Festivals

The Top 5 Festivals to Visit in Tibet

Lhasa locals gather in the Norbulinka Summer Palace to watch traditional Tibetan Opera performances during Shoton Festival in summer.

Lhasa locals gather in the Norbulinka Summer Palace to watch traditional Tibetan Opera performances during Shoton Festival in summer.

For the ultimate cultural experience, nothing can beat a festival in the land of snows. 

There's something so enchanting about Tibetan festivals - the rich colours of the Buddhist robes, the warm smell of butter lamp candles, the melodious chanting of prayers punctuated with droning trumpets and thundering drumbeats, and of course the enthusiastic atmosphere created by the local pilgrims and monks in attendance. 

All across the Tibetan plateau various different festivals are celebrated, each with their unique practices and traditions. From the month-long Saga Dawa (often in May/June) during which thousands of Tibetans renounce meat, to the sunrise unveiling of a giant thangka at Drepung and Sera Monasteries in Lhasa, to the lighting of thousands of butter lamps in towns and villages across the country. Eastern Tibet's Kham and Amdo regions are well known for their horse racing festivals, while central Tibet's monasteries take center stage for a number of important days throughout the year. 

Out of all the festivals in Tibet, we've got a few favourites of our own. Which ones appeal to you? 

Here are our picks for the top 5 festivals to visit in Tibet: 

1. Shoton (Yoghurt) Festival, Lhasa. 
August 11 - 16, 2018 / August 30, 2019

This week-long festival in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa begins at sunrise with the grand unveiling of a giant thangka (embroidered image of the Buddha) that is only brought out for this one day, once a year. Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery - the two largest monasteries in Lhasa - each have their own thangka, which are simultaneously unravelled, but devoted pilgrims who wish to see both usually begin at Drepung in the morning, then carry on to Sera for the afternoon. The ceremony involves dramatic traditional music with much clashing of cymbals and pounding of drums, and a ritual dance by trained monks. Thousands of local pilgrims queue for hours to see the thangka and receive a blessing from it. 

After the first day, the environment relaxes as Lhasa locals all spend a week's holiday picnicking at the Norbulinka (the summer palace of the Dalai Lama) and watching Tibetan Opera performances in the park. 

The giant thangka at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.

The giant thangka at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.

2. Butter Lamp Festival, All Over Tibet
Dec 2, 2018 / Dec 21, 2019 

To celebrate the achievements of the great Tibetan saint-scholar Je Tsongkhapa, people across the country lights tens of thousands of butter lamps in every monastery and ordinary house's windows and rooftops. Known in Tibetan as "Ganden Ngamchoe", it has become famous in English as the "Butter Lamp Festival". Je Tsongkhapa was responsible for creating the Gelug, or "Yellow Hat", school of Tibetan Buddhism, of which the Dalai Lama is now the head. 

In Lhasa, hundreds of locals and tourists pack into the Barkhor Square to see the lamps lit on the roof, balconies, and windows of the sacred Jokhang Temple. In Kangding and other towns across eastern Tibet families spend the day in the monasteries helping to fill empty lamps with yak butter, ready to light at night. 

The Butter Lamp Festival in Kangding, Kham.

The Butter Lamp Festival in Kangding, Kham.

3. Tsurphu Monastery Festival, Lhasa
May 24, 2018 / June 12, 2019 

The head monastery of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, and home of the Karmapa Rinpoche, is tucked away in a narrow valley west of Lhasa. Not many tourists visit Tsurphu, making it an ideal place to have an authentic festival experience, surrounded by Tibetan pilgrims from near and far, immersed in the Buddhist culture. 

For three days monks perform symbolic dances while wearing elaborate costumes and masks, representing and embodying different deities. Interspersed are comedic acts with laypeople dressed as clowns, yaks and snow lions who entertain the crowd to lighten the mood. It's a jovial experience that has everyone laughing. 

Monks in elaborate costumes and masks parade around the courtyard during the Tsurphu Monastery festival and cham dance performance.

Monks in elaborate costumes and masks parade around the courtyard during the Tsurphu Monastery festival and cham dance performance.

4. Yushu Horse Racing Festival, Kham
July 25 - Aug 1, 2018 & 2019

Khampa people are known for being the horsemen of Tibet - wild and strong, fierce on horseback, but lovers of having a good party! Horse racing festivals are a highlight of any trip to the Kham region, and are also popular in Amdo. The horse racing festival at Yushu is one of the biggest events of the year in eastern Tibet, and a unique experience for any visitor. 

For a week, watch as Tibetan men show off their talents on horseback, performing acrobatic tricks such as standing, firing a bow and arrow at targets, and sweeping up scarves from the ground while at gallop. There are also yak races and a full carnival of fun and games for families to enjoy. This is nomad Tibetan culture on display at its finest, as the empty grasslands fill with traditional yak hair tents as families pour into the area, wearing their best new clothes. Mingle with local people, and have the experience of a lifetime. 

An agile rider shows how he can lower himself to the ground, and then pull himself up again, during the horse racing festival in Tibet.

