Tibetan cultural heritage took such a hammering during the Cultural Revolution that traditional festivals, once important highlights of the Tibetan year, are only now starting to revive.
Tibetan festivals are held according to the Tibetan lunar calendar, which usually lags at least a month behind our Gregorian calendar. Ask Alpine Eco Trek for the exact dates of many festivals because these are often only fixed by monasteries a few months in advance. To check Tibetan lunar dates against western Gregorian dates.
The following are just some of the more important festivals:
Shigatse New Year Festival held in the first week of the 12th lunar month.
Year End Festival:
Dancing monks can be seen on the 29th day of the 12th lunar month at Tsurphu, Mindroling and Tashilhunpo in this festival, which is held to dispel the evil of the old year and auspiciously usher in the new one. Families clean their houses in preparation for the New Year. A huge thangka is unveiled the following day at Tsurphu Monastery.
Losar (New Year Festival):
Taking place in the first week of the first lunar month, Losar is a colourful week of activities; Lhasa is probably the best place to be. There are performances of Tibetan drama and pilgrims making incense offerings, and the streets are thronged with Tibetans dressed in their finest. New prayer flags are hung in monasteries and homes.
Chotrul Duchen (Butter Sculpture Festival):
Huge yak-butter sculptures are traditionally placed around Lhasa's Barkhor circuit on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The festival is not currently celebrated in Lhasa, though it is Labrang Monastery in Gansu province.
Monlam Chenmo (Great Prayer Festival):
Held mid-way through the first lunar month (officially culminating on the 25th). Monks from Lhasa's three main monasteries used to assemble in the Jokhang and an image of Jampa (Maitreya) was borne around the Bharkhor circuit. The festival was first instituted by Tsongkhapa in 1409 at Ganden Monastery but was outlawed after political demonstrations ended in violence during the 1988 celebrations.
Birth of Sakyamuni:
The seventh day of the fourth lunar month is sees large numbers of pilgrims visiting Lhasa and other sacred areas in Tibet. Festivals are held around this time at Tsurphu (see next entry), Ganden, Reting and Samye Monasteries.
Cham dancing (ritual dancing carried out by monks), processions and the unfurling of a great thangka are the highlights of this festival, from the 9th to 11th days of the fourth lunar month.
Saga Dawa (Sakyamuni's Enlightenment):
The 15th day of the fourth lunar month (full moon) marks the date of Sakyamuni's conception, enlightenment and entry into nirvana. Huge numbers of pilgrims walk Lhasa's Lingkhor circuit and visit Mt Kailash, where the Tarboche prayer pole is raised each year.
Gyantse Horse-Racing Festival:
Currently held from the 15th to 18th of the fifth month (ie around Saga Dawa), though authorities are trying to fix the date in the Gregorian calendar to boost tourism. The fun and games include dances, yak races, archery and equestrian events. A large 480-years old thangka is unfurled at sunrise.
Worship of the Buddha:
During the second week of the fifth lunar month, the parks of Lhasa, in particular the Norbulingka, are crowded with picnickers.
Dorje Drak Festival:
Cham dancing is performed on the 10th day of the fifth Tibetan month at this small monastery.
From the 14th to 16th days of the fifth lunar month, Shigatse's Tashilhunpo Monastery becomes the scene of three days of festivities. A huge thangka is unveiled and cham dances are performed.
Held from the 15th day of the fifth lunar month (full moon) for two or three days. Special ceremonies and cham dancing in front of the Utse are the main attractions. The monastery guesthouse is normally booked out at this time, so bring a tent. Incense is also burnt on this day throughout Tibet.
Chokor Duchen Festival:
held in Lhasa on the fourth day of the sixth lunar month, this festical celebrates Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath near Varanasi in India. Many pilgrims climb Gephel Ri (Gambo Utse), the peak behind Drepung Monastery, and also the ridge from Pabonka to the Dode valley, to burn juniper incense. The festival is also called Drukwa Tsezhi.
Guru Rimpoche's Birthday:
Held on the 10th day of the sixth lunar month, this festival is particularly popular in Nyingmapa monasteries.
On the 15th day of the sixth lunar month, Ganden monastery displays its 25 holiest relics, which are normally locked away. A large offering ceremony accompanies the unveiling.
The 30th day of sixth lunar month is celebrated with the hanging at dawn of a huge thangka at Drepung monastery. Lamas and monks perform opera in the main courtyard.
Shotum (Yogurt Festival):
Held in the first week of the seventh lunar month, this festival starts at Drepung and moves down to the Norbulingka. Lhamo (Tibetan Opera) and masked dances are held, and locals take the occasion as another excuse for more picnics.
The end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth lunar months sees locals washing away the grime of the previous year in an act of purification that coincides with the week-long appearance of the constellation Pleiades in the night sky.
Held in the first week of the eighth lunar month, this festival featuring horse racing, archery and other traditional nomad sports takes place in Damxung and Nam-tso. A similar and even larger event is held in Nagchu a few weeks earlier, from 10 to 16 August. Onkor in the first week of the eighth lunar month Tibetans in central Tibet get together and party in celebration of the upcoming harvest.
More cham dances, from the nith to 11th days of the eighth month, at Shigatse's Tshilhunpo Monastery.
Commemorating Buddha's descent from heaven, the 22nd day of the ninth lunar month sees large numbers of pilgrims in Lhasa. Ladders are painted afresh on rocks around many monasteries to symbolize the event.
The 15th day of the 10th lunar month sees a procession in Lhasa around the Barkhor bearing Palden Lhamo (Shri Deve), protective deity of the Jokhang.
Respect is shown to Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelugpa order, on the anniversary of his death on the 25th of the 10th lunar month; monasteries light fires and carry images of Tsongkhapa in procession. Check for cham dances at the monasteries at Ganden, Sera and Drepung.