The Nepal and Tibet Autonomous Region in China is abundant with tourist resources, including natural scenery, pilgrim destinations, outdoor activities, and colorful festivals. This is a great chance to learn more about their people and culture if you encounter one of these festivals during your tour.
Nepal is known as the country with the most diverse festivals in the world. Whenever you go to Nepal, you might encounter a variety of festivals. According to incomplete statistics, there are more than 300 festivals throughout each year, both large and small. The locals spend a lot of energy on the preparation of these festivals every year. Nepalese festivals are generally related to religion and local calendars, and there is no precise time. There are more than 50 statutory holiday festivals, including the famous Chaitra Dasain, Bisket Jatra, Holi and so on. Here we will introduce some of the most famous ones.
Holi (February or March)
Holi is a traditional Hindu festival that is held once a year in Duba Square of Kathmandu. About 80% of Nepalese are Hindu, so this is a carnival for them. There are many stories about the origin of Holi, but nowadays it is a lively and blessing festival. The passionate people sprinkle colorful powders or waters on each other, which is their way of expressing good wishes and love to one another. It is also a festival to welcome the arrival of spring and the recovery of all things.
Maha Shivaratri (February or March)
Shiva is one of the main gods of the Hinduism. The god of destruction has both dualities of reproduction and destruction, creation and destruction, and presents different looks. Unlike other holidays, Maha Shivaratri is celebrated at night. Before the night, thousands of visitors come to the Pashupatinath Temple for the big moment which begins with priests offering items to Lord Shiva in the temple. They swim in the holy Bagmati River, carry water with their hand and offer it to the Lord Shiva stone stele. Many bonfires are set up, and people stay with the bonfires for the whole night.
Smoking marijuana is forbidden in Nepal, but today is an exception. It is legal to carry and smoke around the Pashupatinath Temple or anywhere in the Shiva temple during the Maha Shivaratri festival. The government even provides marijuana, shelter, and food to the Sadhus who come the Pashupatinath. Some Sadhus decorate themselves in bright colors and cover their bodies in ash while the other Sadhus walk around the Ghats completely naked.
Bisket Jatra (Nepalese New Year, April)
Bisket Jatra is a nine-day celebration held in Bhaktapur to commemorate a victory in the mythical epic Mahabharata. At that time, wooden pillars are erected in the square in the ancient city of Bhaktapur. People cluster in the square, and the atmosphere is warm. The climax of the festival is the huge chariot carrying the god Bhairab while being pulled by people through the narrow old city streets, to the Khalna Tol at the southern end of the ancient city.
Nepalese New Year
Buddha Jayanti (May)
Buddha Jayanti is the birthday of Prince Siddhartha Gautama who finally became the Gautam Buddha and founder of Buddhism. This holiday is not only to celebrate the birth but also the enlightenment and Nirvana of Gautam Buddha. The ceremonies in Lumbini and Kathmandu are most magnificent. Meanwhile, there are also activities held in Bodhnath and Swayambhunath. It is a big gala for followers from all over the world.
Gai Jatra (July or August)
Gai Jatra is held to commemorate the loved ones who’ve passed and to relieve people’s pain over it. There is a parade with children dressed as cows as part of the commemoration. The festival is celebrated for 8 days, but most of the activities happen within the first two days. Although this festival is to remember the dead, it is full of jokes, songs, dances, and laughter.
Teej in Nepal (August or September)
Teej is a holiday for woman only. It lasts for 3 days, and there will be different activities each day. On the first day, Nepal women dress up in red sarees, tika, and tangles to celebrate with dancing, singing, and a feast. Once the middle of the night comes, they will start fasting and offering oblations of fruits and flowers to the temple. It is also a routine to light an oil lamp and keep it on all night, which symbolizes the good fortune and wish. On the last day, they take baths in the Bagmati River to wash off their sins and return home purified.
Dashain Festival (September or October)
The Dashain Festival is to commemorate the Goddess Durga for her great conquest over the evil demons. The festival lasts for 15 days, and people from all caste and creed indulge in various celebration activities. Nepalese, who are working far away, always go back to their home to visit their parents and relatives, clean and decorate their houses. They also put on their new and most beautiful clothes, invite guests, prepare feasts, and build bamboo swings. This is their way of inviting the mother goddess and wishing for her to visit and bless them with good fortune. On the 8th day, they slaughter buffaloes, ducks, goats, and hens to sacrifice to the goddess. On the 10th day, the elders in the family will put tika on their kids’ forehead for good blessing. This will last until the 15th day, which is the full moon day and the end of the whole ceremony.
Situated in the heartland of the Himalayas, Tibet forms a unique culture together with a variety of festivals. Tibetan festivals spread throughout the year, according to the Tibetan Lunar calendar, which lags around six weeks behind the Gregorian calendar, and most of them are closely related to the Buddhism belief. Folk performances and ritual activities are held solemnly, such as Cham Dance, Tibet Opera, Giant Thangka Unfurling, etc. Traveling in Tibet during their traditional festivals would definitely be an extra bonus. Here you’ll find some major festivals in Tibet.
