Shoton (aka Yoghurt) Festival

by AFP/Tashi Dhondup , Apr 2, 2006 | Destinations: China / Tibet

DHARAMSALA, India, March 31, 2006 - Tibetans living in exile in India gathered in this picturesque northern Indian hill resort Friday to seek blessings from the Dalai Lama before the start of a vibrant Tibetan festival.

About 2,000 Tibetan exiles and tourists sat in the sun to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama, before enjoying traditional operas that mark the Shoton festival, one of the biggest on the Tibetan calendar.

The nine-day festival celebrates "the rich cultural heritage of Tibet," said Kelsang Youdon, a festival organiser and director of the Tibetan Institute of the Performing Arts.

Also known as the yoghurt festival, it originated in the 17th century at the Drepung Monastery in Tibet's capital Lhasa where nomads and farmers offered yoghurt, which was abundant at the time, to monks ending their annual summer meditation retreat.

Lhamo or opera was later added to the festival because of its popularity.

This year eight groups of Tibetans based in India and Nepal are taking part in the festival which will showcase Tibetan traditions.

Mingma, a 79-year-old Tibetan exile living in Nepal described Shoton as a "dying culture" which "we must teach our youngsters to preserve and promote."

"It is heartening to see more young people taking (an) interest now," he said as yoghurt was being handed out to the crowds.

Before China's occupation of Tibet in 1950, Shoton was held at Drepung Monastery and the Norbulinka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama near Lhasa.

"The Shoton festival is being held in present day Tibet, but under strict Chinese supervision," said Tenzin Lhaksam, project coordinator at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.

"They (Chinese) allow Shoton and some other Tibetan festivals for propaganda purposes only," Lhaksam said.

Dharamsala is home to thousands of Tibetan refugees who set up their government-in-exile after fleeing to India in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet.

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