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Prayer Festival

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.

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 ; Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

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.

Tibetan Festivals

Many Himalayan festivals are held in the winter when villagers have lots of time and there isn't much else to do. 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.

Bhutanese festivals, or Tshechus, are held throughout the year. They take place outdoors, in the courtyards of the great dzongs, and feature dancers in colorful silk costumes and grotesque hand-carved wooden masks. The festivals celebrate the legends, myths and history of the Bhutanese in ancient rituals of dance and music.

Their main festivals 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.

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'sDay, 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. “ /*\

Major Tibetan Traditional Festivals

Tibetan New Year is celebrated around the same day 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. 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 1027A.D. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

The four great seasonal Tibetan Buddhist festivals are Losar, Saga Dawa, Chokor Duchen and Lhabab Duchen. Saga Dawa falls in April or May and on the 15th day of the forth month in the Tibetan calendar. It celebrates the anniversary of the lord of the Buddha’s birth day, enlightenment and the death. During that festival, the monks will hold religious activities and Buddhist is honored with chanted sutras. People circumambulate sacred place in the clock wise direction and pray to the Buddha.

Zamling Jisang is held in May or June and is translated to “world happiness day” in English. People celebrate the festival in the parks, and at the western suburbs of the Lhasa from the 15th day to the 20th day of the fifth month in the Tibetan calendar. It also known as “world worship Buddha day” it says that every Buddha will descend to the world and assemble together. Especially early in the morning, and the people go up on the mountains and there will burn the incent. After all, the people will go to having some picnic.

Druk Pa Tseshi Festival is held on the 4th day (Tsheshi) of the 6th month (Drukpa) of the Tibetan Calendar around July or August every year. Also known as the “holy mountain festival”, it celebrates the day the Buddha first preached a sermon with prayer wheel. On this day, people with food go to monasteries and temples to pay their homage to Buddha, to offer joss-sticks and to circumambulate holy mountains. then there will have some picnics. Relax and enjoy them self. They sing and dance in the fields. They do not go home until the sun set.

Shoton Festival usually held in the middle of 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.

Ta Gyuk is a horseracing festival is celebrated in September and October at the end of the seventh month or at the beginning of the eight month of the Tibetan calendar every year. Riders in the colorful ancient Tibetan customs and with bows and arrows show their skills. brave. Horse races called dama are held in Gyantse. The most famous horse race is the Dam Jinren in Dam Shong grass land. It had a similar to the DAMA in Gyantse.

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.

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.

Pele Retoi Festival also goes by name Pel Lhamo Parade Festival” and is usually held in December on the 15th day of the tenth month of the Tibetan calendar. Monks carry the statue of the Pel Lhamo in her chapel of the Jokhang temple and parade around Lhasa. During the festival, there are various activities to do with gods descending. Women are more active and they think of the festival as a holiday for Tibetan women. In English Pele Retoi means “fairy maiden festival”. Another festival whose name in English means “the remembrance of the master Tsong Kha starts at 25th day of the tenth month of the Tibetan calendar. It marks the anniversary of the death of the master Tsong Khapa, the founder of Geluk pa sect. At night butter lamps are lit on the roofs of monasteries and houses.

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.

Dates for Tibetan Festivals

Late February, Early March, 15th day of the first Tibetan month—Butter Lantern Festival is the last high tide of the celebrations of Tibetan New Year. During the daytime, people go to pray in temples and monasteries while at night there is a lantern show. The butter lanterns are acts of prayer themselves. Various lanterns with butter sculptures shaped in the image of deities, animals, plants, and human figures are displayed. Some of the lanterns are as high as two or three-storey buildings. Often there are puppet shows. The event lasts for several days. The busiest place during the butter lantern festival is the around the Barkhor Street and in front of Jokhang Temple, where many lanterns are displayed. At night, the lights lanterns make the whole street bright as day. People sing and dance while enjoying the lanterns. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Mid March, 15th of the first Tibetan month—Tsurphu Monastery Festival features ritual dancing carried out by monks, unfolding of a great Thangka. June, 10th of the fourth Tibetan month—Saga Dawa Festival and Sakyamuni’s Enlightenment day is when huge numbers of pilgrims walk Lhasa’s Lingkor circuit and Mt. Kailash Kora.

Mid June, 15th of the fourth Tibetan month—Drigung-til Festival lasts for two or three days. A special ceremony and cham dancing is held in Drigung-til Monastery.

