TIBETAN RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS

SAGA DAWA FESTIVAL

Saga means “the fourth” and Dawa refers to “month” in Tibetan. Usually lasting from April through May, this festival is celebrated for whole month and is one of the most significant festivals celebrated in Tibet. The fifteenth day of the month is of special meaning as marks the day Sakyamuni (Buddha) was born, attained Nirvana (enlightenment), stepped into Parinirvana (death). Tibetans believe that will accumulate immense amounts of merits on this day by giving generosly, not killing animals and not eating meats. Monks chant in monasteries; cham dancing and other religious activities are held. People circumambulate sacred places in the clock wise direction and pray to the Buddha. The festival is called “Qiong ren Jie” in Chinese which means poor people’s day because Tibetan peoples’ generosity to the poor people is well known.

Saga Dawa is the peak of the ritual walk season in Tibet. Tibetans throughout Tibetan regions do ritual walks around sacred sites like temples, holy mountains and lakes. Saga Dawa is the holiest time of the Tibetan year and a peak time for pilgrimages. The seventh day of Saga Dawa is the day of the historical Buddha's birth for Tibetans. However, the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and entry into Nirvana at his death are observed together on the 15th day of Saga Dawa. "Saga" is the 28th constellation named Di and "Dawa" means "month" in Tibetan. More Buddhist ceremonies are held in this month. The Saga Dawa Festival in 2013 lasted from mid May to mid June with the grandest day falling on May 25 on solar calendar. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

Lhasa is a centre for celebrating Saga Dawa. During the period of the Saga Dawa hundreds of thousands of believers gather in Lhasa to take ritual walks while participating in ceremonious activities including fasting, freeing captive animals, alms giving, etc.Tibetan Buddhism believers burn mulberry branches in the incense-burner in front of holy temples and mountains. Another centre of Saga Dawa activity is Mt. Kailash. During Saga Dawa, Mt. Kailash draws tens of thousands of pilgrims. For over a thousand years pilgrims have flocked to Mt Kailash to replace the Tarboche flagpole, a huge pole that stands on the Kailash kora (hiking circuit), south of the mountain. The ceremony is led by a lama from the nearby monastery and Tibetans and Buddhists gather here to attach their prayer flags, to pray and to help erect the flagpole.

Things that happen during Saga Dawa: 1) Thousands of Tibetans circumambulating around the Barkhor, Tsekhor (circuit around Potala) and Lingkhor. 2) The liberation of fishes in Lhasa river (Kyichu) and other animals according to their budgets. 3) Monks reciting prayer in the assembly hall in monasteries and serving butter tea during intermission. 4) Hundreds of Tibetan people lined up in Drepung kitchen for making their donation for the monks during chanting prayers in assembly hall. 5) Tibetan people never eat meats during 15th day of the Saga Dawa and you can see every Tibetans eating vegetables in restaurant after finishing their circumambling. 6) After finished visiting monasteries, Tibetans go for picnics in different picnic centres in Lhasa such as Dzongyab Lukhang Park at the foot of Potala. 7) Even during the picnics, older Tibetans mumble mantras, counting them by rosary in their left hand and spinning a small prayer wheel in their right hand. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Chokhor Duchen Festival

Chokor Duchen Festival—held in mid July on 15th day of the fifth Tibetan month—in much of Tibet— celebrates Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. It is one of the four great seasonal festivals along with Losar, Saga Dawa and Lhabab Duchen celebrated by all Tibetan Buddhists. Chokhor means “Prayer Wheel” or “Dharma Wheel”, the common religious objects in Tibet, and Duchen means “great occasion” in Tibetan. Hand held wheels are hollow wooden or metal cylinders attached to a handle which when turned are believed to spread spiritual blessing.

The Chokor Duchen festival is held in Lhasa on the 4th day of the 6th month of Tibetan calendar. Many pilgrims climb the Mt. Gyambu Utse, the peak behind Drepung Monastery, and also the ridge from Pabonka to the Dode Valley, to burn the incense and hang prayer flags. The festival is also called Drukwa Tsezhi.Tradition has it that Buddha was not convinced through his own reflections that teaching what he had discovered through his meditations would be of any benefit to others. It took the intercession of the great gods, Brahma and Indra, to persuade him to do so for the benefit of all sentient beings. The Buddha then addressed the five people who had been his companions during the time spent with the forest yogins concerning the Truth of Suffering, and the other Noble Truths. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

