Tibet Festivals

Last updated by david at 2013-11-4

Tibetan Buddhist Festivals

Tibetan Buddhist festivals follow the Tibetan lunisolar calendar (i.e., a calendar based partly on the sun's as well as the moon's phases). It is therefore the custom to chart Tibetan Buddhist festivals according to the Tibetan lunisolar calendar, just as it is the custom to do so in a chronological order, beginning with the first month and proceeding to the last. Indeed, one might rightfully call this the Tibetan Buddhist Festival Calendar.

The First Month

Smom-lam (Great Prayer Festival)

Smom-lam is the supreme religious festival in Tibet. It originated in CE 1409 in Buddhism's Geluk sect, whose founder and leader at the time was the monk, Tsong Khapa. Tsong Khapa called upon the monks of the Three Great Monastery of Tibet, the Sera, Dreprung, and Ganden Monasteries, to assemble in Jokhang for a special prayer ceremony. The assembled monks prayed to the image of Buddhism's founder, Buddha Sakyamuni, almost as if this were the living Buddha himself. In time this prayer ceremony developed into a more elaborate public event, stretching over several days, that was observed by Buddhists in towns and villages throughout Tibet, rather than remaining a strictly monastic event.

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In Jokhang itself, the ceremony included scriptural recitations as well as more extended prayer ceremonies, and this practice eventually spread throughout the country as more and more monks participated in this very public event, which by that time had become a fixture in the Tibetan Buddhist religious calendar. Moreover, each time a supreme religious leader, a Dalai Lama, would pass away, the scope and intensity of the Smom-lam ceremonies would increase.

The motivational basis for holding the Smom-lam ceremony during the first month of the Tibetan calendar was a legend by which is was said that Buddha, during the first month of the Tibetan calendar, "conquered", or converted, six holy men of false religions at a place in Tibet near the border with India.

From the "inauguration" of the Fifth Dalai Lama onwards, the Smom-lam Festival was finally fixed to begin on the fourth day of the first Tibetan lunisolar month, and to continue on through the final event, the welcoming of Amitabha Buddha, on the twenty-fifth day of the first Tibetan lunisolar month. The first part of the Smom-lam Festival corresponds to the Mon-lam Chenmo Ceremony described below.

During this most auspicious yearly festival, lamas from Tibet's three largest monasteries continue to gather in Jokhang, where they recite scriptures and hold prayer ceremonies. In recent years, it has become the venue for the Gexi degree examinations – the PhD of Tibetan Buddhism, as it were. Though Smom-lam is observed locally, Jokhang continues to attract pilgrims from every corner of Tibet during the Smom-lam Festival. It is also a time when Tibetans make large donations of food and money to the monks and their monasteries.

On the fifteenth day of the first Tibetan lunisolar month, the day that has been chosen to commemorate Buddha's conversion of the six holy men of false religions, also known as The Day of the Living Buddhas, monks from the aforementioned Three Great Monasteries of Tibet hold a large, public ceremony, where they recite scriptures and pray for the well-being of the country and of its citizens, as well as for the well-being of all mankind, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. Though this ceremony falls roughly in the middle of Smom-lam (it is the end of the Mon-lam Chenmo Ceremony), it marks the climax of the public part of the Smom-lam Festival; thereafter the Smom-lam ceremonies take on a more private note, where the individual strives to reckon himself – his failings, his weaknesses, etc. – with the path of Buddha.

By nightfall on The Day of the Living Buddhas, colorful sculptures of figures, flowers, birds, and animals – all made of butter – are displayed in the flower beds of the monastery. Of the sculptures, some tower magnificently while others rest near the ground, some are suspended in air while others are made with moving parts. To add to the spirit of universal goodwill that characterizes this part of the festival, "butter lamps" (lamps that burn on rendered butter) are placed along the streets, their flames flickering like so many prayers for peace. Residents and pilgrims come out into the street to appreciate the lighting of the "butter lamps", and some dance and sing throughout the night (see the "Butter Lamp" Festival description below).

Mon-lam Chenmo (Great Dharma Transmission Ceremony)

The Mon-lam Chenmo Ceremony, or The Great Dharma Transmission Ceremony, extends from the fourth to the fifteenth day of the first Tibetan lunisolar month, and is in celebration of Lord Buddha Sakyamuni. As such, Mon-lam Chenmo corresponds to the first part of the Smom-lam Festival.

The Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival, also known as the Butter Lamp Festival, is also celebrated annually on the fifteenth day of the first lunisolar month by Tibetans living in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces. It is the last day of the Mon-lam Chenmo Ceremony, which also corresponds to The Day of the Living Buddhas, or the date on which the Buddha was victorious in a debate against heretics. Worshippers assemble in Barkhor Street in Lhasa on this day, where they show their devotion to Sakyamuni all day and into the night. The custom is to light thousands of lamps fashioned into an assortment of designs, including immortals, animals, flying birds, beasts, and flowers, and all "powered" by rendered butter.

The Second Month

The Exorcism Festival

On the seventh day of the second month, a group of worshippers play the role of ghosts in need of exorcism, who are chased across the Darxia River, from whence they may not return for seven days. After the seven days have passed, the ghosts emerge, purged.

Homage to Buddha Festival

On the eighth day of the second lunisolar month, the monks of the monasteries chant scripture publicly, and put a giant image of Buddha, as well as a number of other Buddhist relics, on open display.

Congjue

Another dharma ceremony, the Congjue Ceremony, is held toward the end of the second month. The activities of Congjue are similar to those of the Mon-lam Chenmo Ceremony, only on a smaller scale, therefore Congjue has also been dubbed the Small Dharma Transmission Ceremony.

The Third Month

Reincarnation and Transmigration of Buddha's Warrior Attendant

The Reincarnation and Transmigration of Buddha's Warrior Attendant Festival is held on the fifth day of the third month in the Tibetan lunisolar calendar. It is held to commemorate the first sign rotation of the Tibetan calendar, which took place in the Fire Rabbit Year of CE 1027.

The Fourth Month

Saga Dawa Festival (The Birth of Buddha)

The first Saga Dawa Festival was held near the shores of Dragon King Pond in Lhasa. The festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the fourth month in the Tibetan lunisolar calendar in honor of the birth of Lord Buddha Sakyamuni, and his later enlightenment and departure from this world, having achieved the state of Nirvana. The festival is also partially in commemoration of the wedding between Songtsan Gambo, the King of Tubo Kingdom, and Princess Wencheng of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, as a means of cementing relations between the Han Chinese and Tibetan Chinese peoples. The men, women, monks, and lay folk of Lhapulun forsake food and drink – and do not speak – for a day and two nights. The festival is known as the Niannai Festival among the folk of Lhapulun.

The Sunning of Buddha Festival

The occasion is held yearly on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Tibetan lunisolar calendar in the following areas: Kangding Prefecture; Garze Autonomous Prefecture; and Sichuan Province. The main activity of the festival centers on Zhuanshan, or circumambulation around, and offering sacrifices to, Buddha and the Boddhisatva, as well as praying for blessings.

The Fifth Month

1.Tsenlanggisam (The Lingka Festival)

Tsenlanggisam, or the Lingka Festival, centers around the worship of Buddha, but in an unusual and folk-like way: people leave their houses and put up tents in parks, where bonfires can be seen all night long.

It is said that this festival is observed because in the fifth month of the Year of the Monkey, Lotus Buddha subdued all the evils and monsters in Tibet. There is another legend about this festival, which goes as follows.

Trisong Detsan intended to build Samye Monastery, but he was continually beset by bad luck and therefore failed time and again to accomplish his goal. Fortunately Lotus Buddha came to Trisong Detsan's aid by instituting the Incense Burning and Praying Festival, during which incense was burnt on a large scale in the monasteries and there was much praying for peace and happiness.

Gradually the bad luck that had plagued Trisong Detsan disappeared, and the monastery was finally built. In order to commemorate this happy event, a great ceremony was held at the time of the full moon. It is considered a lucky day, and Tibetans love to observe it by going off to campsites, where everyone enjoys much food, drink, and merriment in the company of others.

Lotus Buddha's Birthday

The tenth day of the fifth month is the birthday of Lotus Buddha. In many places, such as Xiezha in Shannan and Khaqu in Luozha, Tibetans celebrate this day. Each year there is a minor celebration to observe the event, while every twelfth year – or once around the zodiac – there is a major celebration.

