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Prayer Festival
Their main holidays and festivals in Tibet are Tibetan New Year, the Lantern Festival, Xuedun Festival (Shoton Festival), Wangguo Festival and Linka Festival. Monlam is a Buddhist prayer festival that begins about a week after Tibetan New Year and last about a week. Also known as the Great Prayer Festival it is usually a joyous occasion. It was banned by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution.

Many Himalayan festivals are held in the winter when villagers have lots of time and there isn't much else to do. Many are held in the summer too when the weather is nice. People travel many miles, often on foot, to attend the festivals, wearing their most beautiful clothing, creating as festive and joyful atmosphere which mingles with the mystic spirit of the occasion. The are small ceremonies to bless yaks and other animals. These days, large numbers of Chinese security forces show up at Tibetan festivals

On festival days Tibetans throw multicolored paper money in the air so it floats like ticker tap on the crowds. Partying Tibetans like to sing, drink barley beer and throw white barely flour all over each other. Sherpa festivals feature skits with costumed figures of "drunken men" getting chased by "bawdy women," as well as dances performed by leaping and twirling monks with fierce god masks and yak butter lamps.

Tao Li wrote in “Tibetan Customs”: “Tibetan festivals have been deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. They either have strong a religious aroma or they are completely religious. Throughout history, under the harsh natural environment and hard working conditions, the people living on the snowy land yearned for a better life through their own efforts, with the God’s mercy and with the Buddha’s protection. It is the festivals that offer opportunities for them to express their prayer to deities, Buddha and nature, during which they amuse the Gods and themselves as well. [Source: Tao Li, Tibetan Customs, 2003 /*]

“There are a lot of festivals in Tibet. On the Tibetan lunar calendar, festivals appear in almost every month. For example, first of all, the 8thday, 10th day, 15th day and 30th day of each month are the Medicine Buddha's Day, Dakini's Day, Sakyamuni's Day, and Amitabha's Day respectively. These alone have already made 48 festivals. Moreover, the first day of the first Tibetan lunar month preludes the New Year Festival; and follows with the Great Prayer Festival and Butter Lamp Day. /*\

“In the second month, there are the Ghost-Exorcising Festival, Treasure Displaying Festival and Chotrul Festival. In the third month, there is the Time-Wheel Vajra Festival. In the fourth, there are the Saga Dawa Festival and Nganjo Festival, Linka Festival and Buddha Painting Unfolding Festival. In the sixth, there are the Choekhor Duechcen (Paying Homage to the Holy Mountain) Festival, Drukpa Tsezhi Festival and Yangle festivals. In the seventh, there are the Shoton festival, Ongkor (Bumper Harvest) Festival and Bathing Festival, as well as the Divinity Dancing Festival in Xigaze (Shigatse). In the ninth, there is the Labab Duechen Festival. In the 10th month, there are the Balha-Xizhuk Festival and the Tsongkapa Butter Lamp Festivals. In the 11th month, there are the Niebaguzang Festival and the Winter Grand Ceremony. In the 12th month, there are the Punje Festival, Driving Away Evil Festival, Offering to Deity Festival and the Holy Dancing Festival in the Potala Palace. In summary, there are more than 100 major or minor festivals throughout a year. “ /*\

Tibetan Calendars

Tibetans have their own calendar. It is different from the Gregorian calendar used in most of the world. The year 1958 on the Gregorian calendar, for example, was the year 2094 on the Tibetan calendar, the year of the Fire-Sheep. The Tibetan year is 360 days. Astrologers routinely leave out days, dates, or even months that are considered unlucky. To keep the calendar in sync with the seasons months are added. Some years have the same month twice in a row. The formal use of the Tibetan calendar began in A.D. 1027. It is roughly two months behind the Western Gregorian calendar.

The Tibetan calendar is lunisolar calendar, that is based on the cycles of the sun and the moon. The Tibetan year is composed of either 12 or 13 lunar months, each beginning and ending with a new moon. A thirteenth month is added every two or three years, so that an average Tibetan year is equal to the solar year. Years are designated using the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), yin and yang, and the 12 animals representing the 12 Earthly Branches. A year is divided into four seasons. Each month has 29 or 30 days. The 12 animal signs with the months they rule from January to December are: Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig, Mouse, Ox, Tiger and Rabbit.[Sources: China Tibet Information Center zt.tibet.cn]

Tibetan years follow twelve-year animal cycles. One element rules two years in a row and then changes to the next element, while an animal sign will rule for one year at a time. The Year 2000 was an Iron-Dragon year and the year 2001 was an Iron-Snake year. The year 2002 was a Water-Horse year, and so forth. The 60 year cycle of all combinations of the five elements and twelve animals is called Rab-byung. We are now living in the 17th. Rab-byung, which began in 1987.