Late June, 26th of the fourth Tibetan month—Tashilhunpo Festival in Shigatse is celebrated for three days. Different portraits of Buddha are exhibited each day. Cham dancing is held inside the monastery.

Mid June, 13th of the fifth Tibetan month—Samye Festival is celebrated for two or three days. Religious ceremonies and cham dancing are heldin Samye Monastery.

Mid July, 15th of the fifth Tibetan month—Chokor Duchen Festival celebrates Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath near Varanasi in India. Pilgrims climb the peak behind Drepung Monastery near Lhasa and also the ridge from Parbonka to the Dode Valley.

Late July, early August, 4th of the sixth Tibetan month—Ganden Monastery Festival is a big event. Ganden Monastery displays its 25 holiest relics which are normally locked away. A large offering ceremony accompanies the unveiling.

Mid August, 15th of the sixth Tibetan month—Shotun Festival near Lhasa is famous for its huge thangka. At dawn, a huge Thangka is unfolded at Drepung Monastery. Lamas perform opera in the main courtyard.

Late August, early September, 30th of the Sixth Tibetan month—Naqu Horse Racing Festival is celebrated in Northern Tibet’s grassland. Various activities are held in the grassland of Naqu, such as horserace, yak race, tug of war, lifting stones and Tibetan operas.

Mid August—Drepung Festival near Lhasa is celebrated for two or three days. Religious ceremonies and cham dancing are held in the monastery.

Late August or early September, 8th of the seventh Tibetan month—Drak Yerpa Festival is celebrated for two or three days. Religious ceremonies and cham dancing are held in the monastery.

Late August, early September, 10th of the seventh Tibetan month—Bathing Festival lasts for seven days. Tens of thousands of Tibetan men and women go to river or lake to take a bath.

Mid September, 15th of the seventh Tibetan month—Gaden Ngachen Chenmo, also called Tsonkhapa Festival, celebrates the death anniversary of Tsongkapa. Monasteries and households burn countless butter lamps everywhere and chant prayers.

Mid December, 25th of the tenth Tibetan month—Ghost Exorcising Festival is also called Gutor. People begin to prepare for Tibetan New Year. Tibetan women will start to clean their house and prepare food. People also visit monasteries to worship Buddha and donate money or give gifts to monks. Tibetans also set off firecrackers to get rid of evil spirits.

Tibetan Bathing Festival

The Bathing Festival lasts for one week in late August or early September the early part of the seventh month in Tibetan Calendar. In Tibetan it is called "Gamariji," meaning Qishan star, or Venus. When Venus rises to the sky, the mass bathing starts. As Venus sets, the bathing ends. According to Tibetan beliefs bathing at this time is beneficial to health as water in Tibet has eight advantages: sweet, cool, soft, light, clear, clean, unharmful to throat, nor to belly. Even though the water is still quite cold, in Tibetan terms it is relatively warm and suitable for bathing. During the seven days, tens of thousands of Tibetan men and women go to a river or lake to have baths. Tents tents, big or small, dot the areas near the rivers and lakes. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Legend has it that pestilence was wide spread, leading to 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 not only clean the body, but also wash away potential diseases.

Spring Sowing Festival in Tibet

The Spring Sowing Festival in Tibet is an important traditional festival for Tibetan farmers. Held on an auspicious day in the first Tibetan month of New Year, it is a time when a calf is tied to plough for the first time and the first seds of spring are sowed. At sunrise a woman with the same animal zodiac as the year and several old farmers dressed in their best clothes prepare drinks, tea, sutra streamers and censers and place these items on the best land for the sowing. Then villagers pray to the gods and spirits for blessings over their crops and a good harvest. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

After making a sacrifice to the God the Earth, the villagers go back their village, where they dress up in their most beautiful clothes and dress up their livestock. To the sound of a conch blown by the leader in the village, villagers and women with the same animal sign as the year go to the field to be ploughed. The young boys and girls form several groups to drink tea and wine.

After drinking tea and wine, several men burn incense and offer up sacrifices, raise prayer flags and sing and chant to worship gods toward the direction of plow. In a special ritual each family brings a pair of working cattle. Then, the hostess in the family toasts wine to heaven three times and smears ghee on the forehead of cattle three times to pray for luck. After that, Tibetans stick prayer flags on the yoke of each pair of cattle. After the first ploughing, women with the same animal sign with the year sow the lucky seeds. Then, other working cattle plough do the same pair at a time. After the rite of worshipping, the villagers gather together to take a rest. Later the village men hold competitions of runnning, wrestling and other games and folk sports while singing and dancing. The day after the spring sowing, people feast for five or six days.