Chokhor Duchen also commemorates Buddha's teaching of the Four Noble Truths: 1) the truth of suffering (dukkha), 2) the truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya), 3) the truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha), and 4) the truth of the path that frees people from suffering (magga). [Source: Barbara, O’Brien, buddhism.about.com, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <^>]

In Tibet, the Chokhor Duchen Festival is a day of pilgrimage when believers visit particularly holy spots to leave offerings of incense and prayer flags. The whole community, cleric and lay people alike, join in processions bearing statues of the Buddha and copies of the scriptures. Chokhor or prayer wheels are common religious objects in Tibet, part of daily life for both Buddhists and followers of the native Bon religion. Hand held wheels are hollow wooden or metal cylinders attached to a handle which when turned are believed to spread spiritual blessing. Mantras—such as Om Mani Padme Hum, believed to invoke the attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion—may be printed.

Lhabab Duchen: Buddha's Descent Day

The Lhabad Duchen Festival in Tibet falls on the 22nd day of the ninth lunar month on the Tibetan calendar, usually in October. This Buddhist festival is celebrated to observe the descent of Buddha Sakyamuni from the heaven back to the earth. On that day, there are a large number of pilgrims in Lhasa. Ladders are painted afresh on rocks around many monasteries to symbolize the event. Lhabab Duchen Festival or Buddha Sakyamuni's Descent Day is one of the four great Tibetan Buddhist festivals commemorating four events in the life of the Buddha. The other three are Losar Festival, Saga Dawa Festival, Chokor Duchen according to Tibetan traditions.[Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

It is said that the Buddha left for heaven at the age of 41, having ascended to the Heaven of Thirty-Three (Trayastrimsa) in order to give teachings to benefit the gods in the desire realms and to repay the kindness of his mother by liberating her from Samsara. He was exhorted by his follower and representative Maugalyayana to return, and after a long debate managed to return. This is considered to be one of the eight great deeds of the Buddha. He returned to earth by a special triple ladder prepared by Viswakarma, the god of machines.

On Lhabab Duchen, the effects of positive or negative actions are multiplied ten million times. It is part of Tibetan Buddhist tradition to engage in virtuous activities and prayer on this day. Tibetan people hold Buddhist activities on this day each year, celebrating Buddha's return to the human world and promoting Buddhism. According to the local custom, people paint the outside walls of their own houses or the temples on this special day to greet the Buddha's return.

Shoton Festival

The Shoton Festival (Xuedun Festival) is one of the biggest festivals in Tibet, marking the end of monks Yarné, or hundred day summer retreat. This festival is usually held in late August and starts on the last day of the sixth month in Tibetan Calendar and lasts for a few days. "Shoton" in Tibetan means “sour milk banquet” or yoghurt banquet. As Tibetan operas are performed and Buddha paintings are exhibited at this time, it is also called "Tibetan Opera Festival" or "Buddha Exhibition Festival". Ethnic songs and dances and famous Tibetan operas are performing at Norbulingka Palace in Lhasa. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetan gather at Drepung Monetary and Sera monasteries in Lhasa to see the unveiling of large famous Buddha Thangka. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

For Buddhists is Shoton is holy ceremony for purification of the sprit and the soul The grand opening of Shoton Festival begins in the morning when worshippers and tourists gather to witness the unveiling of the holy Thangka at Drepung Monastery. Thousands of followers hold their breath. Horns blare and lamas read scripture, chant and pray. To all Tibetans, it is a magical moment when the giant work of art is fully displayed. Followers touch the "Thanka" by forehead to show devotion. There are also other celebratory events such as horse races and yak races. [Source: Lobsang Tsering, tibetravel.org, August 25, 2014]

The unfolding of te thangka (a giant Buddhist painting on cloth) is the main and important activity during traditional Tibetan festivals, like Shoton Festival. As the first ray of sun glow touches Drepung Temple, thousands of local worshippers and tourists await the unfurling. The 20-meter long portrait of Buddha is gradually unfurled before viewers in a cloud of incense and camera flashes. Worshipers throw silk Khabtags at the Buddha portrait and pray for safety and happiness. The ceremony, known as Zhanfo, means Buddha worship. Later people go to Norbulingka and visit their relatives' and friends' tents and drink yak-butter tea and chang.

Originally, the festival was purely religious. When emerged after spending weeks in retreat, it was the custom of lay people to give them yogurt. Legend has it that Tsong Khapa, founder of the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism made it a rule that all lamas must do meditations from the fourth month to the sixth month of the Tibetan year. After the period was over pilgrims went to monasteries to offer their homemade yogurt to monks to express thanks for their love and protection.

