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Tibet Festivals
The Butter Lamp Festival
The Ongkor Festival
The Bathing Festival
Saga Dawa Festival
Losar Festival
Shoton Festival

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Tibetan Festivals

The Butter Lamp Festival

Also known as, Lantern Festival or Chunga Choepa this festival is celebrated on January 15 of the Tibetan calendar. This festival originated when a noted patron of Tsong Khapa, illuminated numerous butter- lamps in 1409 to honor the victory of Sakyamuni in a debate over a non- Buddhist opponents. According to Tibetan literalure, Tsong Khapa, dreamed that he arrived at a hillside full of withered grasses and thorns, but suddenly all the withered grasses became flowers and all the thorns became bright lamps, among which all kinds of jewelleries were shining brilliantly. Such a wonderful picture mystified him and he commissioned monks to light butter lamps before the sculpture of Sakyamuni and shape all kinds of flowers and trees with colored butter and decorated with jewelries to create a scene similar to his dream. This tradition has been maintained to this day. Large scale butter sculptures about stories of Buddha, figures, flowers, birds, and animals are displayed and people sing and dance in great joy throughout the night. The Barkhor street of Lhasa turns into a grand exhibition site on the night of this festival.


The Ongkor Festival

It is an old festival in farming areas of Tibet. In Tibetan language “Ong” refers to field and “kor” means rotating. So, “ongkor” means walking round the field or surrounding the farmland. This festival is commemorates by Tibetans to celebrate agricultural harvest. The festival is held in each August according to Tibetan calendar when all crops are waiting for harvest. The “Ongkor”not only shows people’s wish for a good harvest, but also a good time for them to rest. The Festival lasts for three days, which entertain not only gods but also common human beings. Farmers are plunged into a carnival at these days. On the day, Tibetans dress themselves in holiday best and walk around their fields, some carrying colorful flags, some lifting barley and harvest pagoda made of ear of wheat with white hada hanging around, some beating drums and gongs, singing songs and Tibetan operas, some holding the portrait of Chairman Mao. After that, people set up tents and take barley wines. They also hold traditional activities and contests such as horse racing, yak racing, shooting, riding to pick up hada, singing and dancing contest and Tibetan opera contest, stone holding and wrestling.


The Bathing Festival

This festival is celebrated in Lhasa. When Venus rises over the Holy Bottle Mountain in the southeast, the Lhasans tell one another: "The Bathing Festival begins." The Star appears only for seven nights a year, and correspondingly the Bathing Festival lasts for seven nights, too. This festival is held from the 6th to the 12th day of the 7th Tibetan month. 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 in the sky, all the people in Tibet take a ceremonial wash in the waters of their

local rivers or natural springs. Everybody, the young in particular, go to rivers to take a holy bath. People will group together according to sex. Obsessed with love for things they deem holy, they do their best to wash away their troubles. Immersed in water they feel an organic integration of soul and body with the great nature. Tibetans have the strong belief that bathing for the consecutive seven nights will enable them to keep off cold and plague, and therefore enjoy good health and long life. Having dipped in water for some time, they gather around the bonfires that dot the world of willow trees, to dine and wine to their heart's content. Then, they play six-stringed musical instrument, sing folk songs and dance merrily.

Saga Dawa Festival

This is one of the most important festivals for Tibetan Buddhism which is celebrated to commemorates Shakyamuni's Buddhahood and the death of his mortal body. It is celebrated on15th day of the 4th lunar month of Tibetan calendar. This day is considered holiest in Tibet as there memorable occasions coincide on this day, Buddha's birth and Buddha's enlightenment and Buddha’s Nirvana. Pilgrims and secular folks visit Lhasa and the festival is observed by turning prayer wheels, having vegetarian lunch and a picnic by the Dragon King Pond. Folk entertainers perform Tibetan tradition and pay their homage to Buddha. People observe a vegetarian rule, refrain from killing domestic animals and give out alms during the month. At every monastery sutras are recited and 'Cham' dances are performed. It is said that good deeds in the month of this festival deserve 300 fold 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.


Losar Festival

Losar is the most important Tibetan festival. In Tibetan language lo means year and sar means new thus the word losar means "new year” and losar festival is celebrated to commemorate the advent of new year. It is the Ladakhi or Tibetan new year. Losar is celebrated for 15 days during the month of December and January as per the Tibetan lunar calendar. The main celebrations are held on the first three days. On the first day of Losar, a beverage called changkol, the Tibetan rice wine is served which is made from chhaang. The second day of Losar is known as King's Losar. Losar is traditionally preceded by the five day practice of Vajrakilaya. The losar is a colorful festival marked with number of activities including ancient rituals, Tibetan drama, making incense offerings, olk activities like, wrestling, weight throwing, tug-of-war and horse-racing, the stage fights between good & evil. The dance of the Ibex deer and the dramatic battles between the King & his ministers add to the joyous atmosphere. Tibetans are dressed in their finest, meet their friends and relatives and indulge in prayer and celebration. This festival is full of music, dancing and merry-making.

