Festivals in Tibet

Tibet is rich in culture, customs,s, and tradition. Various Tibetan festivals have evolved and have gained great popularity among Tibetans, such as Tibet New Year, Great Prayer Festival, Butter Lantern Festival, Shot on Festival, etc. A Tibet tour is certain to be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life during those occasions. You might as well plan your tour during this time to learn more about the Tibetan people and culture.

Gutor - The Day before New Year's Eve & “Losar” (December 28-29 as Tibetan Calendar)

The Tibetan New Year is the most important festival in Tibet; it is of equal importance to that of the Lunar New Year among the Han people, or that of Christmas for Westerners. This is a festival to say farewell to the current year and welcome in the new. Normally, Tibetan festivals start with New Year's Day celebrations. Nevertheless, the year's finish is also of special movement and Tibetans observe 'Gutor' while they are busy organizing for the New Year's Day. A couple of weeks in advance people prepare for New Year and arrange their religious offerings, buy new clothes, dress, food, and drink for the ceremony. Including a large amount of 'Dresi' a sweet buttered rice with added raisins, 'Droma', which is rice boiled with small potatoes, various meats, fruits, breads, Chang, butter tea are well prepared for the Gutor festival. The different shapes and forms 'Kapse', a fried sweet are a must for the relatives. Tibetans are supposed to see the New Year with these sweets piled high on their plate.

On 'Gutor', all family members and relatives get together during the evening and have 'Guthuk' a soup with dumplings. The dumplings contain beans, broken pieces of wood, chilies, wool, charcoal, or pieces of paper on which various virtuous words are written. During the evening all people participate with torches and fireworks to scare off evil spirits and walk along a road until they reach a crossroad where they believe they can abandon the evil spirits - the spirits who will be unable to find the way back to the dwelling they had occupied. They also play a game, while playing some of the family members decide on an unlucky mark in advance and the one who picks it has to give up. Following this, everyone participates in the original purpose of 'Gutor', which is to get rid of the evil spirits from the previous year by running around with a doll representing a violent god, setting off fireworks, and hand-held firecrackers. On the 30th, New Year's Eve is also the time of the highly important ghost drive Festival. During this day, monasteries also decorated and held magnificent dances. People tidy their houses and decorate them beautifully, with the belief that the cleaning will drive away evil spirits and bad luck.

After different activities for the whole night the New Year “Losar” arrives. On the morning of the 1st, local people will make butter lamps to be offered, along with grain, to the host of gods. They will then put on their best clothes and propose toasts with Chang (a Tibetan drink made from highland barley) to neighbors and say 'Tashi Delek' and exchange greetings with neighbors. Tibetans do nothing but feast on the food and drink that they have carefully prepared and on the second day, they pay a New Year visit to relatives. Generally, this festive event will last until the end of the Great Prayer Festival.

Butter Lantern Festival (January 15 of the Tibetan calendar)

This festival falls on the 15th day of the first Tibetan month. In the daytime, people go to pray in temples and monasteries chanting mantras while at night there is a lamp show. Different lanterns with butter statues shaped in the image of deities, animals, plants, and human figures are presented, attracting people from the neighborhood to appreciate them. The stands go as high as three-story buildings; even the lower ones can be up to two stories high. The lanterns are either grand or small. The lights make the whole street bright as in the day. People sing and dance while enjoying the lanterns. The Butter Lantern Festival is also called Lantern Festival.  Frequently, there is a puppet show held as well and the whole event will last for several days. It is believed that the “Butter Lantern Festival” is to be the happiest festival in Tibet. The noisiest place during that time is around Barkhor Street in front of Jokhang Temple, where many lanterns are displayed.

Saka Dawa Festival (in April, around the 15th as Tibetan Calendar)

Saka Dawa is the most important festival in Tibetan Buddhism; this Festival memorializes Shakyamuni's Buddhahood and the death of his mortal body. This day is said to be the birthday of Sakyamuni, the Great Buddha, and the day he died and became a Buddha as well as the day of the arrival of Princess Wencheng (the queen to Songtsen Gampo, a great Tibetan king of the 7th century AD) in Lhasa. People believe that good deeds in the month of this festival deserve 300 fold merits in return and this leads many people to donate large sums to the religious orders, monasteries, and to the beggars that gather at this time of year. Saka Dava Festival is observed on April 15th of the Tibetan calendar, every monastery performs sutras and 'Cham' dances, and many religious activities are held on this day. People walk out of their houses and circumambulate around the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace. The three main circumambulation roads in Lhasa are crowded with devotees praying and prostrating themselves devoutly. In the afternoon, all the people get together at Zongjolukang (Dragon King's Pool) at the back of the Red Hill, where they sing dance, and entertain themselves. The festival reaches its highlight on April 15, which is considered the birthday and the day that Sakyamuni entered nirvana.

