The unique Tibetan culture is one of the most important features that attract millions of people travel to Tibet every year. What is the best way to experience the local customs and cultures?
Attend the Tibetan Festivals with the locals!
Scattered sparsely on the vast Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the possibilities for Tibetans getting together were relatively slim. As festivals provide these kinds of opportunities, in their long history many festivals have evolved and have gained great popularity among Tibetans.
The Tibetan festivals' holding date in 2020-2021:
|Festival||Tibetan Calendar||Gregorian Calendar|
|Tibetan New Year||Hor-zla Dang-po (1st Month). 1||Feb. 24||Feb. 12|
|Monlam Prayer Festival||Hor-zla Dang-po (1st Month). 4 - 11||Feb. 27 - Mar. 05||Feb. 15 - Feb. 23|
|Butter Lamp Festival||Hor-zla Dang-po (1st Month). 15||Mar. 09||Feb. 27|
|Saga Dawa Festival||Hor-zla Bzhi-pa (4th Month). 15||Jun. 05||May. 26|
|Thangka unveiling Tashilunpo||Hor-zla Lnga-pa (5th Month). 15||Jul. 05||Jun. 24|
|Zamling Chisang/Samye Dolde||Hor-zla Lnga-pa (5th Month). 15||Jul. 05||Jun. 24|
|Choekor Duechen/Tukbe Tseshi||Hor-zla Drug-pa (6th Month). 4||Jul. 24||Jul. 14|
|Ganden Thangka Unveiling||Hor-zla Drug-pa (6th Month). 15||Aug. 03||Jul. 24|
|Shoton Festival||Hor-zla Drug-pa (6th Month). 30||Aug. 19||Aug. 08|
|Labrang Festival||Hor-zla Ddun-pa (7th Month). 8||Aug. 26||Aug. 16|
|Karma Dunba (shower festival)||Hor-zla Ddun-pa (7th Month). 17||Sep. 04||Aug. 24|
|Nagqu Horse Race||Aug. 10||Aug. 10||Aug. 10|
|Yushu Horse Race||Jul. 25||Jul. 25||Jul. 25|
|Litang Horse Race||Aug. 1||Aug. 1||Aug. 1|
|Lhabab Duechen||Hor-zla Dgu-pa (9th Month). 22||Nov. 07||Oct. 27|
|Palden Lhamo Festival||Hor-zla Bcu-pa (10th Month). 15||Nov. 30||Dec. 18|
|Ganden Nga-Choe||Hor-zla Bcu-pa (10th Month). 25||Dec. 10||Dec. 29|
Tibetan New Year
The importance of the Tibetan New Year equals that of Lunar New Year among the Han people or that of Christmas in the West. It is a festival to say farewell to the current year and welcome in the new.
Even though the New Year starts on the first day of the first Tibetan month, the local People begin preparing for this festival upon entering the 12th Tibetan month, with sacrifices being presented on the altar of their deities and special foods delicately made to welcome the coming year.
New Year's Eve is also the time of the highly important Ghost Exorcizing Festival. During this day, monasteries hold magnificent sorcerer's dances. Tibetans tidy their houses and decorate them beautifully, with the belief that the cleaning will drive away evil spirits and bad luck. In the evening, after everybody has eaten Guthuk (a kind of food for the New Year), it is time for the ceremony of exorcising ghosts. Torches and fireworks are lit to scare them off, and family members will walk along a road until they reach a crossroad where they believing they can abandon the evil spirits, the spirits being unable of finding the way back to the dwelling they had occupied.
Then the New Year arrives. On the morning of the 1st day, local people will make butter lamps be sacrificed, along with grain, to their gods. They will then don their best clothes and propose toasts with Chang (a Tibetan drink made from highland barley) to neighbors and exchange good wishes and on the second day, they pay a New Year visit to relatives. Usually, this festive event will last until the end of the Great Prayer Festival.
The Great Prayer Festival
As the grandest of their religious festivals, The Great Prayer Festival is celebrated from the 8th to the 15th day of the first Tibetan month in Lhasa. With a history of over 500 years, it is now the highest religious seminar of Tibetan Buddhism. During the festival, they debate fiercely the Buddhist scriptures and hold religious examinations for learners of the Buddhist scriptures. Disciples from all over will come to worship the Buddha.
The Butter Lamp Festival
The Butter Lamp Festival falls on the 15th day of the first Tibetan month. During the daytime, people go to pray in temples and monasteries while at night there is a butter lamp show. Various lanterns shaped in the image of deities, animals, plants, and human figures are displayed, attracting people from the neighboring areas to appreciate them. Often, there is a puppet show held as well and the event will last for several days. The Butter Lamp Festival is believed to be the happiest festival in Tibet.
Saga Dawa Festival
Saga Dawa Festival is observed on April 15th of the Tibetan calendar. 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. Many religious activities are held 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.
Another important place to celebrate the Saga Dawa Festival is the holy mountain in Western Tibet, Mount Kailash. Local people will hang up their own prayer flags together with thousands of multi-colored flags. Each represents a prayer that someone wants to be fulfilled. The flags are let to fly in the air so as to increase the potential for answers. Then crowds of pilgrims will have a 3 days Kora (or trek) around Mount Kailash.
Gyantse Horse-racing Festival
Horse race and archery are generally popular in Tibet, and Gyantse enjoys the 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.
Also known as the yogurt banquet in Tibetan, Shoton Festival is the liveliest festival of summer. In the past, lamas locked themselves away in their monasteries during this season to devote themselves entirely to Buddhism for a month. When their devotions were over, lamas left the monastery to receive donations from the locals.
Normally, people gave them yogurt, had yogurt banquets with them and made performances to welcome them. Nowadays, 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. Later, this festive occasion is celebrated by performing Tibetan Opera in Norbulingka, so it has gained another name, the 'Tibetan Opera Festival'.
Nagqu Horse-racing Festival
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.
Harvest Festival, or Ongkor in Tibetan, often follows the Shoton Festival. It is a festival mainly celebrated in rural areas to pray for a good harvest. On 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 beating drums, chanting holy songs and dancing. Then they will gather, drinking Chang and yak butter tea. In some areas, there are other activities as well, such as horse races, archery competitions, and performances of Tibetan Opera. After the Harvest Festival, farmers will be busy harvesting their crops.
The Bathing Festival
This festival lasts for one week in the early part of the 7th month. Legend has it that pestilence was widely spread, leading to the great suffering of the people. The Avalokitesvara, one of the Buddhist deities, poured holy water into the rivers of Tibet. After bathing in the rivers, people recovered miraculously from their illnesses. Ever since, at this time every year, people bathe themselves in rivers. This custom has been handed down from generation to generation and gradually 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.