The first year in the Tibetan calendar dates back to the Kalachakra year, 1027. Actually the system of animal years already started in the middle of 600 A.D. under the influence of the teachings of a Chinese princess who married the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo. The system of 60 year cycles, Rab-byung, was introduced around the 10th century and in the 11th century it was widely used in Tibet. Kalachakra teachings were blended with Elemental astrology, and when Tibetan scholars made the very first Tibetan calendar they used Rab-byung for counting the years. As Kalachakra teachings were the foundation for chronological calculations, it was decided that the official date of introduction of Kalachakra would be Year One. Year 1027 was a Fire-Rabbit year and from then a Fire-Rabbit year became the first year in Tibetan Rab-byung, while the Chinese 60 year cycle always begins with a Wood-Mouse Year.

A person who is 30 in Western years is 32 years old in places that practice Tibetan Buddhism. A Bhutanese man told National Geographic, "We count the nine months a child spends in its mothers womb and everyone consider himself a year older on the same day, New Year's.

Tibetan Calendar Systems

The traditional Tibetan calendar is lunar, but in Tibet it is not the only calendar system used. Three different calendar systems are used: 1) The Tibetan lunar calendar; 2) The Kalachakra solar calendar’ and 3) The Elemental lunar calendar. The three are harmonized used solar and lunar factors and each calendar has a different primary function. Each calendar system has its own New Year: 1) The Tibetan New Year (Losar) falls around February; 2) The Kalachakra New Year falls in April; and 3) The Elemental New Year falls around December.

The official Tibetan New Year, Losar, is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the Tibetan lunar calendar and it falls around the February new moon. The first month is called Hor-zla (Mongolian month) because of their Mongolian connection. The history behind Mongolian months began when the Mongolian ruler Chingis Khan invaded parts of Western China. He took over the Chinese months and renamed them as Mongolian months. The day of victory was then celebrated as New Year. In the 13th century the Tibetan Sakya Drongon scholar, Chögyal Pagpa, and his uncle Sakya Pandita, introduced Buddhism to Mongolia. Chögyal Pagpa became a teacher of Chingis Khan's grandson Kubilai Khan, who was the ruler of Mongolia at the time. Along with Buddhism also came the Kalachakra system, and Mongolian months were converted to be equivalent to Kalachakra months. Mongolian rulers named Chögyal Pagmas family Kings of Tibet and this probably helped the Kalachakra system become Tibet's official calendar. In return, the Mongolian Hor-zla month also became the Tibetan New Year as a sign of friendship between the two nations. And to this day the Tibetans still celebrate Chingis Khan's victory over the Chinese tribes.

Tibetan calendar is also prepared for observing either the Kalachakra New Year or the Elemental New Year. The Kalachakra New Year is used for planetary calculations for astronomy and astrology. The Kalachakra year is constituted by the Sun's movement through the astrological signs in the Sidereal Zodiac, and this solar year has 365 days. The Kalachakra system uses the same twelve Zodiac houses and planets as the Indian calendar do. When the Sun is entering into Aries, it also marks the Kalachakra New Year, which is actually the third month of the Tibetan Calendar and falls in April. The Elemental New Year falls in December and is used in the calculation of an Elemental horoscope to define a person's age.

Keeping these different systems apart is very important because of their own purposes. When the calendar of the Tibetan New Year defines the official time calculation, then systems of the Kalachakra New Year and the Elemental New Year are essential for astrological calculations. Each Tibetan year is ruled by one of the five elements (iron, wood, water, fire and earth) and one of twelve animal signs (Mouse, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig) as in Chinese calendars, but they start the year on different dates and the months have different lengths. So it is very important not to mix Tibetan and Chinese systems together.

Main Seasonal Buddhist Festivals in Tibet

The great seasonal Tibetan Buddhist festivals are Losar, Saga Dawa, Chokor Duchen and Lhabab Duchen.