Linka Festival

The Linka Festival is called "Zimulinjisang" which means "happy day of the world". Also known as the "suburb feast". It is a big event in Lhasa, Rikeze and Changdu. It is held around the 11th day of the fifth Tibetan lunar month, and the period is not fixed. It lasts more than ten days in some places. Tibetan people bring food, highland barley wine, buttered tea, Tibetan mats, tent and stuff to entertain themselves with to a Linka (meaning a garden or parks planted with willows in Tibetan). Tibetans often say "playing in the willows" instead of strolling around the Linka. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

People erect white tents on the lawn or under old trees, lay down cloth or plastic sheets and spread Tibetan mats on the ground. They enjoy picnics and play musical instrument and sing while drinking buttered tea or highland barley wine. Some of them play cards, some play chess, some play Kelang ball or chat and laugh. There are some religious rites and recreational and sports activities such as horse racing and archery.

Ongkor Festival (Bumper Harvest Festival)

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.

The celebrations include horse racing, shooting, dancing and singing, Tibetan traditional Opera, stone lifting and wrestling. The “Ongkor” is also a good time for farmers to have a rest. Since crops ripen in different times, the festival is held accordingly. The Ongkor Festival is is celebrated from the middle and lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River. In the village in these areas, people initially offered sacrifices to gods to pray for a good harvest. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Tsedang in the Shannan Region holds a large Ongkor Festival in mid-summer. Each family choose a representative, usually a woman to form a 100-member team. They are dressed in grand Tibetan robes, wear their gold and silver jewels, carry dou (a measure for grain) and scripture book showing a good harvest on their back and hold colourful arrows. Under the leadership of a revered man and accompanied by the sounds of ritual trumpets and drums, they move round the farmland outside the village, shouting: "Yangguxiu! Yangguxiu!" (meaning "Come back, the soul of the earth!" ) The old villagers burn mulberries on the way the Ongkor team must pass to worship gods.

Tibetan Fairy Festival: a Festival for Tibetan Women

The Fairy Festival is a traditional Tibetan festival for women also known as the "Women's Festival". It is celebrated in mid October with various kinds of religious and non-religious activities. On this day, girls and women dressed in their finest clothes make pilgrimages to temples, present Khadas to their respected angels, treat themselves to shopping and good food, and particularly, ask for money from men to donate to the fairies. They can ask for money from any man they meet. Men are very generous with their money are endorsed with good luck in the coming new year. Within family, parents give money to children as gifts to celebrate the plentiful harvest in the autumn and the coming of a new year. In Lhasa, people gather around at Jokhang Temple and women dressed up in beautiful traditional clothes sing and dance. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

The Fairy Festival is also named as Tianmu Festival. In the Tibetan language it is called the Festival as Bailairizhui. According to the Tibetan calendar, mid October is a time when the first chilly winds of winter strike the Tibetan plateau. In cities like Lhasa, professional women asked their male colleagues or supervisors to treat them to a huge banquet. In the countryside women dress up and go to temples for pilgrimages. They also treat themselves by buying new clothes and personal ornaments and a magnificent lunch.

Beginning at 5:00am thousands of believers pay homage to Palden lhamo, the female protector god, and Srongtsen Gampo—with hada and Qinghao Biejia Tang in their hands—in front of Jokhang Temple. The Palden lhamo, Bandanlamu is deity from Indian mythology. According to legend when Srongtsen Gampo built the Jokhang Temple at Lhasa, he made the Bandanlamu a dharma protector of the Temple. In one Tibetan story, Bandanlamu became an old Tibetan woman with a bad temper and three daughters. At the time of the Fairy Festival, Jokhang Temple welcomed the oldest daughter, Baibadongze. Though Baibadongze was not good looking (she has the face of frog) she was full of tenderness and affection and fell in love with the general, Chizunzan. When Bandanlamu discovered this, she was strongly against it. In a violent rage, she drove away Chizunzan to the southern bank of Lhasa River, and made the rule that only on mid October on the Tibetan Lunar Calendar could Chizunzan and Baidonglaze see each other across the river. Unlucky Baidonglaze was adopted as a kind of patron saint by women and children who sympathized with her.

