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The Shoton Festival is one of the most important traditional Tibetan festivals. In the Tibetan language, “sho” means yogurt, and “ton” means banquet, so the Shoton Festival is also called the Yogurt Festival. As well, popular Shoton Festival activities involve Tibetan opera performances and sun bathing of Buddha, so the festival is also called the Tibetan Opera Festival or Buddha Exhibition Festival.
The event is celebrated on the 30th day of the sixth month (usually in August) of the Tibetan calendar and lasts for five days. It is a great way to experience some local activities and learn about Tibetan culture.
The Shoton Festival originated in the middle of the 11th century. Buddhist disciplines forbid the killing of animals and other lives. Therefore in the summer from April to June, lamas could only stay inside their monasteries meditating and practicing Buddhism in order to avoid treading and killing tiny lives. The ban was lifted at the end of June, and when the lamas emerged from the monasteries, locals offered them yogurt to welcome their return to the public. Tibetan operas were then performed, and people got together to celebrate and exhibit the Buddha. In this way, the Shoton Festival was gradually formed.
Revealing the Buddha
During the festival, numerous celebrations fill the streets, monasteries, and squares in Lhasa. The prelude of the Shoton Festival is the Buddha Exhibition at the Drepung Monastery at the foot of the Gebeiwoze Mountain. Lamas carry the giant Buddha Thangka (Tibetan Buddhist spiritual painting), and with the sound of sutra chantings and bugle blowing, they step to the special platform which was built specially for the revealing of the giant Thangka. The chanting and blowing continues, and the giant Thangka is slowly opened up. People who have gathered at the mountain will rush up to offer hada (a piece of silk used as a greeting gift) and try to touch the giant Thangka for blessings. The giant Thangka is then rolled up and carried back, and the people won’t see it again until the next year.
The celebration then moves on to Norbulingka where picnics are held while the people watch Tibetan Opera and enjoy many other entertainment activities. Norbulingka is the biggest garden in Tibet and once served as the summer residence for the successive Dalai Lamas. It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
The chief activity of the Shoton Festival is to watch the Tibetan Opera. People set up tents and hold picnics while drinking yogurt on the ground, watching the opera performances and enjoying the company of their friends and family. Amateur and professional Tibetan Opera performers gather at Norbulingka and present the best that they have practiced for. Besides opera and some other religious activities, there are singing and dancing, horse races, yak races, sports competitions, and markets.
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