WINTER FESTIVALS IN TIBET
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.
Tsongkhapa's Festival falls on the 15th of the 10th month of the Tibetan calendar, usually in December of the Gregorian calendar. Also known as Tsongkhapa Butter Lamp Festival, it marks the anniversary of the death of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelukpa Sect. At night, countless butter lamps are lit on the rooftops of houses and temples, and prayers are chanted, to memorialize the passing away of Tsongkhapa, who was a great religious reformer and adept in Buddhism. It is a religious service with illumination. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]
Tibetan Meadow Festival is celebrated on early in the first month of the Tibetan calendar, usually in February or March , and lasts about one week., Prior to the festival, every family tidies up the house and throw out garbage toward the west when the sun is setting. It represents the idea that all stuff harmful to the human health is cats out. During the first three days of the festival, it is a custom for the villagers not to go out of the village. Instead the watch the sorcerer's trance dance. In the three days after that, young and old gather in the village, and greet each other and party.
Molang Qinbo Festival is held on the 15th of first month of the Tibetan calendar, usually in February or March. During a ceremony, lamas from the three large temples and other monasteries assemble in the city, reciting scripture in groups. In addition, the examination is given for the "Gexi" degree.
Tsurphu Monastery Festival held in March on 15th of the first Tibetan month features ritual dancing carried out by monks, unfolding of a great Thangka.
Losar (Tibetan New Year) and Losar-Connected Festivals
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
Ghost-Exorcising Festival is held all over Tibet on the 29th of the twelfth month on the Tibetan, usually in February . The festival is also called the Sorcerers' Festival. It falls on day before New Year (Losar). Large-scale sorcerers' dances take place at Lhasa's Potala Palace and other monasteries to subdue devils and ward off disasters. At night, in every household traditional means of driving off evil spirits are carried out, such as burning bundles of straw and throwing rubbish in the crossroads. Year's End Dumplings are served for supper.
Gongpo New Year is celebrated on the first day of the tenth month of Tibetan calendar, usually in December . The festival memorializes the brave soldiers who were prepared to defend their homeland and miss the New Year celebration. The festival begins with the presentation of three sacrifices and then continues nonstop with such entertainment as Gongpo dancing, horse racing, archery and shooting.
Lantern Festival in Late February or early March is the last big event of the celebrations of Tibetan New Year. See Below.
Tibetan Buddhist Blessing Festival
The Sera Bengqin Festival is celebrated four days before the Tibetan New Year in February 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. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.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.
Lantern Festival in Late February or early March is the last big celebration of Tibetan New Year season. Huge sculptures of birds, animals, and humans made from colored yak butter are paraded in the streets of Lhasa. Festive lanterns, also made of yak butter, are hung on fences. People dance under the lanterns all night. 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.
The Lantern Festival (Butter Lamp) Festival falls on 15th of the first month of the Tibetan calendar. The festival, known as Chunga Choepa in Tibetan, was established in 1409 by Tsongkhapa to celebrate the victory of Sakyamuni against heretics in a religious debate. In his dream, all beautiful flowers and trees appeared in front of the Buddha. So he commissioned monks to make flowers and trees with colored butter. This tradition has been maintained to this day. Barkhor Square in Lhasa becomes a grand exhibit site for various giant butter and tsampa sculptures. They take the form of auspicious symbols and figures, such as flowers, birds, and animals. Large-butter sculptures depict stories of Buddha and Tibetan heroes. Some have scaffoldings of several floors high. Others are erected at many monasteries, with thousands of lamps made of butter hung on them. During the daytime, the street is crowded with people, paying homage to the Buddha by turning prayer wheels in their hands. By nightfall, the lanterns are full display. The lamp show lasts all night. People sing and dance until the late hours.
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 first 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]
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.
Monlam is considered the grandest religious festival in Tibet. Religious dances are performed and thousands of monks and Buddhists gather for chanting before the Jokhang Temple. Examination for the Geshe degree (the highest degree in Buddhist theology), which takes the form of sutra debates, is held. Philosophical debates are held among candidates for Doctorates of Metaphysics. These sometimes attract enthusiastic crowds of locals and pilgrims.
Pilgrims come from every corner of Tibet, and some even prostrate themselves step by step all the way to Lhasa. They crowd to listen to sermons and make religious donations. The highlight of the festival is the "Sunning of the Buddha" ceremony, during which athangkaof Buddha measuring 30 meters by 20 meters is unfurled on a hillside. The festival is accompanied by lively drama performances, dances, and prayer assemblies throughout the entire period. It ends with the ritual of expelling evils.
The date of the Great Prayer Festival is usually considered as Fourth-11th day of the First Tibetan month, but in different areas, the times vary. For the Three Great Monasteries of Lhasa, it is from the Fourth to the 25th day in the first month. For the Taer (Ku-bum in Tibetan, i.e., 10,000 images of Buddha) Monastery, it is from the eighth to the 15th day of the first month. For the Labrang Monastery, it is from the third to the 17th day of the first month.
Tibetan Fairy Festival: a Festival for Tibetan Women
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”.
The Fairy Festival is a traditional Tibetan festival for women also known as the "Women's Festival". It is celebrated >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.
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, the tenth month 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.
Spring Festivals in Tibet
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.
Water Thanksgiving Festival takes place on the 6th of the third month of the Tibetan calendar, usually in May , in Mianning County, Tibet. The festival is mainly celebrated to pray for rain and children. Lamas and monks place animal figures in the water and open rain gear, making a big racket as they do, to indicate it has begun to rain. After that, they worship at a temple that contains a knife and a boiler symbolizing procreation.
Gyangtse Horseracing and Archery Festival is held in Gyangtse and usually falls on the 15th to the 18th of the fourth month on the Tibetan calendar, typically in June . There are different stories behind the origin of Gyangtse Horseracing and Archery Festival. Horse racing, archery contests, and other games are performed to entertain people. Religious activities also are part of the event. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]
Eagle Adoration Festival is celebrated on 30th of the fourth month, of the Tibetan calendar, usually in June , at the temple of Ben-Sect on Benri Mountain, which is located about six kilometers away from Linzhi County of Tibet. Residents near the temple dress up and gather at the temple. They perform joyous dances and hold contests to welcome 100 eagles. They also pray for bumper harvests as well as prosperity for humans and livestock. Finally, they tell the eagles about the temple, and then go around the temple three times in groups.
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, in February or March , 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.
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.
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.
Saka Dawa means the "Disu month" in the Tibetan language. Disu is one of the 28 astrological constellations of the Tibetan calendar. Because Disu appears in the fourth month, it is called the Disu month. 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]
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]
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