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Festivals in Tibet
Posted: March-18-2009Adjust font size:

People in China's Tibet Autonomous Region have devoutly worshipped Tibetan Buddhism for more than 1,300 years. Tibetan Buddhism has a profound influence on the many festivals in the region. Many of the festivals have evolved into purely religious events due to the fact that Tibetan people, long faced with extremely harsh natural conditions and heavy labor, have continually yearned for the blessings and protection of Buddha. They indeed believe that Buddha will help them effect a change in their fate.

The Tibetan calendar, which is quite similar to the lunar calendar followed in areas home to members of the Han Nationality, lists festivals in almost every month.

Tibetan New Year (February or March)

A family of Tashi Jicai Neighborhood Committee in Xigaze Prefecture dress up to celebrate the traditional Tibetan New Year as Jan. 27 marks the first day of Earth-Ox Tibetan Year. (

Tibetans begin preparing for New Year's Day in the 12th month in the Tibetan calendar, with initial activities including the use of green shoots of highland barley as offerings to the statues of Buddha.

Activities around the middle of the month include preparing fried wheat dough mixed with butter. The end of the month approaches with each household preparing a Five-Cereal Container containing items such as roasted highland barley flour mixed with butter, fried barley and dromar refreshments, adorned with highland barley ears and a butter sculpture in the shape of the head of a sheep. This is done to pray for a bumper harvest and better life in the coming year. The 29th day of the month arrives with Tibetans cleaning their kitchens and using dry wheat flour to paint eight auspicious patterns on the central wall. The whole family then gather in the evening to first eat dough drops known as Gutu in Tibetan, and then participate in a grand ritual designed to ward-off evil spirits.

New Year's Day of the new Tibetan year is actually celebrated on New Year's Eve. Lime is used to paint Swastika symbols on all doors; new woven rugs are placed in the newly cleaned rooms; and sacrificial objects such as fried wheat dough, fruit, butter, tea bricks and dried fruit are placed in front of niches holding statues of Buddha.

The first month of the Tibetan calendar features the greatest number of festivals of any month, with activities scheduled on almost a daily basis:

The entire family arises early on the first day of the month to worship Buddha. They adorn their holiday best and greet each other holding Five-Cereal Containers and high-land barley wine. This is followed by drinking hot pear wine and consuming Tuba oatmeal and dromar refreshments fried in butter, all of which were prepared the previous day.

The second day is dedicated to visiting relatives and friends.

The Grand Summons Ceremony begins in Lhasa on the fourth day of the month. Zongkapa, the founder of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, introduced the ceremony to Lhasa in 1409 to honor Sakyamuni who subdued evil spirits. Ceremonial activities begin with lamas from Lhasa's three major monasteries reciting Buddhist sutras, lecturing on Buddhism and debating Buddhist doctrines in front of the statue of Sakyamuni in the Jokhang Monastery. Highly successful participants are granted the highest Buddhist academic title known as Lharamba Geshi. The government distributes alms to lamas during ceremonial activities, with devout Buddhists from throughout the region refilling butter lamps and presenting alms. The ceremony lasts until the 25th day of the month when the monastery greets Maitreya.

Butter Lamp Festival (February or March)

A monk checks the ghee flowers displayed at the Taer Monastery in Huangzhong County, northwest China's Qinghai Province, Feb. 8, 2009. An exhibition of ghee flowers that were hand-made by the monks of the Taer Monastery, was held to celebrate the Lantern Festival. In 2006, ghee flowers art was listed in China's intangible cultural heritage.

A monk checks the ghee flowers displayed at the Taer Monastery in Huangzhong County, northwest China's Qinghai Province, Feb. 8, 2009. (Xinhua Photo)

The Butter Lamp Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the first month, with people undertaking pilgrimages to monasteries during the day, and in the evening enjoying flower arrangements which are sometimes as much as two to three storeys in height. The structures, which include numerous colored butter sculptures of immortals, animals, birds, flowers and plants, sit along streets lit with hundreds of lamps.

Archery contest and Sorcerer's Dance

The archery contest and Sorcerer's Dance held between the 24th-26th day of the first month attract tends of thousands of spectators.

Various other major festivals held in the remaining 11 months of the year include:

Lingka Woods Festival

The Lingka Woods Festival, or the World's Incense Burning Day, is held on the 15th day of the 5th month. The festival evolved from the legend that Padmasambhava, an Indian monk who conquered all evil in the 5th month of the Tibetan Year of Monkey. Tibetans wearing their holiday best gather in the shade of lingka trees, where they erect tents and entertain themselves with food, buttered tea and wine. Folk artists exhibit their skills throughout the festival which normally lasts about a month.

Saga Dawa Festival (May or June)

It is the holiest in Tibet, there memorable occasions coincide on this day, Buddha's birth and Buddha's enlightenment. Almost every person within Lhasa joins in circumambulations round the city and spends their late afternoon on picnic at "Dzongyab Lukhang" park at the foot of Potala.