Losar-Tibetan New Year (February or March)
Losar, Tibetan New Year, is a three-day festival combined with sacred and secular customs and traditions. Before the coming of the Losa, the Tibetans clean their houses, prepare new clothes, cook many traditional snacks and draw the eight auspicious on various walls with white powder.
Tibetan New Year
It is their custom to get up early in the first day morning of Losar. After dressing up, they will make offerings to their family shrine and wish for a good harvest and fortune. Their offerings are in the image of animals and devils, but they’re actually all made of a dough called Torma. It’s conventional for the hostess to get the “First Water of The Year” and serve it to the family members. It is considered to be fortunate. At night, the family members all gather together, exchange gifts and have a great dinner together. In the monasteries, Tibetan Buddhists begin the new year by honoring their dharma teacher. In the monasteries, Lamas hold a ceremony to offer sacrifices to the Dharmapala, a unique protector of Tibet. On the second day, they visit their friends and send their best wishes. They carry New Year’s greetings in the form of Qemar, which is filled with fried barley, straw of barley, barley powder, tsampa and flowers made of Yak butter. On the last day, they raise prayer flags from the hills, mountains, and rooftops and burn juniper leaves and incense as offerings. The Dharmapalas are praised in chant and song and asked for blessings.
During the Losar, there are also many public entertainment activities, such as singing competition, running races, horse racing, and wrestling.
Nyingchi Peach Blossom Festival (March or April)
Nyingchi Peach Blossom Festival is held in late March or April when the spring comes in Tibet. The peach flowers in Nyingchi is special with a very high peach tree and luxuriant blooms. The peach tree’s life can last for more than a thousand years. It is terrific to stroll through the dreamy landscape of green barley, and pink flower with dense, forested mountains rising across the valley.
Nyingchi Peach Blossom Festival
Saga Dawa Festival (May or June)
Saga Dawa celebrates Buddha Shakyamuni’s birth, enlightenment, and nirvana. The festival lasts for a whole month in April on the Tibetan calendar. The full moon day is the holiest day of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a month for making merits which can be practiced in many ways. People pilgrimage to Barkhor street, Mt. Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, and other venerated monasteries doing koras, temples, and stupas, donate to temples or individual monks and nuns and give money to beggars. Pilgrims also do koras (walking clockwise) around holy places while they pray and chant mantras. It is also a custom to set free animals which are intended to be slaughtered.
The highlights of the Saga Dawa ceremonies happen in Mt. Kailash. There is a 25-meter high flag pole with massive prayer flags standing in Tarboche. Every year, during the Saga Dawa Festival, the old pole is pulled down, and a new pole with multitudinous prayer flags carrying the best wishes of the pilgrims is erected. The pole has to stand upright and remain steady. If the pole falls down, it indicates misfortune in Tibet. After the pole is erected, people start to walk around it. It is said that 13 circles around the pole are equal to one circle around Mt. Kailash for making merits. But it only takes several hours while the kora around Mt. Kailash takes about 3 days.
Celebration of Saga Dawa Festival at Mt. Kailash
Shoton Festival (August)
The Shoton Festival, also known as the Yogurt Banquet Festival, is a week-long gala which has been held since the 11th century. It is one of the grandest festivals in Tibet. The main ceremonies for this festival are Buddha tangka unfolding, Tibet Opera performing, and horserace and “Guo linka” (spending leisure times in parks).
On the first day of the Shoton Festival, a huge Buddha portraiture of tangka will be displayed in Drepung Monastery. Tibetans throng to the monastery to view this magnificent ceremony. They chant while the tangka unfolds and throw their Hadas onto it to show their regards after it is completely unfolded. They also touch the tangka in person for good wishes. Remember to get up early so you can have a good place to witness this important scene. The other highlight of the festival is the Tibetan Opera show which is an intangible cultural heritage. After more than 600 years of inheritance and development, traditional Tibetan opera performances show the incomparable charm of Tibetan opera art with its unique dance rhymes, bright vocals, gorgeous costumes, quaint masks, and colorful plots.
“Guo Linka” is an important part of the Shoton Festival. People set up tents under the trees and carry all kinds of traditional food and drinks, such as Zanba, barley wines, butter tea and so on in order to have a picnic in Norbulinka or other parks with their family members and friends. The activity is always full of singing and dancing since most of them are very good at it.
Ngachu Horse Racing Festival (August)
Horse racing has always been the traditional custom of the people in northern Tibet. Every year, in July or August, the grasslands of northern Tibet are full of vitality, and the horses are fat and strong, which makes it a good season for horse racing. During the race, the riders dress in festive costumes and gallop with the beautifully decorated horses. The festival always lasts for 3 to 7 days, according to the numbers of participants in the event. Except for horse racing, there are also shooting, dressage, yak racing, Tibetan typical traditional dance and songs, and tugs of war. On occasion, the vast empty grassland becomes a very attractive and exciting arena.