a dark brew, into which yak butter, milk, barley meal and rock salt are churned vigorously. Butter tea provides plenty of caloric energy and is particularly suited to counter the cold climate and high altitudes experienced in Tibet.
This teapot could have served butter or loose leaf tea, but the elaborate decoration indicates that the teapot was intended for use during special occasions, religious rituals and the honouring of important guests such as Buddhist masters (lama). The metal braces that run vertically across the body imitate an earlier type of Tibetan teapot made from carved wood. The handles in the form of dragons, along with the spout issuing from the jaws of a Makara (marine monster), are familiar Buddhist motifs found throughout the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Ladakh and Bhutan.