Events & Festivals in Tibet
Life in Tibet revolves around myriad religious and seasonal festivals that the people look forward to all year round. Undoubtedly, one of the best ways to discover the many facets of Tibetan culture and way of life, is to participate in some of these colorful, vibrant festivals. Travel to the grand Horse Racing Festival in Shigatse when women don their Sunday best. Gaze in awe at the revered Thangka Festival when yet another massive Buddhist tapestry is unfurled at the Tashilhunpo Monastery.
With traditional rituals, food, drink, and finery, Tibetan festivals will offer you delightful, indelible impressions. Take a peek into the inner circle of Tibetan life and times, with some of its grandest festivals:
1. Shoton or Tibetan Opera Festival: Coinciding with the end of the seasonal meditation retreat of Buddhist monks, Shoton is celebrated with traditional performances and ritual prayers. It is usually celebrated in mid-summer during July–August at Lhasa.
2. Thangka Festival: Thankga festivals have been important Buddhist celebrations for centuries when huge tapestries (usually three) of the Buddha are unveiled for the faithful to view. It is an important event at Shigatse’s Tashilhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama.
3. Tsongkhapa Butter Lamp Festival: Monks and local Tibetans light up innumerable lamps with yak butter at monasteries and homes to pay homage to Shakyamuni Buddha. Gautama Buddha or Siddhartha was the Indian prince who had renounced the world in search of nirvana. The festival is celebrated all over Tibet.
4. Saga Dawa Festival: Yet another important festival that honors the life and teachings of the Shakyamuni Buddha. Tibetans celebrate the solemn event with ritual prayers, cham dances, lighting butter lamps and raising new prayer poles. The festival is celebrated all over Tibet.
5. Chokor Duchen or Buddha’s First Sermon Festival: As the name suggests, the event celebrates the first teachings of the Shakyamuni Buddha when the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism were revealed and the Wheel of Dharma was put into motion. While it’s still celebrated all over the country, in recent years, its popularity has somewhat diminished.
6. Garma Ri Gi or Tibetan Bathing Festival: A seasonal community event that marks the end of summer. This is when Tibetans, young and old, wash clothes and bathe themselves at river banks before the coming of winter. The festival is celebrated all over Tibet.
7. Tsurphu Cham Dance Festival: The festival commemorates the work of the Indian Buddhist Master, Guru Padmasambhava. The Tsurphu Monastery established by the first Karmapa more than 800 years ago holds Tibetan cham dances with traditional masks, costumes and music for the event. This is celebrated at Tsurphu monastery, which is two hours away from Lhasa.
8. Gyantse Horse Race Festival: A grand social event for the Shigatse region. Other such horse racing events across the country mark community sports and century old folk events. Women and men traditionally turn out in all their finery on the racing greens.
Mystical Tibet awaits you in its majestic gompas (monasteries) with golden rooftops glistening under startlingly blue skies. It awaits you in its grand gold-and-white chortens (tombs) brightening up stark grey-brown landscapes, in its colorful prayer flags strung across high mountain passes, and in its rainbow-hued thangka paintings.
It may seem to you that Tibet stands frozen in time, locked in the incense smoke of bygone centuries and the chants of a 1,000 monks. These symbols of Buddhism are embedded as deeply in the landscape as the religion in enmeshed in the Tibetan culture. Buddhism is an all-pervasive belief system that decrees the towering Himalayas sacred and their deep turquoise lakes holy, where a blade of grass could well be an incarnation of the Bodhisattva. It defines the way of life practiced by its people and finds its outward expression in the distinctive art and architecture of the land.
The true experience of Tibet comes from its people. Be charmed by men and women in colorful chubas — an ankle-length sheepskin or woollen dress worn traditionally by Tibetans — swaying their arms and tapping their feet to lilting folk tunes. Tibet’s music, too, is deeply rooted in its religion. Attend religious and local ceremonies to discover the haunting sounds of ceremonial Tibetan flutes, tall drums, longhorns and cymbals — all intricately designed with Buddhist symbols. Immerse yourself in the mystical sounds of singing bowls and brass bells as monks chant sacred mantras in long prayer halls.
The Tibetan language, spoken by six million people worldwide, is as mystical as the culture of the people. It also reflects their polite, pleasant disposition — Tibetans speak slowly and thoughtfully; there are no hurried greetings, whether one is greeting a friend, a family member, or a stranger. It has its own script, which is similar to ancient Indian scripts like Pali and Sanskrit, with an elaborate writing system and tongue-tying pronunciation.