Gyantse Horse Race & Archery (May or June)

Horse race and archery are generally popular in Tibet, and Gyantse enjoys prestige of being the earliest in history by starting in 1408. Contests in early times included horse race, archery, and shooting on gallop followed by a few days' entertainment or picnicking. Presently, ball games, track and field events, folk songs and dances, barter trade are in addition to the above.

Changtang Chachen Horse Race Festival (August)

There are many horse racing festivals in Tibet, the one in Nagqu of Northern Tibet is the greatest. August is the golden season on Northern Tibet's vast grassland. Herdsmen, on their horsebacks, in colorful dresses, carrying tents and local products, pour into Nagqu. Soon they form a city of tents. Various exciting programs are held, such as horse racing, yak racing, archery, horsemanship and commodity fair.

Shoton Festival (August)

People perform at the opening ceremony of the Shoton (Yogurt) Festival celebration in on the Potala Palace Square in Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Regional, August 30, 2008. Various activities will be held during the Shoton Festival such as Tangka Paintings display, dancings and Tibetan drama show etc.

People perform at the opening ceremony of the Shoton (Yogurt) Festival celebration in on the Potala Palace Square in Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Regional, Aug. 30, 2008. (Xinhua Photo)

The Shoton (Sour Milk Drinking or Yogurt) Festival, held on the first day of the seventh month, was strictly a religious festival prior to the 17th century. Local religious tenets required monks to remain sequestered in their monasteries for extended periods, with local people preparing sour milk for them to drink following their period of confinement. Tibetan opera was introduced in the mid-17th century and the Yogurt Festival also became known as the Tibetan Opera Festival which was celebrated on a regular basis. Thereafter, all religious and recreational activities were held outside of monasteries. Norbu Lingka was built in the early 18th century as the summer residence of the Dalai Lama. Later, it became the venue for the Shoton Festival. Ordinary people have since been permitted to visit North Lingka festival day and the very same rituals remain the place even today.

Ongkor (Bumper Harvest) Festival (September)

The Ongkor (Bumper Harvest) Festival, which is celebrated in the 8th month, is not restricted to a regularly scheduled date, but is instead held when crops ripen. Celebrations of the festival, which originated some 1,000 years ago in the middle and lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbao River Valley, was limited to individual village rituals to pray for a bumper harvest. Sorcerers from the Bon religion were invited to perform rituals as villagers walked around their fields. The development of Buddhism led to changes in the festival, with initial changes taking place in the rise of the Nyingma Sect of Tibetan Buddhism in the latter part of the 8th century. Thereafter, there had to be monks from the sect to chant incarnations to ask for a bumper harvest during the festival. The Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism gained prominence in Tibet during the 14th century. The Ongkor Festival soon became tinged with practices of the Gelug (Yellow) Sect, and Buddhist portraits were held high at the front of the processions of devout believers chanting Buddhist srtras. The Ongkor Festival has since been held on an annual basis, with activities including horse racing, archery contests, song and dance, Tibetan opera, stone lifting, wrestling and various other events. Similar activities have long been held in agricultural and some pastoral areas.

Bathing Festival (September)

It is believed when the sacred planet Venus appears in the sky; the water in the river becomes purest and cures diseases. During its appearance for one week, usually the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth lunar months, all the people in Tibet go into the river to wash away the grime of the previous year.

Auspicious Heavenly Maid Festival

The Auspicious Heavenly Maid Festival held on the 15th day of the 10th month. The festival, known as Belha Rabzhol in the Tibetan language, is a regular event during which lamas from the Moru Monastery offer sacrifices to the Auspicious Heavenly Maid, the protector of Buddhist doctrine for the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa. The portrait of the Auspicious Heavenly Maid is carried to the Sakyamuni Hall on the evening of the 14th day and placed opposite the statue of Sakyamuni. Lamas holding the portrait of the Auspicious Heavenly Maid high in the air parade along Barkor Street at dawn on the 15th day, with on-lookers presenting gifts of hada scarves. The procession returns to the Jokhang Monastery and the portrait is then returned to its normal venue following a series of religious rituals. Tibetan women, who love the festival and affectionately refer to its as their Fairy Festival, adorn their best clothing and attempt to look their best clothing and attempt to look their very best to worship the portrait of the Auspicious Heavenly Maid.

Lamp Festival

The Lamp Festival is held on the 25th day of the 10th month, the legendary day on which Zongkapa, the founder of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, met his demise. Lamps on the roofs of monasteries and local residences light the evening sky as Buddhists take ritual walks through the streets to monasteries, and place tree branches into incense burners in front of the Jokhang Monastery while praying for good luck.

Kungbu Traditional Festival (November or December)

Long time ago, when Tibet was in danger of large scale invasion, the Kongpo people sent out an army to defend their homeland. It was in September and the soldiers worried that they might miss the New Year, highland barley wine and other good things. So people had the Tibetan New Year on Oct. 1 ahead of time. To memorize those brave soldiers Kongpo people present three sacrifices and stay up at night from then on. And now it has become the Kongpo Festival for entertainment like Kongpo dancing, horse race, archery and shooting.

(Source: China Tibet Information Center)

Source: China Tibet Information CenterEditor: Lydia
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