Tibet Shoton Festival

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 18, 2021

Tibet Shoton Festival, a traditional time-honored Tibet festival, is one of the most important festivals in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, with a history of over 300 years. It’s held on the 6th lunar month according to the Tibetan calendar.

In the Tibetan language, Shoton Festival means the festival of eating yogurt. Shoton Festival is also called Yoghourt Festival. During the Shoton Festival, there are performances of Tibetan operas and large-scale Buddha painting exhibitions. Thus, Shoton Festival is also called the Tibetan opera festival or Buddha painting exhibition festival.

Every year, during the grand Tibet Shoton Festival, all the main genres of Tibet operas from various regions of Tibet gather together in Norbulingka in the western suburb of Lhasa and take several days to make performances and competitions, bustling with noise and excitement. The most solemn performance is the Buddha painting exhibition and the most rejoicing show is the Tibetan opera performance.

Besides, you can also watch yak racing, equestrian performances, and dancing and singing performances. Meanwhile, Lhasa International Marathon Race is held simultaneously. When the festival comes, Norbulingka and its surrounding forests are filled with various bright-colored tents. All the people enjoy the outdoor life, singing and dancing to the music.


Tibet Shoton Festival was simply a religious activity before. According to folk legends, there were more than 300 Buddhism disciplines, among which, the most forbidden taboo is killing. In spring and summer, as the weather starts getting warm and hot, plants grow and insects awaken and all the lives begin again. Thus, during this time, Buddhists going outside can’t avoid stepping on and killing lives, which violates the taboo of killing. 

Therefore, based on the Gelugpa order's precepts and rules, Buddhists must stay inside temples instead of going out and cultivate themselves according to religious doctrine from April to June of the Tibetan calendar. Until the end of June of the Tibetan calendar, the Buddhists are allowed to go outside temples and go downhill. The local villagers will reward Buddhists with yoghourt, outdoor feast, and Tibetan opera at the celebration party, and pray for blessing and harvest, which is the origin of the Shoton Festival.


Before democratic reforms, on June 29th of Tibet calendar, early in the morning, all the Tibetan opera troupes firstly gathered at the Potala Palace and gave a simple ritualistic performance, and then went to Norbulingka. At last, they went back to Drepung Monastery at night. On the second day (June 30th of Tibet calendar), Tibetan opera was performed all day long. On July 1st of Tibet calendar, five opera troupes from many areas, six theatre troupes, one yak dancing troupe, and one playing the drum troupe gave joint performances in Norbulingka.

From July 2 to 5 of Tibet calendar, opera troupes from Lhasa, Gyangz, Ngamring, and Namling took turns to give performances. During the five days of the Shoton Festival, all the officials had days off and gathered in Norbulingka to watch operas. Every noon, they had a banquet and also ate yoghourt.

After democratic reforms, the content of the Shoton Festival became more abundant. During the festival, the nearby Tibetan people of Lhasa would flock to Norbulingka, bringing various cloth-wrappers and highland barley wine barrels in their hands.

Besides local Tibetan opera troupes, many other Tibetan opera troupes from other provinces such as Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, would come to Lhasa to learn from each other by performance. Of course, besides watching Tibetan operas, people would pitch a variety of multicolored tents in the shade and put fruits, wine, dishes, and other festive food on the carpets.

They talked with each other while drinking, singing, and dancing. A number of performing arts groups went there to perform Folk songs and dances to add to the fun. The business department served various goods and festive food for tourists. In the afternoon, people began to make the rounds. In their tents, guests and hosts exchanged toasts with various styles of drinking songs, which was very boisterous.

In recent years, large-scale culture and arts events, colloquiums, and intercommunion meetings are held during Shoton Festival, which attaches much importance to Tibet Shoton Festival. The activities of the Shoton Festival have become more and more complete and a relatively fixed festival ceremony has been formed.

Highlights of Shoton Festival

Buddha Painting Exhibition

As the prelude of the Shoton Festival, Buddha Painting Exhibition at Drepung Monastery (the largest monastery in Tibet) is the most remarkable activity. At 8:00 on Shoton Festival, on the hillside at the back of Drepung Monastery, a huge Sakyamuni (the founder of Buddhism) painting with an area of 500 square meters, which is made of colorful and splendid silk, is exhibited clearly and magnificently. Tens of thousands of believers and the infected tourists put their palms together devoutly and prostrate themselves in worship.

Tibetan Opera Performance

Tibet Shoton Festival can be regarded as a Tibetan Opera Festival in a sense. In the initial stage, during the Shoton Festival, Tibetan Opera was firstly performed in Drepung Monastery on the first day and then performed in the Potala Palace. At the beginning of the 18th century, when the construction of Norbulingka Summer Palace was finished, the activities and performances of the Shoton Festival were held in Norbulingka instead of Potala Palace. Citizens were allowed to watch Tibetan operas watch officials.

These years, Tibetan Opera is usually performed from the 2nd day of the Shoton Festival in Norbulingka and Longwangtan Park on the opposite of the Potala Palace. Tibetan operas are performed constantly from 11:00 until dusk every day. Besides local Tibetan opera troupes, many other Tibetan opera troupes from other provinces such as Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, will come to Lhasa to learn from each other by performance. Local people gather together and are seated on carpets outside, and watch Tibetan operas while talking, having desserts, or drinking barley wine and buttered tea, feeling comfortable and leisurely.

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