One of the oldest and most popular traditional festivals among Tibetans, the seven-day Shoton Festival, or the Yogurt Drinking Festival (Shoton means Yogurt Banquet in Tibetan), kicked off on Monday.
Celebrated at the start of the seventh month of the Tibetan calendar by Tibetan communities in provinces and regions including Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region and Yunan Province as well as Northwest China's Qinghai and Gansu provinces, the festival was listed as a national level intangible cultural heritage in China in 2006.
Taking form during the mid-11th century, the festival first began as a religious event. According to the customs of Tibetan Buddhism's Gelug Sect, monks are not permitted to leave their temples from 15 to 30 of the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar, a time when insects are growing and thriving, for fear of stepping on these small creatures.
After this period comes to an end, monks are finally allowed to go outside, during which time locals treat them to meals of yoghurt and outdoor banquets, as well as performances of traditional Tibetan Opera.
The festival includes a series of events such as the above-mentioned opera performances, displays of horsemanship, Yak races and ceremonies in which images of the Buddha are displayed, which is why the festival is also known as Buddha-Showing Festival.
Buddha showings usually involve temples showcasing giant Buddha thangka, Tibetan Buddhist paintings on cotton or silk, at certain "Buddha-showing platforms" as a sort of blessing to local practitioners. These ceremonies usually start in the morning around eight or nine o'clock, during which time a covered thangka, some several hundred square meters in size, is carried onto the viewing platform. As the cover is lifted, people kneel, pray and offer khata - traditional ceremonial scarves - to the Buddha.
This ceremony marks the beginning of the annual Shoton Festival and is usually followed by Tibetan Opera performances.
The performance of operas during the Shoton Festival can be traced back to the late 17th century. Over the centuries performances evolved and now consist of three shows: the Wenba Dun (Appearance Ceremony), Xiong (Episode Show) and Tashi (Ending Ceremony). By wearing wenba (masks), performers play roles such as hunters, princes and magical beings and tell stories about how heroes defeat evil monsters and bring blessings to the people.
Another must-see activity at the event is the Horsemanship and Yak Race Show, which is often held on the morning of the second day. Different from some international competitions, the horsemanship show is very Tibetan. Audiences watch as six riders standing on horseback form a pyramid and race around the grounds. While the horsemanship show is thrilling, the yak race tends to be more relaxing and amusing because when the whistle blows and the game starts some yaks just decide not to move no matter what their rides do, while others choose to run around aimlessly.
Of course the Yoghurt Banquet wouldn't be complete without snacking on Tibetan yoghurt, which is made from Yak milk. Other traditional food and drink at the festival also includes tsampa (roasted barley flour), butter tea and barley wine.