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Tibetan festivals have multiple origins and qualities. Though most of them are related to Buddhism, we can still seek for the general look of Tibetan and Chinese cultures and the historical clues of cultural exchange between them.
Shoton Festival originates from the 11th century. It had been exclusively a religious observance until the 17th century when the Great 5th Dalai Lama introduced the Tibetan opera into the celebration, making it a nationwide gala. Being the largest and most mysterious festival on the roof of the world, Shoton Festival serves as a showcase to rooted tradition, appealing culture and great piety of the Tibetan people. Global travelers, who urge to discover more than just turquoise lakes and snow capped mountains on this forbidden land, are drawn to Tibet at this time of year.
The festival mainly consists of 3 parts - Great Buddha Display, Tibetan Opera Show and Horsemanship & Yak Race Show. In combination they represent the best of Tibetan religion, culture and tradition.
Tibetan New Year
The establishment of Tibetan New Year has close relationship with usage of Tibetan calendar, which can date back to more than 950 years ago. From then on, it became a survival of the past. Tibetans start preparing for New Year Holiday in Dec of Tibetan calendar. During the process, whole families will infuse barley seeds in basins. On the New Year Eve, every family will present all kinds of foods in front of Buddha images and keep busy preparing deep into the night, so that there will be plentiful food during the holiday. On the first day of the Tibetan New Year (first day of lunar calendar), the first thing Tibetans must do is sending one family member to take a barrel of water home from the river, the first barrel of water in the new year is called auspicious water. Form the second day, relatives and friends begin to visit each other and celebrate the New Year, which will lasts 3 to 5 days. During the festival, people will play Guozhang or Guoxie dance at the squares or open grasslands with the accompaniment of guitars, cymbals, gongs and other musical instruments. Hand in hand, arm in arm, Tibetans dance in a circle while singing following the rhythm by stamping their feet. Children, on the other hand, will fire firecrackers. A happy, harmony and auspicious festival atmosphere will pervade the whole area.
It derives from Tibetans' awareness of the importance of ox in agriculture. During their daily labor, they gradually produced strong feeling to ox, and consequently, numerous phenomena of ox culture came into being. Ox was regarded as god and became the best sacrifice for divinities. Then, the Ox Festival finally emerged. It starts from the 15th day of the 8th month in Tibetan year and usually lasts more than 10 days or even one month sometimes, with generally more than 1,000 people. During this process, people will ask "heiba"(wizard) to recite scriptures, play yak horn and kill tens of yaks or over 100 sheep, drinking freely and talking noisily. Because of the high expenses, this large-sized fair was held only once in almost one century.
Moreover, members who take part in Ox Festival share the same blood relationship. So, it is placed among the cultural festivals of ancestors worship.
Great Prayer Festival
It falls on the fourth up to the eleventh day of the first Tibetan month. It is the grandest religious festival in Tibet. Monks of Dreprang Monastery, Sera Monastery and Gaden Monastery will assemble in Jokhang Monastery on the occasion. It dates back to 1049 when Tsong Khapa, the founder of the Gelu sect, held a praying ceremony in Lhasa. Examinations taking form of sutra debates for the Geshe degree, the highest degree in Buddhist theology, were also held. Pilgrims from other places in Tibet crowded to listen to the sermons while others give religious donations. After that, it is continuously enlarged and enriched, becoming a fixed and popular religious festival and lasting until today, with a larger size than is was set up.
Butter Lamp Festival
The grand festival falls on the 15th day of the first Tibetan month, the last day of Great Prayer Festival. In the daytime, people will go to monasteries to worship Buddhas and pray. At night, a lamp festival will be held on the Barkhor Street, where there will be lots of shelves filled with colorful and various images such as gods, figures, birds, animals, flowers and trees. Meanwhile, you can also enjoy the puppet show. Thousands of lamps just like the shining stars falling from the sky, which takes on a splendid look.
Saka Dawa Festival
The 15th day of the fourth month in the Tibetan calendar is a day when Sakyamuni was born, achieved nirvana and passed away. It is also a traditional festival for Tibetan people. April in Tibetan calendar is Buddha Month, so it is called "Saka Dawa" in Tibetan. On this day, in accordance with their conventions, Tibetans will dress themselves in their holiday best and assemble at the Dragon King Pool behind the magnificent Potala Palace to celebrate this grand religious festival. After long period of development, it gradually evolves into a mass festival for Tibetans to visit parks in spring and summer and pray for a good harvest in agriculture and animal husbandry. During this festival, some people set up colorful tents; some prepare barley wine and butter tea, families resting beside the pool with great joy. Then young Tibetans dance in a circle while singing following the rhythm by stamping their feet.
It falls in the first ten days of the 7th month in Tibetan calendar. As a conventional festival in Tibet, it has a long history of seven or eight hundred years at least. Because Tibetans believe July is the best time for bathing.Shoton Festival.
It is one of grand festivals in Tibet. "Shoton" means yoghurt in Tibetan. The origin of the festival started from the 17th century. According to the rule of Gelu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the 6th month in Tibetan calendar was the retreat period when monks and nuns of all monasteries were prohibited from going out to avoid stamping on or hurting little bugs. Then, on the 1st day of the 6th month in Tibetan year when the ban was lifted, they went down the hill one after another. And the peasants and herdsmen would serve yoghurt to them.
During the festival, Tibetans, no matter male or female, old or young, will pour into Norbulingka Summer Palace in knots, with colorful bags on back and barley wine barrels in hand. Some will set up tents, put carpet on the ground, and lay out barley wine, dishes and other holiday foods. Horseracing is a favorite activity for Tibetans. It not only provides a good place to assemble and exchange experience in agriculture and animal husbandry in spare time, but also shows the spirit of Tibetans. Consequently, horse racing has become an indispensable activity in almost all the Tibetan festivals that are handed down and spread among the people.