Horse Racing Festivals in Tibetan Areas

Horse festivals are big events in Tibet and Tibetan areas of China. The Tibetan Festival in Yushu in Qinghai Province in July lasts for five days. The Khampa Summer Festival in Gyegu in Qinghai Province is one of the largest gathering of Tibetan people, attracting Tibetans from all over western China. In recent years the Chinese government has tried to promote it as a tourism event. The Horse Festival in Lithang in Sichuan Province in August is another large gathering of Tibetans. All these festivals features dancing, folk performances, open air markets and horse racing

The top three horse racing festivals in Tibetan area are: 1) The Yushu Horse Racing Festival, 2) the Ngachu Horse Racing Festival and 3) the Litang Horse Racing Festival. Tibetans camp, party and dress up in their best clothes. There is a lot of dancing and Buddhist ceremonies. Tibetan food can be bought cheaply. You can buy Tibetan herbs and handicrafts and watch the Tibetans do various sports and games.

The Yushu Horse Racing Festival held in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Region in Qinghai in the the Amdo Tibetan Area is last week of July. It takes advantage of the warm weather, so the valley floor has lush green grass suitable for long-distance horse races and tent camping. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

Attending horse festival, horseback riding and raising horses are popular activities among many Tibetans. Because of bad road conditions, sometimes horses are the best or the only way to get around. Although these days many Tibetans are using motorcycles rather than horses. But it is hard to love a motorcycle the same way you do a horse. Some herders treat horses as closest friends and intimate family members. Horse racing festivals are a time for Tibetans to mingle and have a good and for Tibetan riders to show off their manliness and bravery. [Source: Chloedon, Tibetravel.org, September 30, 2014]

The festival riders begin to select their favorite horses many days in advance. Some even buy horses from Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. On the first day of the festival, all the locals dress up and gather together to have fun. Even the horses are decorated with colorful ribbons and flags. Audiences stand by the track, cheering and applauding for the competitors. All riders spare no effort to show their skills and sporting spirit. The horses are raced to see who owns the best horse. The winners receive a lot of honor and prestige. This festivals lasts for about one week. Besides horse racing there is singing, dancing, running, tug-of-war competitions. Tibetan people from local villages and from far away gather together to watch the games and competitions and do business.

Tibetan men and women wear their most beautiful folkdresses and most valuable jewelry. During the festival, people talk about which girl is the cutest, which boy is the most handsome, who is the best dancer and who has the best horse. Many Tibetans have found their husbands and wives at horse festivals. The races and events include single-person-single-horse races, archery on horseback, double-men-double-horse races, shooting on horseback, flower-basket catching on horseback Horse race are also held at large traditionally festivals such as the Shoton Festival, Gyantse Darma Festival, Onqkor Festival and Saga Dawa festival.

Litang Horse Racing Festival in Kham

The Litang Horse Racing Festival in Kham Tibetan Area is a traditional Tibetan festival held in the first week of August every year in Litang County, Sichuan province. It is the most celebrated holiday in the Eastern Tibetan Plateau. Khams from all over the Tibetan Plateau come to trade, celebrate and ride. Many Khams are nomads and herders. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

During the Litang Horse Racing festival horse races are held with small but fast Tibetan ponies. The horse festival is significant because it helps to establish socio-economic hierarchy in Khams who participate. A lot of honor and prestige is placed on who owns the best horse. A very large tourism business has been built up on adventure trips and tours provided by companies who cater to individuals who are interested in horses and horsemanship. These companies travel around Tibet taking groups of tourists throughout the different villages hosting horse festivals. This benefits the nomads' economy as well as the rest of China's economy.

The Tibetans come from far away and set up tents to wait for the big days. The festivities also include jumping competitions and dancing shows. In the racing festival riders show their skills in horseback riding, shooting, and picking up objects while riding fast on horseback. It is a time to see Tibetans decked out in their best clothes. Both men and the women wear their most beautiful folk dresses and valuable jewelry. It is also a good time for trade. Various Tibetan living wares are put on the stands for sale.

