This year Shoton Festival falls on 21 Aug 2017 of solar calendar. Shoton Festival, also known as the Tibetan Opera Festival, is one of the grandest traditional festivals in Tibet. In Tibetan language, “sho” means yogurt, or sour milk; “ton” means banquet. With the passage of time. Shoton Festival has become a festival of traditional Tibetan opera. It is celebrated mainly in Lhasa and Shigatse.
Shoton Festival was a purely religious event prior to the seventeenth century. The founder of the Gelugpa (Yellow Sect of Buddhism), Tsongkhapa, ruled that lamas must remain in monasteries between the fifteenth and thirtieth day of the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar so as to avoid treading on and killing small creatures. The ban was lifted on the first day of the seventh month of Tibetan calendar. On this day all lamas can go out, accept yogurt served by local people and then enjoy the entertainment of folk songs and dances. This is said to be the origin of Shoton Festival.
In early times, Drepung Monastery was the center of Shoton Festival and it was known as the Drepung Shoton Festival. In the middle of the 17th century, the fifth Dalai Lama moved his residence from Drepung to Potala Palace and added opera performance to Shoton Festival. At that time, Tibetan operas were first performed at Drepung Monastery on the thirtieth of sixth month of Tibetan calendar and move to Potala Palace to be performed for the Dalai Lama on the next day.
However, after Norbulingka was built in the early 18th century as the summer residence of Dalai Lama, it soon became the main venue of Shoton Festival. Lay people have since been permitted to visit Norbulinka Park during Shoton Festival days.
During Shoton Festival, there are stage performances and other recreational activities in Norbulingka over several days, making for a lively atmosphere. Tibetan opera troupes or folk dance groups from Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan all come to perform. Tents of thousands of people, carrying colourful cloth bundles and buckets of highland barley wine, arrive in Norbulingka. On carpets beneath the trees or beside multi-coloured tents, with wine, food and desserts outside, they chat, drink, sing and dance all day.
In recent years Shoton Festival has expanded to include major culture events, academic seminars and trade opportunities.
Lhasa’s streets are suddenly filled with a boisterous atmosphere at Shoton Festival. Thousands of Buddhist devotees from all over Tibet come to Lhasa to worship and offer yoghurt to the lamas. It is also a good opportunity to watch Tibetan operas.
Giant Thangka unveiling at Drepung Monastery
The prelude of Shoton Festival is the Buddha exhibition in Drepung Monastery. As down broke out beyond the mountain peaks, the foot of the hill is a sea of worshippers. Monks on the roof of a three-storey palace building started blowing their long, silver horns. All across the ravine, people start burning fragrant incense, and throw tsamba (barley) and holy water into the air. With the sound of a horn reverberating through the valley, about 100 lamas will carry the large-scale Thangka portraying Qamba Buddha (or Maitreya) out of the Coqen Hall of Drepung Monastery and walk towards the west of Drepung Monastery where a special platform is set up for the giant Thangka exhibition. At that moment, the mulberry smoke rises from all directions, horns resound and scripture chanting starts. The large Thangka will then be slowly opened up. The entire silk-woven picture of the Buddha, the Giant Thangka, will be unfolded before the crowd, so huge in size it could cover a six- or seven-storey building. Tens of thousands of worshippers at once prostrated themselves before it, their chanting of prayers rising and falling like the roaring waves of a tumultuous sea.
At noon, the silver horns blows again and several hundred ecclesiastics, clad in a purplish red kasaya, roll up the huge portrait and in two lines, one on either side, carriy it along the undulating path toward Drepung Monastery. People will not see this giant Thangka until the next year. From afar, the scene was like a white dragon swimming along, with worshippers on either side of the path pressing towards it, throwing tsamba at it or offering hatas (white silk scarves) to it. The worshippers touched the Buddha’s portrait with their foreheads or simply joined the carriers, all in the hope that their acts of devotion would win them better a round in their Next life.
In the Tibetan language, the word “shoton” means sour milk banquet. After the Giant Thangka unveiling at Drepung Monastery, Tibetan families will have a picnic in Norbulingka, which is a national park opened for public nowadays. The dressed-up Tibetan people come to Norbulinka early in the morning, set up colorful tents, put the mat on the ground, prepare food and beverages. They celebrate the festival by singing, dancing, and eating the symbolic food Yogurt, drinking yak butter tea and barley wine with family and friends.
Another important part of Shoton Festival is Tibetan Opera. One can’t miss it. Starting from the second day of Shoton Festival, Tibetan Opera is performed from about 11:00am until dusk every day at Norbulingka and a Zang Gyab Lukhang Park of Potala Palace. Due to the limited time, the performances are only a distillation of actual Tibetan Opera. Real Tibetan Operas may go on for several days. During the Shoton Festival, the Tibetans bring along the old and the young. The Norbulingka and other parks of Lhasa are dotted with colorful tents.
Shoton Festival is an exotic and extraordinary experience for anybody. If time and money allows you only one trip to Tibet during this life-time, come during Shoton Festival to make the most of it. Shoton Festival falls on 21 Aug 2017, please get in touch with us soon to get the best deals.