A slender white scarf, approximately 12-15" by 50", usually woven of cotton or silk, with the ends unfinished, leaving the warp threads to make a fringe. Kataks can also come in other solid colors: green, blue, red, or yellow (the same colors prayer flags are made in). The fancier kataks have self-woven or embroidered designs featuring the eight Tibetan religous symbols in a pattern. The really fancy ones, in fine silk or satin with embroidery, have finished hems in addition to the fringe...these are the ones you use for people and tangkas (religious paintings) that you value highly.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, you greet people you greatly admire or respect by gently draping a katak around their neck and shoulders.
That person keeps the scarf...you don't collect it back for next time.
For lamas and other holy people, you also do this to receive blessings. After a lama or guru has given a teaching, many people might line up to thank him or her.
Obviously, the scarves can't be left behind to pile up on the lama's neck! So, in a practical variation, the lama (or nun, or whoever) "blesses" the giver by wearing or holding the scarf briefly, then draping the now-blessed scarf on the neck of the person who gave it.
Greeting gurus properly
- Smile. Enlightened folks tend to smile a lot. They like it when you smile back.
- Bring the palms of your hands together, about chest level and bow over them.
- For greeting people in Tibetan, you say "Tashi Dilleg" (TAH-shee DILL-eh).
- If you're not sure of the holy person's title, you can try using "Rimpoche" (RIM-poe-shay). This means "Precious One" in Tibetan.
- Present your kata by draping it over your hands, then bringing the katak over the person's head to drape around their neck. If time is pressing, offer the katak so the guru can take it.
- The guru will then drape the scarf over your neck. This is a good time to smile wider, and bow again.
In a similar show of respect, tangkas are also draped with kataks along the top and sides.
In group situations where a lot of people are throwing kataks on each other in greeting, use the plainer ones that can be stuffed into a pocket without wincing.
These kinds of greetings happen often enough that most people in the Tibetan Buddhist community have a collection of kataks around the house somewhere for such occasions. Like cookie recipes, kataks vary widely, everybody has a few, and people pass them on to friends and relatives. In the United States, at least, there are very few places that sell them, so far as I know. However, they're pretty inexpensive.