Nagchu Horse Racing Festival

Nagchu Horse Racing Festival is a grandest horse riding competition in northern Tibet. Tens of thousands of herdmen gather outside Nachu city on a vast grassland dotted with tents. After a grand opening ceremony, various activities are held, including horse races, yak races, tug of wars, lifting stones and performances of Tibetan operas. The event is held in August and lasts 5 to 15 days. [Source: Lobsang Tsering, Tibetravel.org,, August 14, 2014]

In August the vast and beautiful green grassland is covered by flowers. A few days before the opening ceremony traditionally dressed Tibetans living gather in Naqu County to set up their tents around the horse racing track. Hundreds of tents are packed. Within a few days a crowded temporary tent city appears on the grassland. There are exhibitions, markets, dancing and singing performance, Buddhist activities, different kinds of interesting races, tug-of-wars, long jumping, stone raising, and of course horse racing.

On the Nagchu Horse Racing Festival, Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic, “The weeklong event used to be held on the open plains, but ten years ago a concrete stadium was built so Chinese officials would have someplace to sit. When we arrive the next morning, Tibetans pack the stands: women with high cheekbones, high heels, and long braids heavy with silver and amber; men in felt cowboy hats and the long-sleeved coats they call chubas; sockless kids in cheap sneakers. Hawkers sell spicy boiled potatoes and cans of Budweiser. Blaring speakers announce each event in Tibetan and Chinese. It's a rodeo atmosphere, except for the Chinese policemen stationed every ten yards along the bleachers, marching in squadrons around the field, and lurking in plainclothes.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

Down on the field, horse and rider seem to defy gravity. A contestant gallops almost out of control, dangling like an acrobat off the side to pluck a white silk scarf from the ground. Clods of mud propel into the sharp blue sky. Holding the scarf aloft, the Tibetan cowboy wheels his rearing horse to the roar of the crowd.” [Ibid]

“The Nagqu Horse Festival is one of the few surviving events celebrating Tibet's equestrian heritage. Through centuries of selective breeding, Tibetans created a premium horse called the Nangchen. Standing only 13.5 hands high (about 4.5 feet’smaller than most American breeds), fine-limbed and handsome-faced, with enlarged lungs adapted to life on the 15,000-foot-high, oxygen-starved Tibetan Plateau, Nangchen steeds were bred to be inexhaustible and sure-footed on snowy passes. These were the horses coveted by the Chinese centuries ago.” [Ibid]

Other Horse Racing Festivals in Tibet

The Chawalong Horse Festival is held in mid February in Chawalong Village in Chayu County, Nyingchi Prefecture, Tibet. Chawalong has very limited resources, with no access to electricity and phone signals. There are only four roads connecting Chawalong to outside world. However, whichever road you choose, you are going to need to ride horses though some rough sections. Thus, horse is a very important part of Chawalong villagers’ life.

The Gyantse Horse Racing Festival is usually held in late June or early July in fourth lunar month of the Tibetan calendar. It is said that the Gyantse Horse Race festival started as an athletic competition in the 1400s. As the years went by, it became an important inter-village competition. Buddhist worship and other events and festivities were added in. Events include horse racing, archery contests, wrestling, Tibetan Opera, music and dancing, athletic events and ball games. Tibetan people from different areas dressed costumes unique to their areas. Along with this, there is a swap meet and an open market. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

The Xiangxiong Cultural Festival in Ngari in western Tibet near Mount Kailash usually lasts for the whole August. Xiangxiong is an ancient culture and kingdom of western Tibet that dates back more than 1300 years. The biggest events are horse events, divided into three categories: speed racing, endurance racing, and equestrian show. In 2013, a total of 87 horses participated in the games. The winner in each category receives a 10-thousand Yuan prize. But for most local people, taking part in the competition is enough of an honor. They also weave their horses’ hair into colorful braids and feed them special forage. The trade fair features jerked beef, dairy products and traditional handicrafts. There is also ethnic singing and dancing performances. Art troupes performed the "Xuan Dance", a traditional folk art that mixes dance with narrating and singing. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

Tibetan Yak Festival

The Tibetan Yak Festival starts from the 15th day of the 8th month on the Tibetan calendar and lasts 10 days to a month, with thousands of people attending. Yaks are regarded as the best animals to sacrifice for divinities. During this festival, people ask a "heiba"(wizard) to recite scriptures and play yak horn horns while yaks and sheep are killed and heavy drinking takes place. Because of the high expenses, this large-sized fair is held only a few times a century. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 ]

The Yak Festival derives from Tibetans' awareness of the importance of yak in agriculture and life. During their daily labor, Tibetans develop strong feelings for their yaks, and consequently numerous phenomena of yak culture have come into being. People who take part in the Yak Festival are often blood relatives and elements of ancestors worship are incorperated into the event.

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 April 2021

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