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Special> China's Tibet: Facts & Figures> Beijing Review Archives> 2004
UPDATED: April 25, 2008 NO.36 SEP.9, 2004
Tibetan Festivals
Festivals and holidays have always been an intrinsic part of Tibetan ethnic culture, with many of these centuries-old auspicious occasions having their roots in religious or folk customs

People in Tibet find reasons to celebrate something almost every month. The starting or ending of a season, religious ceremonies, farm work, commemorations, social activities, cultural entertainment and sports are all possible reasons for a celebration.

People working in cities have days off on official national holidays and important traditional Tibetan festivals like the Tibetan New Year (Losar) and Shoton Festival (Yogurt Banquet Festival). Farmers and herdsmen, however, have more freedom and flexibility to arrange their work and life so as to attend as many occasions as possible.

Lingka Festival: Getting Close to Nature

On the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, summer is definitely prime time. The weather is pleasant. Trees and grass paint the countryside green. People gather outdoors in almost every open area, along riverbanks and beside lakes. Groups of family members and friends sit around in tents, on blankets or plastic sheets, and relax in the sunshine and enjoy nature. This is Lingka Woods Festival, a traditional Tibetan holiday favored by both ordinary citizens and lamas.

The festival doesn't have a fixed date to begin or end and is based on the legend of the Indian monk named Padmasambhava, who "conquered all evil" in the fifth month of the Tibetan Year of the Monkey.

According to the lunar calendar used by locals, the festival generally starts around the middle of fourth month, reaches a climax during the Shoton Festival on the first day of the seventh month and then ends during the Bathing Festival in the first half of the eighth month.

In different Tibetan-inhabited areas the festival has different schedules, customs and even names. For example, in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu Province, this festival is known as Xianglang Festival.

Worshiping and entertaining are the two themes that dominate festival activities

In Ganan, an important part of the festival is called weisang, a ceremony of baking foods like ghee (clarified butter) and fried noodles in cypress fires. While the food cooks, men will ride their horses around the fire, shooting into the air, which is then filled with a mixed aroma of burning wood, butter and flour. Another activity is to insert wooden arrows, as long as a dozen meters, into wood fences placed at the top of a hill. For Tibetan people, these actions are designed to show reverence to Buddha and wish for a happy and long life.

Lingka Festival is also for drinking qingke barley beer and buttered tea, talking with friends, singing and dancing, playing cards or chess and watching horse racing or archery. Ladies, often in groups, wash clothes in the river. After spreading the wet and clean clothes over the grass and rocks, they will lie on the grass, drinking, eating and talking. Blue sky, gentle wind, bubbling water, all these form a beautiful picture that fascinates everyone in it. Some Tibetan families choose to camp out during the festival. White tents with auspicious patterns are frequently seen on scenic landscape.

People living in cities like Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, have their modern way of celebration. By car, mule, horse, or bike, people stream from downtown to the suburbs for a picnic. Those who remain in town will probably watch TV or videos, go to the theater, sing karaoke, play computer games or billiards.

The costumes people wear during the festival are quite eye-catching. Men's clothes are relatively simple with black or brown as the main color, bordered by colorful trimmings with manual embroidery. Women's costumes, however, are tinted with strong and contrasting colors like red, green, yellow, white, black, blue and purple. Embroidery, gold and silver jewelry, and jade decorate the flamboyant costumes. For Tibetan women, the festival is a perfect time to show their clothes and ornaments, which may well be worth tens of thousands of yuan.

Gyangze Dama Festival

Early morning on July 24, Puzhub and his family got ready for the long trip in their truck to horse racing in Gyangze County. It was the last day of the five-day Dama Festival in that southwest Tibetan county and the family was keen to be at the closing ceremony.

The Dama Festival has been held in Gyangze for the past 500 years. Dama means horse riding and archery in Tibetan. It is said that the festival started in 1408 when a local religious leader held ceremonies to commemorate his honorable grandfather. The festival was reorganized in 1447 to add sports like horse racing and archery that retain their original forms to today.

In the past, the festival was organized around the 19th day of the fourth Tibetan lunar month. Now it more often takes place from July 20 when there is less farm work and lasts for about one week.

In addition to sports like horse racing, archery, shooting and football, the festival boasts a large fair and folk performances, which is a favorite of tourists.

Horse riding is the most attractive activity. Riders are local youth aged from 12 to 18.

King Gesar, a historic Tibetan hero, was said to come out victorious in a horse race, whose winner at that time would become king of the land. It is no longer the case today, but to either the athletes or their families, or even their villages, winning a horse race is still a great honor.

Thousands of people hurried to the horse racing from villages all around Gyangze this year. The racetrack lays along a flat river valley surrounded by a range of mountains. It is 1,000 meters long and constructed from hard dirt ground. On one side is a metal fence that separates audiences from the race. On the other side is a tall wall beyond which lies a gently sloping hill, a great vantage point packed with onlookers.

At 10 a.m., racing began. Riding horses decorated with bright ornaments but without saddles, riders took up their positions and prepared for the 3,000-meter race. There were several heats. At the gun shot, five horses leapt across the starting line and the crowd began to shout. After four preliminary rounds, 12 riders made it to the finals, in which the first six would be awarded prizes.

A 16-year-old boy became the new champion. At the finishing line, his relatives gathered around him, presenting hadas (white silk scarves) to express their respect and congratulations.

In a corner, another boy cried at his loss. A smiling man consoled him.

The winner, who was studying in a junior middle school, said later that another of his dreams was to go to university in Lhasa.

Next to the race track the market fair was doing bustling business. Street vendors wailed out, promoting their wares. Loudspeakers and tape recorders blasted out messages advertising a wide range of goods, creating a chaotic, vibrant atmosphere. Most of the stands offered commodities like clothes, cooking utensils, toys and crafts.

According to local officials, the fair has been largely promoted by the government in recent years and very welcomed by locals. Vendors come from counties and cities to trade with farmers and herdsmen every year. This year, 396 vendors took part in the fair and trade volume exceeded 4 million yuan ($483,092).

After watching the horse racing, Puzhub and his seven family members made for the county square where they set up a makeshift shed with plastic sheets, for protection from sun and rain, and then spread out their drinks and food. Theirs was just one of hundreds of shelters and tents. The joy on faces told the story. It was a time to kick back, eat, drink and celebrate.

A young Tibetan policeman was in charge of the security. According to him, about 30,000 people came here from surrounding villages, less than the average 50,000 because some major roads were under renovation.

There was not much farm work at this time of year, said Puzhub, so they came to the square everyday. "We like it here," he said. His family celebrates the festival the same way every year. His elder son and daughter don't join them very often because they work in the city and have a tight schedule.

The closing ceremony began at 2 p.m. Groups of performers wearing a variety of costumes and representing different areas or organizations paraded to the delight of the crowd. Among them, were knights riding handsome horses, women singing and dancing, lamas playing religious music and children performing modern gym. It was a time to remember.

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