The celebration of Losar can be traced back to the pre-Buddhist period in Tibet. During the period when Tibetans practiced the Bon religion, every winter a spiritual ceremony was held, in which people used to offer large quantities of incense to appease the local spirits, deities and protectors. This religious festival later evolved into an annual Buddhist festival which is believed to have originated during the reign of Pude Gungyal, the ninth King of Tibet. Legends also said that the festival began when an old woman named Belma introduced the measurement of time based on the phases of the moon.

This festival took place during the flowering of the apricot trees of the Lhokha Yarla Shampo region in autumn, and it may have been the first celebration of what has become the traditional farmers' festival. It was during this period that the arts of cultivation, irrigation, refining iron from ore and building bridges were first introduced in Tibet. The ceremonies which were instituted to celebrate these new capabilities can be recognized as precursors of the Losar festival. Later when the rudiments of the science of astrology, based on the five elements, were introduced in Tibet, this farmer's festival became what we now call the Losar or New Year's festival. 
For all Buddhists, Losar is a sacred time and a time for feasting and celebration. It is a time when homes are painted, new clothes are stitched, debts and quarrels are resolved, good food is cooked and everyone indulge in enjoyment. Homes are decorated with flour paintings of the sun and moon, and small lamps illuminate the house at night. The first few days of festivities are exclusively family affairs, as are the first days of the new year. The people visit  friends and relatives, wish happy new near and exchange gifts. Tibetans also visit monasteries and make offerings to monks and nuns in form of food, clothes, and other valuable items. Buddhist monks adorn the monasteries with the finest decorations, and conduct religious ceremonies. Rituals are performed to drive away evil spirits, and people celebrate with feasts and dancing.


Shoton Festival

Also known as Yoghurt Festival, this opera festival is one of the greatest festivals in Tibet. Shoton is the transliteration of two Tibetan words which mean 'Yoghurt Banquet'. The festival originated at Drepung Monastery, when monks were served with yoghurt at the completion of their hundred day summer retreat. Legend also said that Tsong Khapa, the founder of the Yellow Seat made it a rule that all the Lamas must keep the mind on meditation from the fourth month to the sixth month of Tibetan year. Abstinence is broken by the end of sixth month. Then they may go out and ordinary people would give them yoghurt in charity and

have picnic and entertainment hence the festival. Later it became theatrical festival of Tibetan opera. Prior to the 17th century, Shoton had been an exclusively religious observance. From around the mid-17th century, Tibetan local operas were added to festival celebrations which were held around monasteries and in Lhasa the Drepung Monastery. From the beginning of the 18th century, the main site of the festival was moved to Norbu Lingka and celebrations became formalized which include shining of the Buddha's portrait, folk amusement at the local park and performances of Tibetan operas. Popular fairs are also organized during the festival. Today this is the grandest festival in Tibet.

This festival begins on the new moon marking the end of the sixth Tibetan month. At Drepung Monastery there are 'Cham' dances and the grand thangka is unveiled early in the morning. After devoutly viewing the thangka, the people go onto the Norbulingka and other popular spots for a lingka (picnic). Since 7th century, opera performances were held for days in Norbu Lingka. Presently, opera contests and distribution of prizes are held for seven days. The performances include the musical dance dramas known as Ache Lhamo (Tibetan Opera). The Ache Lhamo dances are attributed to  Thangtong Gyalpo,  also known as

Chaksampa, a lama of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, also famous for building iron chain bridges in many parts of Tibet. The popularity of this festival was such that the government decreed it an annual event of a further five days, established at the Norbulingka. There are performances by all the established companies from throughout Tibet, some of which can perform the whole Lhamo repertoire, and some who specialize in one particular drama. Some of the stories are derived from Indian Buddhist legends, while others relate incidents in Tibetan history.


During the festival all the residents of Lhasa go out and gather in the Norbulingka Park. They set up beautiful tents and hang curtains there. They bring cakes, sweets, dairy products, yak-butter tea and have wonderful picnics. Professional and amateur Tibetan opera troupes gather in the Norbulingka Park and perform various Tibetan operas.  A trade fair is also held during the festival. 

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