History of the Shoton Festival

It has been said that the Shoton festival can traced back to the 11th century when Master Atisha (a monk from Bengal) was dwelling and studying in Nethang monastery in summer. He set up rules for his students to follow, one of which was that lamas should not leave the monastery to abide by one of the most important Tibetan religious tenets: to avoid killing lives. As all animals come out for food in summer, it is easy to kill small worms and insects by trampling them underfoot. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

In 11th century, Buddhism was recovering from a prohibition on religious practices imposed by the Tibetan ruler King Darmo in 9th century. Between mid 9th century and mid 11th century was a time of suffering in Tibet. There were continuous and disastrous wars and rebellions in this time. In Atisha's time, it was a time to sow seeds and spread. Atisha and his monks dedicated themselves to meeting the spiritual needs of common people and meditaed and prayed on their behalf. The local people were grateful and offered them their best family-made yoghurt, fruits and other food to show their respect ad gratitude.

In the 14 century, the famous teacher Tsongkapa initiated a rule that monks to concentrate on meditation in monasteries from April to June according to Tibetan lunar calendar to avoid killings and earning demerits during that days. After they finished the local Tibetan laymen offered them yoghurt and curds,

In 17th century when the Gelupa sect defeated Kargyuelpa's power and began its rule over Tibet, the Fifth Dalai Lama ordered the operas to be performed in Drepung monastery, Potala palace and Norbulinka during the celebration, Yoghurt was served, local style operas and songs were performed. As time passed it gradually became one of the grandest, important festivals in Tibet prior to Tibet New year.

Shoton festival is focused at Drepung monastery. This is because that when Gelupa established its rule over Tibet, its religious and political center was in Drepung monastery, the Ganden Pochan was the once the residence for 5th Dalai Lama. After the Potala palace was rebuilt in 1682, he moved his palace to Potala from Drepung monastery; from the year 1682 on, the Shoton festival was performed in Potala palace, then shifted to Drepung monastery; in the time of 7th Dalai Lama, the Norbulinka was built, and the Shoton festival was performed there after Drepung monastery.

Tashilhunpo Monastery Festival

Tashilhunpo Monastery Festival has been held for over 500 years. Also known as Buddha Exhibition Festival in Tashilhunpo Monastery enjoys, it last for three days, in July, during the middle of the fifth lunar Tibetan month. Different Buddhas are exhibited on each day during this festival. The Buddha Amitabha (infinite light) is exhibited on the first day to remind people to cherish the memory of the past. The statue of Sakyamuni made by the Ninth Panchen Lama is exhibited on the second day to encourage people to pray for a life with happiness. A Maitreya (the future Buddha) is exhibited on the third day to urge people to hold expectations for the future. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Events culminates with the unveiling of a huge four-storey-tall Thangka (religious painting) on a tower behind the Tashilunpo monastery. The whole exposition zone spreads over 1,000 meters, decorated by silk and satins. There is also sutra chanting, prayers meeting and rain begging. Both the lamas and lay people show their respect to the Buddha and pray for blessing by prostrating themselves, walking the kora around the monastery and doing other other religious activities. Local Tibetans sit together on the culture square, sharing barley wine and food. There are Buddha exhibition festivals in other monasteries in Tibet, but the one in Tashilhunpo Monastery is unique. One of of the oldest and largest such festivals, it is the symbol of Tashilhunpo Monastery, as well as one of the symbols of Shigatse. Tens of thousands of people show up every year for the event.

Ximoqenpo Holy Dance Festival at Tashilunpo

In August on the Tibetan calendar each year, lamas in the Tashilhungpo Monastery hold the Ximoqenpo Holy Dance Festival. Originally a religious ritual to drive away evil spirits, it gradually evolved into a traditional festival in Xigaze. According to historical documents, the festival was first sponsored by Dainbai Nyima, the seventh Panchen Lama, about 200 years ago. On August 3 on the Tibetan calendar each year, a dance contest is held among lamas in the monastery, and the festival formally commences on August 4 and lasts three days till August 6, when it is open to the public. The monastery now boasts 39 lamas who can dance 61 different kinds of dances. A huge tent is set up on a platform. On its left are seats for distinguished guests; on its right is the orchestra of the monastery; and in front of the platform is the audience who have traveled far to attend. The whole activity is imbued with a strong religious fervor and follows a strict protocol. The dance is simple in rhythm and slow in execution. To enliven the atmosphere, some short, light pieces are performed between the dances, which always make the audience rock with laughter. During the three-day festival, dozens of holy dances will be performed, such as Buddha's Warrior Attendant Dance, Skeleton Dance, Deer and Cow Dance, Bhiksu Dance and Six Longevity Dance. [Source: China Tibet Information Center, zt.tibet.cn]

