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Lhasa's Shoton Festival, Tibet

The Shoton Festival falls on the 15th day of the sixth Tibetan month. It begins with the unfurling of a huge 35-by-30 meters thangka bearing the image of Sakymuni (Gautama Buddha), followed by Tibetan opera performances.

The festival originated in the 17th century. During the summer months, monks retreated to meditate in the monasteries to avoid killing (by stepping on insects) and all other living things that are active during summer. The end of the retreat is celebrated by offerings to the monks by the common people who are mainly nomads. Yoghurts were the main staple as during this period they have plentiful of dairy stock. In fact Shoton is made up of two Tibetan words- "sho" for yoghurt and "ton" for "Banquet".

The festival was previously concentrated at the Drepung Monastery; however the focus was later shifted to Norbulingka, the Dalai's summer retreat. Nowadays the festival's celebrations are held in both places. The festival is celebrated mainly around Lhasa where there is a week-long holiday.

The unfurling of a huge 35-by-30 meters thangka takes place at Drepung Monastery at around 10.30am. However to get a good vantage point, most tourists will go to the monastery very early in the morning- some around 3am. There is no real need to do as one can see the thangka from a distance but if one wants to get close, then it may be necessary.

The road at major junctions leading to the monastery would have already been blocked off to traffic from the previous night. One would have to walk the few kilometers or take a rickshaw to the foot of the hill. A mini-bus operates from there to the monastery entrance for 5 RMB or one can choose to walk the few kilometers up to the entrance. Entrance fee is 50 RMB. There are REALLY a lot of people- the tourists come early and leave after the thangka is unveiled while most Tibetans will come later and hang around longer. Those who planned to come early for good vantage should bring sufficient warm clothing as it is pretty cold in the morning. Apparently there is also a thangka unfurling at Ganden Monastery during the afternoon of the same day, celebrating the festival.

The celebrations move to Norbulingka in the late morning. There are Tibetan opera performances in the compound of Norbulingka all day for five days, known as Ache Lhamo. The Lhamo stories are derived from Indian Buddhist legends as well as stories from Tibetan history. All of them are in Tibetan and most seem to be comedy. The operas are performed on an open stage surrounded by audiences with the actors wearing colourful costumes, some with masks while the singing and dancing are accompanied by drums and cymbals. There are virtually hundreds of Tibetans who would picnic in the shady grounds of Norbulingka, as is the tradition, throughout these few days. The atmosphere is very festive, indeed.

Written by CBP in September 2007

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