The First Day of Shoton Festival:
Shoton festival is one of the biggest religious celebrations in Lhasa, beginning on the first day with a mass pilgrimage to Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery to see their giant thangka. The festivities then continue throughout the week at the Norbulinka (Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama) with picnicking and traditional Tibetan opera performances.
My friends and I started our day at around 5:30am, leaving from Tibet University to catch a bus to Drepung Monastery. All of the roads near to the monastery were closed off for the day so we had to walk for a while in the dark to get to the base of Drepung Mountain, where everyone was funnelled into queues by soldiers and metal barriers.
I thought there would be more tourists there because of how widely the festival had been advertised around the city and on tourist websites, but actually the majority of people in the queue with us were local Tibetans. Maybe the tourists come later when the sun is up and when there aren’t so many people.
The queue slowed considerably as we began around the kora route, and this is where we spent probably close to two hours standing and shuffling, slowly inching closer to the thangka display site. From here we couldn’t see a thing, but we knew by the time that the ceremony had already begun. The ceremony typically begins at around 8am, and the thangka will only be displayed for a few hours, so even though we missed the unveiling at least we would get to see it before it was taken down.
As we rounded a corner in the queue we were treated with the sight of just how far we still had to go - suddenly the whole route was revealed to us, and it was long and packed with people. Our group of friends was separated, and we just had to hope that we would find each other again at the top. I saw paramedics carrying out one old woman on a stretcher from further up in the queue, I don’t know what happened to her but I hope she was ok.
After what felt like forever (thankfully I made some muffins the night before so we had snacks to eat as we waited) we reached the top and could actually see the thangka for the first time. It was stunning. I took dozens of photos on my camera, which were unfortunately lost, but I’m glad that I also thought to take photos on my phone so I have some record of the day still.
We followed the crowds up along the side of the thangka and under it, where everyone was reaching up to touch the metal underside of the wall. Somewhere above us trumpets were played, but these were almost drowned out by the mix of prayers from the pilgrims and commands from the soldiers to move along.
On the other side the crowds began to disperse, taking several different routes either into the monastery, around the kora, up the mountain, or into the ruins nearby. It was raining lightly, but people set up picnics nonetheless. We headed down to join some other friends at the monastery tea house for some refreshingly hot sweet tea and dumplings and to recount our experiences of the morning before carrying on to Sera Monastery for the afternoon.
Next year I would love to get to the monastery even earlier to see the whole unveiling ceremony. Our visas will expire just a week before Shoton festival next year, so we’ll have to try our best to convince the powers above that we should get extensions for the festival. Here’s to hope!