On the first day of the festival, the first to take the stage are people wearing deity masks, who dance while circling the stage before retreating backstage. Several minutes later, four ghosts jump onto the stage; they have long fingers and toes like skeletons. They dance and then retreat, too. The third group, wearing iron hats, dance while circling the stage. The fourth group of 20 enter the stage with hats and different silk ribbons hanging on their bodies. The fifth come to the stage imitating the animals. The sixth group are clothed in yellow, red, indigo-blue and purple masks, baggy pattern clothes and hats with tassels. Among the seventh group, four lamas dress up like ghosts, carrying a body molded of butter and zanba; they are followed by deities. After chanting sutras, the dancers stab the body with a knife, pour oil on dry firewood, light it and throw the body (representing ghost) into the fire.

The second day starts with a lama wearing a large Buddha mask and sitting straight on a lotus seat, motionless like a wood or clay sculpture, with two boys waiting on him on both sides. On the stage are two lamas wearing masks and colorful clothes, and dancing according to the rhythm. They soon retreat. Then a pair of lamas dressing up like guards of Dharma come onto the stage, followed by more than ten pairs. The last four wear skeleton masks and strange costumes. Two small ghosts carry a bag of zanba and let the four in skeleton masks take zanba out to spread in all directions.

On the third day, six images of longevity appear on the stage: crane, deer, human, mountain, water and village. The lama sitting on the lotus seat expounds Buddhist scriptures to the wolf and deer. Two white-haired old men then appear on the stage, holding bows and arrows and aiming at the wolf and deer upon seeing them. The lama stops them, telling them it is a sin to kill. Then he talks eloquently about the cycle of incarnation. Finally, the old men and the animals, led by the lama, ascend to the immortal world.

Ganden Thangka Unveiling Festival in Tibet

The Ganden Thangka Unveiling Festival in Tibet is usually held in late July on the 15th day of the sixth lunar month of Tibetan Calendar in memory of the enlightenment of Tsongkhapa, a well-known Tibetan religious philosopher. Ganden Monastery, one of the three great Gelug monasteries of Gelug in Lhasa. On the festival, thousands gather at the Ganden Monastery to witness the unveiling of a gigantic hand woven Thangka, featuring a Buddha figure surrounded by symbols of religious significance. The thangka is over 60 meters wide by 40 meters tall. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

Local Tibetan people usually begin to arrive in the early morning pre-dawn hours. They climb to the top of a hill near the monastery to watch the sunrise as they chant prayers of personal and religious significance. As the sun rises, it paints the surrounding mountain scenery with gold and red hues. As the day wears on crowds fill the monastery to pray and leave offerings of incense and yak butter. Excitement builds as the unveiling ceremony begins, and once the Thangka has finally been revealed the crowd rushes forward to touch their foreheads to the giant tapestry. The smell of the incense, the traditional music, and religious fervor of the crowd suspends locals and foreign visitors alike in a dream like state.

Pabang Dangkuo Festival in Reting Monastery

The Pabang Dangkuo Festival is the most important festival held in Reting Monastery north of Lhasa. This festival was only a purely religious prayer activity and has gradually developed into an festival with varied entertainments and goods exchange. Pabang means big stones. Pabang Dang is located in the western side of Reting Monastery, the first temple of Kadampa built in Tangguo village, Linzhou Country, which is 240 kilometers away from the north of Lhasa. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

The Pabang Dangkuo Festival falls in mid July. In the morning, the horse racing and ripening crop robbing are extremely exciting. According to the traditional rules, one of the horses must be white, and one of riders must wear white. In the racing, the white horse and the rider who wears white must reach the destination, which shows good luck. A head lama at Reting Monastery gives away prizes and Kada to the winner.

At 12:30pm, to honor the moment of the establishment of Reting Pabang, lamas chant sutras in the big tent. In front of the tent, there is a red stone altar, which is called the Tso. The Tso is terraced and decorated with Butter sculpture. In the middle of the altar, there is a picture about the cycle of birth and death. A whole lamb without its skin is put in front of the picture. Devout worshippers put their offerings around Tso. After lamas chant sutras, people scramble for the offerings. Getting a piece of the offering is considered very lucky.

