LHASA, Aug 28: The usually quiet city came to life with hundreds of people, if not thousands, thronging the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). They came as early as five in the morning for the Shoton festival that started this year, according to the Tibetan calendar, on August 25.
“This is a regional Tibetan festival and it´s celebrated in different parts of Tibet,” says Zou Yuheng, a staffer at the TAR Information Office, explaining that Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, which is the largest monastery in the world, is the main venue for the festival.
Built in 1416, Drepung Monastery is situated at the foot of Gambo Utse mountain. The monastery looks from afar like a heap of rice, and hence its name. Dre in Tibetan means rice and pung signifies collecting. To reach the monastery on the first day of the five-day festival, people have to walk for two to three hours as all motorable roads leading to it are closed off. What makes the journey even more strenous is the fact that almost half the going is up a steep hill. Some people opt to head for the monastery surroundings on the eve of the festival and pitch tents for the night.
In terms of crowd size, Shoton is Tibet´s equivalent of Maha Shivaratri in Nepal. The multitude gathered at the monastery includes people not only from different parts of Tibet but also from various other cities in the People´s Republic of China, just as Maha Shivaratri sees devotees from all over Nepal and even neighboring India.
“The highlights of the event are the unrolling of a huge thangka painting, drinking of yogurt, and family picnics throughout the five days,” explains Yuheng, adding that all schools and offices remain shut during the entire festival.
The thangka, as Yuheng elaborated, is an 80×60-meter scroll painting of Lord Buddha that is carried up the mountain of Drepung Monastery by monks on the first day of the festival and slowly unrolled to finally reveal the eyes. Partaking of yogurt signifies the end of a month-long fast by the monks during which they are confined within the walls of their homes and take only simple meals.
“As the thangka is rolled up again, devotees throw white silk scarves on it as offerings. It is believed that the higher your scarf reaches, the greater the blessings you will be bestowed,” Yuheng adds.
Though the festival is observed across Tibet, there are two places which are the major focus. At Norbulingka in Lhasa also the festival is celebrated with much aplomb. After Drepung Monastery, this is the second major venue for Shoton. Built in 1751 over 36 acres, it is also the Dalai Lama´s former summer palace.
Norbulingka is a popular place for family picnics. On the premises, one gets to see many Tibetans in bright colored tents just lazing around and enjoying the ideal weather. The weather is just right in August, which is why this month is considered the best for travel to Tibet.
Puci, a local who works as a guide at Norbulingka, says many locals come during the Shoton festival as there is a Tibetan opera on from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. People with infants and toddlers in tow spend almost the entire day, or days, at Norbulingka during the festival period.
“Usually, this place isn´t so crowded, and you see a few tourists at most. But during the festival, it´s brimming with locals,” she says.
The children play among themselves while adults indulge in some gossip and comment, laughing as tourists point their fancy tablets and DSLR cameras.
“It´s a mini vacation for families and also a time for different communities to come together,” says Yuheng, adding that locals and tourists alike enjoy the festival that showcases Tibet´s culture and traditions in their full glory.
The festival concludes on Friday.