Summer in Tibet is traditionally the time of the festivals and there are more festivals held in the summer months than at any other time of the year. As the monsoon rains start to fall on the plateau, the people get ready for the festivals, airing out their best clothes and preparing for the fun and the religious activities that are to come. The festivals in Tibet mostly occur in summer, especially cultural festivals.
In Tibet, the Tibetan lunisolar calendar is normally around 5-6 weeks behind the Gregorian calendar and for some, it is hard to know which festival is when, since they are all dated according to the Tibetan calendar. The Tibetan calendar normally starts in February, and the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar (around the middle of June) is normally the time when the summer festivals start.
The first major festival of the summer months is in June and is the Zamling Chisang Festival, or Universal Prayer Day, which celebrates the subjugation of the demons that inhabited the site of the Samye Monastery in Shannan Prefecture of Tibet. When building work on the monastery was halted due to the interference of demons and tulku, the great Buddhist master, Guru Rinpoche, performed a sacred dance that forced the malevolent spirits to stop and made them the protectors of Tibet.
Choekhor Duchen Festival – July 16
The Choekhor Duchen festival is celebrated to honor the day that Buddha first taught the Four Noble Truths in Sarnath in India. Normally held on the fourth day of the sixth month in the Tibetan calendar (July 16, 2018), it is a time for the nunneries and monasteries to hold special prayers and the Tibetan people visit the monasteries to prostrate, make donations to the sangha, and light butter lanterns as offerings.
Gyantse Horse Racing Festival – July 18
Originating in around the 15th century, the Gyantse Horse racing festival usually takes place when the pastures have turned a lush green and the grasses are growing. It is a time when the best horsemen of the region turn up in their finest attire to take part in some of Tibet’s most thrilling horse races and exhibitions. Held in the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar, it started as a religious festival, and the horse racing was added later. Now, the festival also includes Tibetan opera shows, music and dancing, track and field games, archery, wrestling, and shooting and is a popular festival for the locals of Shigatse Prefecture. It is also a great time to have a picnic on the grasslands with your family.
Tashi Lhunpo Thangka Display – July
Thangka is huge paintings of Buddhist icons and deities painted on silk cloth, some of which can be a hundred meters tall. Held at the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, it is an annual festival where three huge thangkas are unveiled for the people to admire and pray at. As the thangkas are brought from the monastery and unfurled on the giant frames, the people take this opportunity to pray and throw khada on the paintings. The thangkas in the monastery are unveiled one each day, with day one seeing the thangka of the Amitabha Buddha being unveiled, day two is the thangka of the Sakyamuni Buddha, and day three is the Maitreya or Future Buddha.
Jyekundo Horse Festival – July 25
Also known as the Yushu Horse Racing festival, Jyekundo is the capital town of the Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture in southern Qinghai Province, which was once a part of the Kham region of Tibet. Every summer, the locals gather to attend the stunning event, as colorful tents surround the grassy racing grounds of the prairie. The festival includes shows of horsemanship, horse and yak racing, and horseback archery contests, and is one of the most popular horse racing events in the Kham region. It also includes many Tibetan operas, lots of dancing and singing, and a Tibetan women’s fashion show.
Ganden Thangka Unveiling Festival – August
Held at the ancient Ganden Monastery, once the leading monastery of the Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, the Ganden Thangka Unveiling Festival is one of the major festivals of the Tibetan calendar. Every year, thousands of Tibetans make the journey to the ruins of the monastery to perform the ritual kora around the site and then enter the courtyard to be blessed and pray before heading outside to watch the thangka being unveiled on the hillside behind the monastery. One of the major highlights of the festival season in Tibet, many of the attendees travels on foot for hundreds of kilometers to get there before dawn for the unveiling ceremony. Watching the sunrise from the hill nearby on the morning of the unveiling is one of the most stunning sights in Tibet.
Karma Dunba, the Bathing Festival – August 9
In Tibet, it is believed that when the sacred planet Venus appears in the sky, it is the time when the waters of the rivers and lakes become pure and blessed and have the ability to cure diseases. The planet hangs in the sky of the northern hemisphere for around one week in early August, or around the end of the sixth month and beginning of the seventh month in the Tibetan calendar. In Tibet, at this time, many people head for the lakes and rivers to bathe in the pure waters and be cleansed of their illnesses and to wash away the grime of the previous year.
Nagqu Horse Racing Festival – August 10-16
Horse racing is a popular sport in Tibet, and one of the most popular of all the horse racing festivals in Tibet is held in Nagqu Prefecture, in northern Tibet. The grandest of all the horse racing events in the north of Tibet, it is held in the seventh month of the Tibetan calendar, when the grasslands are rich and fertile and the weather is at its best for the event. For weeks before the festival, Tibetan herders and their families make the trek to the festival site on the Nagqu grasslands just outside the city of Nagqu, the seat of the Prefecture. Consisting of many events of horse racing, as well as exhibitions, dancing, singing, games, archery, wrestling, and so much more, the event can last from three to seven days, and the more participants in the events the longer it goes on for.
Shoton Festival – August 11-17
A week-long festival held all across Tibet, the Shoton Festival is one of the most important festivals in the Tibetan calendar and is held in celebration of the end of the 100-day meditation period of the Tibetan Buddhist monks. Originating more than four centuries ago, it began when the Gelug School insisted that, for a period of 100 days, all monks and lamas would only practice Buddhism inside their monasteries, to avoid the killing of the small creatures that walk on the ground. AS the 100-day period ended, the locals would come out to greet the monks and lamas and offer them milk curds as thanks for their sacrifice. Today, the cruds have been replaced with yogurt, a popular food in Tibet, hence the festival is also known as the Yogurt Festival. The modern festivities also include a thangka unveiling at many monasteries, as well as Tibetan opera, dancing, singing, and games.