In the afternoon, the climax of the festival is Chamo, a kind of temple dance of the Tibetan Buddhists. Chamo is the pioneering work of Amechamjiurinqen, a famous yoga teacher. The Young lamas of Reting form the Chamo group and make all kinds of dances with religious names and rubadub music. This festival ranked second among 20 Tibetan festivals on the 3rd Chinese Festival Innovation Forum in 2012.

Great Prayer Festival in Tibet

The Great Prayer Festival in Tibet, known as Monlam in Tibetan language, falls in February on 4th to 11th day of the 1st Tibetan month. This festival was established in 1409 in honor of Sakyamuni by Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Thousands of monks from the three main Lhasa area monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden gather for chanting prayers and performing religious rituals at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. The lamas debate Buddhist scriptures in the temple and ask questions of high level lamas and debate with them. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

Pilgrims from every corner of Tibet gather in Jokhang Temple to worship the Buddha. Pilgrims also offer donations to the lamas. They crowd at the second floor of Jokhang Temple and throw their Hada to the chanting lamas. Examinations for the highest 'Lharampa Geshe' degree (a degree in Buddhist philosophy in the Geluk tradition) are held during the week-long festival. Monks perform traditional Tibetan Buddhist dances (cham) and huge ritual cakes (tormas) adorned with very elaborate butter sculptures are offered. On the fifteenth day of the Great Prayer Festival, a boisterous night time event with various colorful butter lamps lighting up Barkhor Street near Jokhang temple. Many other monasteries hold special prayer sessions and perform religious rituals, for example some monasteries unfold huge religious scroll-paintings (thangkas) for all to see.

Tibetan Buddhist Blessing Festival

The Sera Bengqin Festival is celebrated four days before the Tibetan New Year at Sera Monastery in the northern suburb of Lhasa. Worshipers are touched on the head by the Vajra Pestle, a treasure of the Sera Monastery. The Vajra Pestle was originally a weapon from India and it was introduced as a Tibetan Buddist ritual instrument in the late 15th century. It is believed that being touched by the Vajra Pestle can ward off disaster and hardship and bring happiness and wellbeing in the coming year.

The ritual has been held at Sera Monastery since the 17th century. About 70,000 to 80,000 Tibetan Buddhists come from across Tibet and Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces, for the ritual, according to the monastery. Pilgrims hold pure white hada, a traditional scarf, in hand and pray while moving slowly in the kilometer-long kora outside of the monastery. They eventually proceeded to the Vajra Pestle, a treasure of the monastery, for the blessings. Chloe Xin of Tibetravel.org wrote: “ [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Tashi Gyaltsen, a monk at the monastery, said the pilgrims started to queue outside the monastery in Lhasa's frigid winter air as early as 4 a.m. and five-kilometers-long line forms. "I feel so good, so happy," said Sonam Nyima, a pilgrim from the Tibetan prefecture of Garze in Sichuan Province. "I wish all the people can live a long life and stay far from disasters," said another Tibetan pilgrim Chodron.

Dzamling Chisang: Universal Prayer Day

Universal Prayer Day, or Dzam Ling Chi Sang, is a Tibetan Buddhist festival celebrated in late June or early July on the 15th day of the fifth month in Tibetan Calendar. It is a time for spiritual cleansing. On the Universal Prayer Day, Tibetan people go to the tops of local mountains to burn incense and hang prayer flags. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

Dzam Ling Chi Sang was originally meant to commemorate Guru Rinpoche's subjugation of the local deities and the founding of Samye Monastery. In Lhasa, large amounts of 'Sang' are burned in the hills of Chakpori, Bumpari (on the southern side of the Kyi-chu) and Gephelri (behind Drepung Monastery). 'Sang' is a Tibetan 'ritual fireworks'. There is a variety in selection of material for Weisang, like branches of pine, cypress and juniper, leaves of herbs such as Artemisia argyi and heath.

Tibetans also hang prayer flags on tree tops, and build bonfires to worship the Buddha and local gods. Fire in the Tibetan culture is symbolic of cleansing. Family picnics are also common during the festival. This is also the time of the once-a-year display of the famous giant thangkas, scroll paintings, at Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet. In Tashilunpo, three huge thangkas with images of the Buddha are displayed for three days on a nine-story wall behind the monastery.

Image Sources: Purdue University, China National Tourist Office, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Johomap, Tibetan Government in Exile

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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