Horse Racing and Archery Festival (between June and July as Tibetan Calendar)

Horse Racing and Archery Fairs are two unique local festivals in the grasslands of the northern Tibet Autonomous Region, it is held between June and July, according to the Tibetan calendar, when the pastures are lush and the horses and cows are stout and strong. The horse racing occurs each year but the large events occur only once every three years. The event performs for the last several days, with the longest ones lasting ten days or more. This festival attracts hundreds of herdsmen as well as tourists to enjoy the festive mood. Of course, the event includes horse racing, but there are also archery competitions, picking up Khada (a type of long silk scarf), and displays of traditional horsemanship. Herdsmen give training for the horses one month before the competition. To some of them, the horses are even more important than their lives.

The herdsmen come from a long way by horse or yak, wearing colorful clothes for festivals, a variety of jewels, and ornaments. The horse racing field is covered immediately by tents. Horse racing intends to test the ability of the horseman and the viability, force, and stability of the horse. Competitors participate in long-distance and short-distance horse racing, covering thousands or hundreds of meters. The horsemanship match has such contests as shooting arrows, target practice, chopping, picking up Khada, and offering highland barley wine on the horse. The environment is comfortable and the event is more a performance than competition. There are no detailed rules for the match. Such programmers as two-man tug-of-war and carrying huge stones are also presented. When night falls, people make a campfire and sing and dance around it.

On the Northern Tibet Plateau, horse racing is a tradition that enjoys a long history. The fair also includes folk dances, art performances, fashion shows, and folk costume displays; people also start inviting bids for business and trade, commodity exchange, law publicity, and medical care, and other opportunities for business and trade. This festival has become a grand ceremony to improve the economy and accelerate economic development.  The most well-known events are the Kyagqen Horse Racing Art Festival of Nagqu and the Darma Festival of Gyangze.

Shoton Festival of Lhasa "Tibetan Opera Festival"

"Shoton" means “Yoghurt banquet" in Tibetan. During this time, Tibetan operas are performed and Buddha paintings are exhibited, that is why it is also called the "Tibetan Opera Festival" or "Buddha Exhibition Festival." The Shoton Festival traditionally begins with exhibitions of Buddha paintings. During this period, Tibetan operas and gala parties are held, as well as yak racing and horsemanship displays. The Shoton Festival starts on the 30th day of the 6th month according to the Tibetan calendar and lasts five days.

The Gelug sect regulates that between April and June according to the Tibetan calendar, Lamas can only practice Buddhism in monasteries to avoid treading and killing tiny lives. The ban will be raised at the end of June. During this time, all lamas go out of monasteries and the laymen will offer them sour milk “Yoghurt” and perform Tibetan operas for them. The Gandain Phodrang (Paradise Palace) of the Drepung Monastery became the political, religious, and cultural center of Tibet after 1642. Tens of thousands of people swiftly arrive there each June 30th to give sour milk to lamas and ask for blessings. The Tibetan Opera groups and wild yak dancing troupes all came presented. In this way, the Shoton Festival was dragging now. These days, in the early morning of this day, people crowd into the Drepung Monastery to watch the unfolding of the Buddha. To Buddhists, this holy ceremony is a purification of the spirit and the soul. In this Shoton Festival, the Tibetans bring along the old and the young and call on relatives and friends to Lingka gardens Later, this festive occasion is celebrated by performing Tibetan Opera in Norbulingka, so it has gained another name, the 'Tibetan Opera Festival'. The Shoton Festival has become a comprehensive celebration activity with the most influences in Tibet. It is also a grand meeting for commodity exchanges.

Bathing Festival (the first ten days of July as Tibetan Calendar)

The Bathing Festival is held in the first ten days of July, according to the Tibetan calendar. This festival is called "Gamariji” which means “the planet Venus” in the native language.   Legend has it that widespread epidemics led to great suffering among the people. One of the Buddhist deities “Avalokitesvara” poured holy water into the rivers of Tibet. After taking a bath in the rivers, people recovered unbelievably from their illnesses. Ever since, at this time every year, people bathe themselves in rivers. This custom has been handed over from generation to generation and slowly developed into a festival. It is believed that river baths during this week will not only clean the body but also wash away potential diseases too. It is so called because the rising of Venus in the sky signals the beginning of this festival where Tibetans bathe in rivers and lakes believed, at this special time, to possess beneficial properties. On this night Tibetan people take a ceremonial bath in the local rivers or natural springs. This is a seductive and tranquil festival.

Ongkor Festival or Harvest Festival (in August as Tibetan Calendar)

Harvest Festival or Ongkor festival is not related to Buddhism and the date of them is dictated by the ripening of the crops. "Ongkor" in Tibetan means "surrounding the farmland.” The "Ongkor" not only shows people's wish for a good harvest, but also a good time for them to rest. Since crops ripen at different times, the festival is held accordingly. This festival is held in the farming areas of Tibet each August, according to the Tibetan calendar. Harvest Festival, or Ongkor in Tibetan, often follows the Shoton Festival. This festival is celebrated mainly in rural areas to pray for a good harvest. During this day, farmers put on their best clothes, carry harvest pagodas made from the ears of highland barley and wheat and circle around their fields and beating drums, chanting holy songs, and dancing. Then, they get to gather and drink Chang and yak butter tea. In some areas, they perform other activities as well, such as horse races, archery competitions, and performances of Tibetan operas. After the celebration Harvest Festival, the farmers will be busy harvesting their crops.