The Sixth Month

The Homage to Buddha's First Sermon Festival

The Homage to Buddha's First Sermon Festival is sometimes also dubbed the Homage to the Holy Mountains Festival, because on this day, the fourth day of the sixth month of the lunisolar calendar, Tibetan Buddhists put on new cassocks and take to the mountains to worship Lord Buddha Sakyamuni. One of the most famous mountains for this event in the Lhasa area is Chokpori, a sacred hill in Lhasa.

The Seventh Month

Sho Ton (The Yoghurt Festival)

Sho Ton, or the Yoghurt Festival, is one of the most popular traditional Tibetan festivals. "Sho" means yoghurt in Tibetan, while "ton" means banquet. Although prior to the 17th century, Sho Ton had been an exclusively religious observance, Tibetan opera eventually became a fixture during the festival, which gradually changed character towards the inclusion of more secular cultural events. In fact, the Sho Ton Festival has also been dubbed the Tibet Opera Festival.

The sixth month of the Tibetan lunisolar calendar was a time of meditation and self-reflection among monks, a time when the monks had little contact with ordinary Tibetans, as they were not permitted outside the monastery. Therefore the seventh month was a time for celebration in which the people offered alms to monks who had been cooped up in the monastery during the sixth month. One of the main foodstuffs offered the monks during this month was yoghurt, and therefore the main festival of the seventh month of the Tibetan lunisolar calendar came to be officially known as the Yoghurt Festival, although today it is as often referred to as the Tibet Opera Festival.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century, Norbu Lingka, which thereafter served as the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, was built, after which the Yoghurt Festival was moved to the Dalai Lama's new summer palace, and the festival became formalized. Previously, on the twenty-ninth day of the sixth month, opera troupes throughout Tibet would arrive at Potala Palace, the main residence of the Dalai Lama, and would register with the local government to seek permission to perform at the palace.

Short opera performances were given at the palace, after which everyone, including monks from Dreprung Monastery, would congregate at Norbu Lingka to worship the Dalai Lama. In the evening, the monks would return to their monastery, and on the following day, the thirtieth, the Zang Opera would be performed all day long at Dreprung Monastery. On the first day of the seventh month of the Tibetan lunisolar calendar, various opera troupes would give a large, combined performance at Norbu Lingka. From the second day to the fifth day of the seventh month of the Tibetan lunisolar calendar, opera troupes from Gyantse, An'rang, Nanmulin and Lhasa would each perform in turn.

During the Sho Ton Festival, government personnel were also permitted a holiday so that they might participate in the festivities. All of the officials would assemble at Norbu Lingka to enjoy the opera performances and to pay their respects to the Dalai Lama. At noon, a banquet was held to treat all the assembled officials, and, as a way of paying homage to the monks, yoghurt was also served. The urban residents of Lhasa and the peasants from the countryside would dress up in their finest costumes, then head for Norbu Lingka, with picnic baskets full of food and drink, where they would attend the opera performances. In this way, the Yoghurt Festival became synonymous with the Tibet Opera Festival.

Garma Ri Gi (The Bathing Festival)

Garma Ri Gi, or the Bathing Festival, is a mass activity throughout Tibet that takes place in the beginning of the seventh month. It is an annual festival with very special Tibetan characteristics. For seven days, from dawn to dusk, Tibetans of all ages stream to the rivers, en masse, to take a holy bath. Young and old, men, women, and children all participate. The holy bath is followed by a lingka, or picnic. Tibetans believe that the water at this time of year – which, in Tibet, given its high elevation, corresponds to early fall – is especially attractive for a number of reasons, among which is that the water is cool and pure.

Garma Ri Gi has a history of some eight hundred years. During the eleventh century, astrology was introduced into Tibet, and it was after this that the Tibetan lunisolar calendar was derived, which enabled Tibetans to better determine the seasons. For example, a sure sign of the coming of spring was the disappearance of the Evening Star, Venus, while a similar sign of the arrival of autumn was Venus' appearance. When Venus begins to show herself in the sky during early evening, Tibetans know that Garma Ri Gi is not far off.

The Horse Race and Archery Festival

Horse racing and archery are popular sports on the vast expanse of Tibet's grasslands.

The Horse Race and Archery Festival has a a history of more than 500 years, beginning in the city of Gyantse. In CE 1408, in memory of a local king, King Rapten Kunsang, the Horse Race and Archery Festival was held between the tenth and the twenty-seventh of the fourth month of the Tibetan lunisolar calendar. Later,

Archery competitions on horseback were added to the festival (horse racing and archery had earlier been strictly separate events).

