Tibetan Shoton Festival

Celebrating Under Chinese Rule

By Avner Ofer


It was a beehive of commotion. People frantically prepared for the annual Shoton (sour milk drinking) festival in Lhasa, Tibet, as the queen bee, China, directed and controlled the entire affair.

Everyone in Tibet knew about the upcoming festival - not a big surprise considering the huge media coverage provided by the Chinese. At first I was ignorant to the motives behind this extensive advertising, but as the festival progressed into its final days the evidence was clear. China wanted the international community to experience the festival. Lhasa was overwhelmed with foreign journalists, reporters and television broadcasters.

Tibetan dancers
I arrived back in Lhasa in time for the second day of the festival. I celebrated within the grounds of Norbu Lingka Palace (the Dalai Lama's summer home). The high walls that surround the palace used to keep the public out. The beautiful gardens, ponds, meadows and pavilions were only opened during the Shoton festival. Today, many visitors arrive at Norbu Lingka year round to witness and give homage to the Dalai Lama's summer palace, but especially during the Shoton festival the palace explodes with people.
Along the tree-lined lanes, vendors sold a wide variety of goods. Shirts with Tibetan motifs such as a picture of the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace or illustrations of Tibetan Yaks were a huge success with tourists. Other objects for sale included postcards, books, religious objects and, of course, food.
At one of the stalls, a man peddled the Tibetan version of "guess where the card is." The man, a young urban Tibetan, held a piece of rope in his hands. After manipulating the rope with some quick hand movements, people would bet whether a knot would form when the two ends were pulled. Of course his obvious accomplices played and won the game to attract naive customers.
Tent decoration


After strolling among different booths and enjoying some Tibetan momos (fried pockets filled with vegetables), I made my way to the open grass area. Scattered about were large tents decorated with Tibetan religious motifs. Under these canopies, performances were held throughout the four-day festivity.

I crowded with other onlookers near the largest of the tents as the daily shows started. The amount of foreigners was staggering, including many foreign media. They were given center stage views to capture the events, blocking the view for common folk like myself and the hundreds of Tibetans. Although, the real epitome of rude behavior, lack of respect and display of power was with three high-ranking Chinese military personnel as they casually made their way past the audience, crossed center stage and took their places at the front row.

This act alone exemplified the Tibetan situation. Historically the Shoton festival was a sacred event for celebrating the religious ritual of purification. After three weeks of staying indoors and occasional fasting, the people celebrated the end with yogurt (hence the name) and joyous festivity. Seeing how the celebrations turned into Chinese propaganda deeply saddened me. Yet, the Tibetans are resilient people and made the best of the situation.


The performances were diverse and included traditional Tibetan dance, music, opera and drama. There were masked dancers, storytellers and Tibetan theater groups performing historical and religious stories. All of the performers wore traditional Tibetan dress, had elaborate costumes and entertained the audience. Unfortunately, their performances showed little joy, passion or energy.

After witnessing other celebrations performed within a more authentic setting, it seemed these shows lacked the power that characterizes Tibetan festivals. Furthermore, the program was obviously arranged in part by the Chinese since some of the performances were not Tibetan. A Korean drumming and dance group, as well as traditional Chinese dancers took center stage, exacerbating the insult.

Tibetan opera
Tibetan Opera

Tibetan Drama

Tibetan woman Woman and child Korean drummer
Without a doubt, the last day of the festival proved what kind of control the Chinese queen bee has over Tibet. During the previous days, rumors surfaced regarding a special event that will take place at the conclusion of the festivities. Speaking with the owner of a small Tibetan restaurant, I discovered the secret. She led me to the kitchen, far away from eavesdropping ears, and told me the story. Since the Chinese forcefully took over Tibet and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India in 1959, the Shoton festival was extremely restricted. Prior to that year, the festival included a huge Thangka (tapestry) display from the Potala Palace. The rumor had it that the Chinese (for international diplomacy sake) would allow the Thangka display to occur for the first time in over thirty years.
Understandably, the Tibetans anticipated with excitement this sacred moment, but shared a common sense of melancholy for their exiled leader. The unfolding of events during that day added to the sadness of many.
Thousands of pilgrims, journalist, locals and Chinese channeled their way toward the front of the Potala Palace, a thousand-room palace that stood high on a hill overlooking the entire city. After a while, no room was left on the street in front of the Potala. Everyone was waiting patiently for the huge Thangka to be lowered from the roof.
Then, about ten Chinese soldiers moved passed the crowd to the front of the street. With arms raised, they motioned everyone to back off the street and onto the narrow sidewalk. Slowly, people crammed farther and farther back. I was angry and frustrated. Ten soldiers were controlling the actions of thousands of people and I saw no justification for their actions. It was another display of power, dominance and control.
Potala Palace Thangka Potala palace Thangka
Furious with the situation, I walked behind the building facing the Potala. I hoped to find a better vantage point, preferably on one of the roofs. As I walked through the residential courtyards, a small Tibetan girl motioned for me to follow her. She led me to the third floor where she lived in a very narrow and small apartment. Her mother welcomed me in with the traditional "tashi delay" (hello or good fortune) holding both hands together and bowing slightly.
As luck would have it, their apartment window directly faced the Potala palace. On the window sill, the mother lit some incense in a silver urn, preparing for the ceremony. The trumpets began howling from the roof of the Potala, indicating the start of the event.
The unveiling of the Thangka lasted a short time. An enormous yellow (a sacred color in Tibet) tapestry was lowered from the roof. It was opened like a curtain to reveal the Thangka, a woven tapestry inscribed with Buddha figures and sacred symbols. People solemnly prayed, holding their clapped hands to their faces, spun their prayer wheels and slowly dispersed.
I joined the mother and daughter in silent prayer. I left them a picture of the Dalai Lama which they immediately blessed by lifting to their forehead. We parted with another "tashi delay."
It was difficult to accept the total control and power that the Chinese have in Tibet, and especially in Lhasa. It was harder yet to fathom the notion that the Chinese would use a Tibetan festival and a sacred ritual of the Thangka as a propaganda tool. The entire festival was used as a method to increase China's status with the west, namely by displaying their supposedly openness to religious freedom.
However, the cliche stating that every cloud has a silver lining might have some validity in this case. The amazing hospitality and friendship I encountered from many Tibetans was my personal silver lining during this festival. The true silver lining is the Tibetan people's way of life. Their continued belief in religion, practicing their beliefs, celebrating their culture and surviving as a people is what makes them unique.




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