An agile rider shows how he can lower himself to the ground, and then pull himself up again, during the horse racing festival in Tibet.

5. Cho-Kor/ Ri-Kor Festival, Lhasa
July 16, 2018 / August 4, 2019

The whole of Tibet celebrates the Cho-kor festival - the anniversary of the day the Buddha first "turned the wheel of dharma" by teaching his disciples about the four noble truths. But in Lhasa the celebration is unique - hundreds of people take to the mountains to complete a day-long pilgrimage from hermitage to hermitage across the mountains that form the northern border of Lhasa city. This pilgrimage is called the "Ri-Kor", or "Mountain Circuit". 

From early in the morning friends, families, young children and grandparents walk along the old mountain trails from Pabonkha Monastery to Sera Monastery, via 3 or 4 different hermitage retreats. They carry with them new prayer flags to hang from the mountain, and bags full of juniper and dried herbs to burn in piles of incense. Many sing and tell jokes as they walk, and at lunchtime stop to play games as they picnic high on the mountainside with panoramic views of Lhasa city below. 

A Tibetan woman waits for her friends in the mountains, during the Rikor festival.

A Tibetan woman waits for her friends in the mountains, during the Rikor festival.

Bonus: Losar, All Over Tibet
February 5, 2019

The Tibetan New Year is usually a time for Tibetan people to be with their families and at home, similar to Christmas in the west. However, for tourists it can still be a beautiful time to be in Lhasa as people come to the holy city from all corners of the plateau wearing their best new clothes and showing off the fashionable dresses and jewelry of their home region. In Amdo, at Labrang and Langmusi Monasteries, the ceremonies to welcome in the new year go for days and involve displays of painted butter sculptures. People from all of the surrounding villages come to the monastery for blessing and to see the celebrations for the new year begin. 

A Tibetan woman from Kham walks the Barkhor in Lhasa during Losar.

A Tibetan woman from Kham walks the Barkhor in Lhasa during Losar.

Bhutan's Paro Festival: Dancing Deities of the Dragon Kingdom

Bhutan is a country steeped in traditions and ancient practices, which are all put on show for the annual Paro Tsechu, the biggest festival in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

Hundreds of people gather in the cool mountain air at Paro Dzong, the ancient fortress-cum-monastery that is the centre of religious life in the small town. The historic building, officially called Rinchen Pung Dzong and built in 1644, is reputedly one of the country’s best examples of Bhutanese architecture, featuring robust walls and intricate designs.

Men, women and children come from all over the countryside dressed in their finest clothes for this event – men in their gho and women in their kira. Many Bhutanese people wear traditional clothing every day for work and social activities, but the festival is a great chance to show off new or special items.

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The trumpets begin to drone and cymbals clash as the performances begin – monks dressed in elaborate brocade costumes take centre stage and begin their stylized dances. They pace, each step deliberate and carefully placed, raise their arms and flick their wrists, and leap into the air like athletes. Their dances are symbolic retellings of Tibetan Buddhist mythology or particular teachings, but to the uninitiated they make a colourful and mysterious spectacle.

Throughout the day several different dances are performed, each one with unique costumes and masks to indicate which demons or spirits the monks are portraying. The monks spend months preparing themselves for the performance, and don’t disappoint their audience who watch enraptured, certain that just by being in the crowd they are gaining spiritual merit.

A highlight of the festival for the pilgrims and spectators is the arrival of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), embodied by a costumed monk. Guru Rinpoche was a saint, or a second Buddha according to some believers, who is credited with firmly securing Buddhism’s place on the roof of the world in Tibet. The unique Tibetan form of Buddhism was also spread to Bhutan by Guru Rinpoche when he flew to the country on the back of a tiger and landed at the now famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery just outside Paro.

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Finally, at dawn on the final day of the festival an enormous thangka (woven image depicting religious figures) is unveiled, completely covering the side of a building. The pious line up to make offerings or receive a blessing from the thangka, many believing that even just to see it ensures liberation from suffering. After a few short hours the thangka is once again carefully covered and stored inside the monastery building for another year until the next Paro Tsechu.

Paro town is like the cover of a chocolate box – its streets are full of colourfully painted wooden shop fronts, reminiscent of an Austrian or Swiss mountain village. Never colonised, Bhutan remained totally isolated until the mid-1970s, when its border slowly creaked open and tourists began trickling in. Strict regulations for tourism has ensured that the country retains its charm and quaint atmosphere even through the introduction of sealed roads, cars, telephones, and electricity in the 1960s.

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The present-day government encourages tourism, but requires all visitors to join a tour company. It levies a tourist tax of US$65 (NZ$90) a day to help provide free education and healthcare for the entire population. Tourist numbers remain modest, with fewer than 23,000 visiting in the first half of 2016, which pales in comparison to Thailand’s whopping 16.5 million tourists for the same period.

Even at Paro Tsechu, an event that draws crowds from far and near for this once-a-year event, tourists are in the minority and can experience being totally immersed in the Bhutanese culture.

The Paro Festival will be held 17th - 21st March 2019.

Find out more about travelling to Bhutan during the Paro Tscechu in 2019.