From the middle of the seventeenth century, the festival's religious activities had become largely symbolic. Horse racing and archery competitions became the main raison d'être of the festival, lasting for three consecutive days. Already two centuries earlier, these sporting competitions had spread to other cities and regions of Tibet, such as Lhasa, Qiangtang, and Kongpu.

In Lhasa, the Horse Race and Archery Festival reached its peak during the period of the Fifth Dalai Lama. It commenced immediatly after the close of the Smom-lam, or Great Prayer, Festival, and lasted four days.

Today, the horse races that are held in Nagqu are the grandest of all the racing events of the annual Horse Race and Archery Festival. They are held towards the end of the seventh month and the beginning of the eighth month of the Tibetan lunisolar calendar. Among the more famous Horse Race and Archery Festivals in the Nagqu area, the events that take place in Dangmujiryang on the Damxung Plain, and which last five to seven days, are considered the best. They come closest to the festival of the same name that takes place in Gyangze every year.

The Eight Month

On Kor (The Harvest Festival)

On Kor, or the Harvest Festival, is the occasion on which Tibetans give thanks for their harvest. "On" means "field" in Tibetan, while "Kor" means "twining around". In practice, "Onkor" translates to "twining around the highland barley". The festival is popular especially in the rural areas of Shannan, Lhasa, and Shigatse. In general, On Kor is celebrated at the end of the seventh month of the lunisolar calendar, just before peasants begin to harvest their crops.

It is said that the On Kor Festival has a history of more than 1500 years, and first became popular in the valley area of the middle and lower reaches of the Yalu Tsangpo River. In order to ensure a bountiful harvest, the Tibetan King, Sbu-de-gung-rgyal, asked the patriarch of the Bon religion for guidance. Accordingly, the Bon partiarch taught the peasants to walk around their fields beseeching Heaven for a bountiful harvest, and thus began the festival of On Kor.

Towards the end of the eighth century, Tibet reached its pinnacle of Buddhist thinking, when the Nyingmapa sect came to represent Tibet. The On Kor Festival was therefore tinged with the unique religious features of the Nyingmapa sect. Leading the processions, Nyingmapa monks would hold Buddhist relics before them and recite the scriptures. After that, On Kor formally became a traditional Tibetan Festival.

Over time, the form and substance of the On Kor Festival changed, and the festival became somewhat less religious, incorporating strictly secular elements as well, such as horse riding, archery, and Zang Opera. Today, Tibetans of all ages and of all degrees of religious fervor dress up for the On Kor Festival and bear a "harvest tower", or sheaf of highland barley, before them, while musicians beat drums and gongs and everyone joins in to sing odes as they walk around the fields praying for a bumper harvest. This somewhat religious ceremony is then followed by horse racing, archery, Zang Opera, and dancing – and, of course, an outdoor banquet.

The Ninth Month

The Grant God Festival

On the twenty-ninth day of the ninth month in the Tibetan lunisolar calendar, Tibetan Buddhists go to worship Buddha; all are charitable and chant sutras.

The Tenth Month

Belha Rabzhol (The Heavenly Maid Festival)

Belha Rabzhol, or the Heavenly Maid Festival – also variously called the Goddess Festival and the Celestial Mother Festival – is celebrated each year on the fifteenth day of the tenth month in the Tibetan lunisolar calendar. In conjunction with Belha Rabzhol, various religious activities are held in temples throughout Tibet, one of the most popular being ceremonies where Tibetan women pray for a happy marriage, as well as true and long-lasting love.

Tsong Khapa Festival

Tsong Khapa is a festival held on the twenty-fifth day of the tenth month of the Tibetan lunisolar calendar to commemorate the death of Tsong Khapa, the famous teacher of the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Torches are lit on the rooftops of monasteries and lamps are lit in the windows of ordinary homes, while everyone chants prayers on this night, in memory of Tsong Khapa.

The Twelfth Month

The Exorcising Evil Spirits Festival

The Exorcising Evil Spirits Festival falls on the twenty-ninth day of the twelfth month of the Tibetan lunisolar calendar. During this festival, large-scale "sorcerer" dances are performed at monasteries and smaller-scale dances are performed in private households, in order to drive away evil spirits and to welcome the approaching New Year. This festival is as important to the impending lunisolar new year festival, or Smom-lam, as is the cleaning and decorating of the monastery or of one's house.

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