Losar (Tibetan New Year) is celebrated around the same time as Chinese New Year, in February . Marking the first day of the first month on the Tibetan calendar, it is called Gyalpo Losar in Tibetan which means “King’s New Year”. Tibetan New Year is the biggest holiday of the year for Tibetans. Tibetans all dress in their finest clothes. Relatives and friends pay New Year calls and visit monasteries to pray for a good year. Tibetan operas are performed. People wear masks and pretend to be gods. They sing and dance to drive away the ghosts. From the beginning of the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar, Tibetans begin to prepare special delicacies for the Tibetan New Year. Drosu chemar, meaning “cereals container”, is a must for Tibetan New Year. In this container foods such as tsampa with the yak butter and roasted wheat seeds are placed. Tibetans dress in their best and cleanest clothes. Festivities last from the 1st day of the new year until the 15th day. The establishment of the Tibetan New Year has close connections with the use of the Tibetan calendar. The formal use of the Tibetan calendar began in A.D. 1027. See LOSAR (TIBETAN NEW YEAR): HISTORY, CELEBRATIONS AND FOOD factsanddetails.com; REGIONAL LOSAR CELEBRATIONS factsanddetails.com

Saga Dawa falls in April or May and on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Tibetan calendar. It celebrates the anniversary of the lord of the Buddha’s birth day, enlightenment and the death and and, the Chinese say, the Chinese Princess Wenchen's arrival in Tibet. During that festival, The streets overflow with people on pilgrimages, and the monks pray. People go boating on the lake and then pitch tents. Monks hold religious activities and Buddhist is honored with chanted sutras. People circumambulate sacred places such as Potala Palace in the clock wise direction and pray to the Buddha.

Chokor Duchen Festival is held in mid July on 15th day of the fifth Tibetan month in much of Tibet. It 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.

Lhapup Duchen Festival usually falls in November and is one of the major Tibetan Buddhist festivals. Its name means “the Buddha’s descending festival” it The legend tells that the 22nd day of the ninth month of the Tibetan calendar was the day when the 33 – year – old Buddha sakyamuni preached a sermon to his mother in Tushita heaven and then descended to the world. This day every monastery is open for the whole day.

Major Festive Events in Tibet

Shoton Festival usually held in August is a traditional festival with a long history in the Tibet. Since one of its main activities is Tibetan opera dancing, it is also known as “Tibetan opera festival”. The Tibetan people usually celebrate the festival at the end of the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar. During the festival. All the residents of the Lhasa gather in the summer palace”Norbuling Kha” park. A beautiful tent is set up in the park. People bring lots of the food and snacks and watch professional and amateur Tibetan operas. Shoton in English it means “yoghurt banquet”.

Karma Doepa is the festival of the bathing and it usually falls in August or September in the seventh month of the Tibetan calendar. At this time of the year the raining season is done and the days are sunny and relatively warm. Men and women, old and young, carry tents, curtains, beverages and food and go out and have a good time, often along a river where they can bathe.

Ongkor is a “ harvest festival” with has no fixed date when the harvest is ready. Usually held in August, September or October, depending on the place, it is celebrated when crops are ripe, and lasts three to five days. During the festival, people walked around the fields with scriptures. Now it has gradually become a festival mainly concerned with arts, sports and entertainments. Ongkor means “looking around the field” or “ harvest festival” in English.

Guthuk (Gutok) is held right before Tibetan New Year, usually in February, on the 29th day of the 12th day of the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar. In English Gutok means “banishing the evil spirits festival”. The grand sorcerer’s dance is held in the Potala palace Monastery and similar activities are held in other places too. Monks with masks imitate demons and spirits, and walk around Jokhang temple. People sing, dance, light firecrackers and shout to bid farewell to the outgoing year and to welcome the coming New Year. In the evening, each family eats “Thuk pa” together. People light lamps, burn joss-sticks and set off more firecrackera. The atmosphere is bright and it is very lively.

Serf Emancipation Day

In 2009, the Chinese government created a holiday in March—“Serf Emancipation Day” — to mark the defeat of the pro-independence uprising in Tibet in 1959 and the “emancipation of millions of serfs and slaves.”

In conjunction with the new holiday, Tibetans in fur hats and traditional costumes performed dances and the government handed out literature that highlighted all the great things China had done to make Tibet a safer an more prosperous place, held an exhibition showing the horrors that occurred when the Dalai Lama was in control and ran polemic articles in Tibetan newspapers with with titles like “From serfs to masters of the country.”

A show at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Beijing called "Tibet: Past and Present" was divide into two parts: the first, called "The History of Tibet and Feudal Serfdom in Old Tibet" featured images of peasants maimed and crippled by lords and Buddhist lamas; the second, "New Tibet Changing With each Passing Day" showed modern Tibet in all its glory.

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\=/; 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.

Last updated September 2022

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