The Tibetan Calendar:
The Tibetan calendar lags approximately four-six weeks behind the Solar calendar. For example, the Tibetan first month usually falls in February, the fifth in June or early July and the eighth in September.
The Tibetan year is crammed with festivals and causes for celebration, with local and national festivals occurring virtually every month, usually at either Full or New Moon.
February-early March :
Losar, or New Year, falls in February or early March of the Western calendar, and is a major cause for celebration in Tibet. Many offerings are made to the gods, with monasteries, shrines and chrotens being visited at sunrise. There is a week-long festival with drama and carnivals, horse racing and archery. Tibetans make a point of spending time with family and friends – special offerings are made to the family shrine deities and it is also common for much beer to be drunk at this time !
The Great Prayer Festival (‘Monlam’ in Tibetan) starts three days after New Year, commemorating Buddha’s victory over six heretic opponents in a religious debate. This festival was originated by Tsong Khapa, the founder of the orders of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama and has become the greatest religious festival in Tibet. Religious dances are performed and thousands of monkls gather to chant in front of the Jokhang Temple. Examinations take the form of debates for the Geshe degree, the higher degree in Buddhist theology. Pilgrims crowd to listen to the sermons and to make religious donations. The celebrations can last for up to three weeks in Lhasa.
On the 15th of Tibet’s first lunar month, a Butter Lamp festival is held, marking Buddha’s miracle at Sravasti. This festival was also established by Tsong Khampa. Lamps are placed on windows, fires lit on roofs and giant butter sculptures, in the form of auspicious symbols and figures, are erected around the Barkhor.
Lamas and monks with trumpets encircle Lhasa during a three week festival to drive out evil and expel the scapegoat.
Being the month of Buddha’s birth (May 4 in the Western calendar), this is an important time for pilgrims. Saka dawa (the 15th day of the fourth Tibetan month) is celebrated as the anniversary of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. In Lhasa, thousands of pilgrims pack the Jokhang. Other events include outdoor opera and the freeing of captured animals.
In early June there is a ritual hanging of a giant thangka at Tashilhunpo, Shigatse.
Later in the month there is a big Incense Festival (15th-24th day of the fifth Tibetan month). Apparently at this time evil ghosts are on the prowl looking for a human spirit to possess, but they cannot take over a spirit who is happy, which is a good reason for Tibetans to dress up, party hard and enjoy bonfires and picnics ! Many Tibetans also go to monasteries at this time of year to burn juniper branches.
The Holy Mountain Festival begins on the fourth day of the sixth Tibetan month and involves people paying their respects at monasteries to honour Buddha’s first sermon, Circumnambulation of Mount Kailash is also a particularly popular practice at this time of year.
The Nakchu Horse Racing festival in early August is Tibet’s most important folk festival, with many people gathering in Nakchu Town and creating a ‘tent city’ for the duration. Revellers dress their horses, as well as themselves, in finery and thousands of herdsmen participate in horse racing, test of horsemanship and archery contests. Alongside the celebrations, there are many other folk activities and commodity fairs
The Xuedun Festival is – literally – the Yoghurt Banquet, originating in the seventeenth century when pilgrims used to serve yoghurt to the monks who stopped for their summer retreat. Opera performances were added to the ritual many years later, in ordfer to amuse the monks in the monasteries. Giant thangkas of Buddhar are unveiled in Drepung, while Norbu Linka is the venue for performances by opera troupes.
The week-long Golden Star Festival, coinciding with the appearance of Venus in the night sky, is the time when Tibetans wash away their greed, hatred and delusions. There is much ritual bathing in the rivers and everyone in Lhasa goes to wash themselves and their clothes, often setting up tents, bringing food along and bathing under the stars. According to legend, bathing in this way can cure sickness of every description.
In late September, the Ongkor Festival (this literally means ‘Looking Around the Fields’) is held in the rural farming villages, with the purpose of ensuring a good harvest. Farmers walk round their fields to thank the gods for helping with the harvest. Tibetan opera, horse-racing and archery are common events and there are many prayers, as well as much dancing, singing and drinking.
On the 22nd day of the ninth Tibetan month, Lhabab Duchen marks Buddha’s descent from heaven after preaching to his mother. All the monasteries are open on this day and many pilgrims gather in Lhasa.
The memorial festival of Tsong Khapa takes place on the 25th day of the 10th month (late November), to commemorate the anniversary of Tsong Khapa’s death. Butter lamps are lit and left on windowsills and rooftops, fires lit on monastery roofs and images of Tsong Khapa carried in procession.
As the old years draws to a close, a festival to drive it out and banish evil spirits takes place on the 29th day of the last Tibetan month (late January). Evil spirits are exorcised into a ritual ‘soup’ and left outside with burning straws. Additionally, houses are cleaned from top to bottom and Cham dances are performed.