While you’re here, don’t forget to visit a thangka painting workshop and watch skilled artists as they patiently work on silk appliqué, creating colorful paintings of Tibetan Buddhist deities, fantastic Himalayan scenes or mandalas, often washed with gold paint.
On a visit to a Tibetan monastery, don’t be surprised if you’re served what looks like a bowl of sawdust. It’s Tsampa — dry, roasted barley flour — a staple of the Tibetan people. Dig into the bowl with your fingers and seek out the blob of yak butter and warm butter tea underneath. Then knead the flour into the buttery goodness and relish this healthy dish.
Tibetan cuisine — much like it’s people — is simple, comforting and hearty. It has been perfected over the centuries to sustain a population that weathers one of highest altitudes and toughest terrains in the world. Its mainstays include hardy cereals like barley and wheat, cheese and butter made of yak milk, meat from yaks, goats and sheep, noodles, and root vegetables.
Tibetans enjoy their meals with their families. Noodle dishes and wheat breads are staples while rice is a delicacy enjoyed on special occasions like the Tibetan New Year. Shamdrey, a meat, rice and potato dish, is a particular favorite.
Food on the go for nomadic herdsmen and high mountain trekkers includes tsampa and churpi, a hard, chewy yak milk cheese that’s a bit of an acquired taste. During your travels in Tibet, you’re sure to be served many steaming cups of savory Tibetan butter tea and smoky yak jerky, either fried or dipped in a hot sauce.
Buddhism preaches non-violence towards animals. In keeping with this, Tibetans prefer large livestock like yak, cattle, sheep and goat to fish (Tibet has many lakes and water bodies with ample fishery potential) — the idea is to take as few lives as possible for food. The same belief system ensures that no animal parts are wasted. From spicy dropa khatsa made of beef tripe and gyuma or blood sausages sprinkled with Sichuan pepper, to stir fried chele katsa or beef tongue with fiery chilies, garlic and onions, Tibetans have elevated cooking with offal to an art form!
Find these iconic Tibetan flavors on the streets of Lhasa, in the kitchens of your local hosts, at festive food stalls, and in restaurants and roadside eateries:
- Momos and shabaleys: These steamed dumplings filled with flavored meat are ubiquitous across the region.
- Thenthuk: Also known as ‘pull noodles’, Thenthuk comprises tiny bits of dough ‘pulled’ and thrown into a steaming broth of stewed meat and vegetables. Seasoned with a bit of soy and vinegar, this is one of the most comforting soups you will ever have.
- Thukpa bhatuk: A deliciously savory beef broth with hand-rolled bhatsa noodles or Tibetan wheat pasta topped with daikon radish, cilantro, tomato, and scallion.
- Tsampa: This Tibetan staple comprises roasted barley flour eaten either as kneaded balls dipped in butter tea or as a dry powder with butter tea.
- Churpi: This is a chewy, hardened yak milk cheese that grows on you in mysterious ways.
The vast plains of Tibet, nestled by the rain shadow region to the north of the Himalayas, are older than the ancient civilizations of China and India. Tibet offers much archaeological evidence to suggest that prehistoric humans roamed its plains, although the earliest recorded history of the land dates back to 500 BC, when followers of the old Bön religion called Tibet home. Today, the call of the mountains and valleys is just as strong, as you will discover while hiking and trekking in Tibet’s spectacular landscapes.
The country was dominated by many a nomadic tribe until the 6th century, when the first Tibetan Empire rose from the proverbial ashes and came to rule the Lhasa region. Powerful emperors ruled Tibet between the 7th and 11th centuries and ushered in the age of Buddhism. However, Tibet began to practice Buddhism in earnest only around the 10th century, influenced by renowned Indian religious leader Atisha Dipankara Srijnana. As the old way of life began to crumble, and many a Bön practice was incorporated into this new religion, eventually creating Tibetan Buddhism as we know it today.
In the 14th century, the imperial Mongol and Chinese rule of Tibet began to weaken, thus paving the way for the rise of the Dalai Lama. Formally declared the head of state in the 17th century, the Dalai Lama ruled Tibet until 1959. Travel down the winding alleyways of Lhasa to the red-and-white Potala Palace — this erstwhile home of the Dalai Lama holds sway as the soul of Tibetan Buddhism till date.
Following the invasion of the People’s Liberation Army of China, the 14th Dalai Lama left for India. Ever since, the Central Tibetan Administration has remained in India, overseen from the misty mountains of Dharamshala that the Dalai Lama calls home.
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