The Shoton Festival is one of the major festivals in Tibet. Every August the Shoton Festival is held in Lhasa; it was first held in the 7th century.
The festival is held at the end of the 6th Tibetan lunar month till the beginning of the 7th month.
In Tibetan, 'sho' means yoghurt and 'ton' means feast. Shoton Festival means the festival when people drink Yoghurt according to the explanation of Tibetan.
Subsequently, as the activities of Shoton Festival gradually changed into an activity with Tibetan opera as a major part, people also called it as the Tibet Opera Festival.
This festival is not only popular in Lhasa City, but also in Gyangtse City. The Shoton Festival in Gyangtse City was established later than that in the Lhasa City, and it is called Semuqinbo by the local people.
The Shoton is derived from a rule set by Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug (Yellow Sect of Buddhism), which decreed that Buddhists should cultivate themselves only indoors during the summer, to avoid killing other creatures carelessly. This was because creatures are most active in summer. This rule must be carried out until the seventh lunar month. Then Buddhists go outdoors, accept yoghurt served by local people, and have fun. Generally summer is the best time to go to Tibet.
Prior to the 17th century,Shoton was an exclusively religious observance. According to the commandments and rules of the Tibetan Buddhism, monks were not allowed to go out of monasteries for several dozen of days in summer until the ban was lifted, when they were able to go out of the monasteries and down the mountains, and local residents would offer alms of yogurt (Sho, in Tibetan) to them. In addition to the yogurt banquet, monks also amused themselves with various entertainment activities. This is the origin of the Shoton.
During the mid 17th century, the activities of the Shoton were more colorful then, and people began to perform Tibetan opera. Accordingly, the fixed Shoton Festival was established. Later, the religious activities and entertainment activities were mutually combined during the festival, the range of the festival expanded continuously from the Potala Palace to the Norbulingka, and people were allowed to enter into the monasteries for Tibet opera shows. After that, the activities on Shoton Festival were so complete that a fixed set of festival observances came into being.
The content of the festival today includes the grand Buddhist and Tibetan opera performances. That's also why Shoton Festival is called 'Tibetan opera Festival' and 'Buddhist Portrait Unfolding Festival'. The festival traditionally kicks off with a Buddhist Portrait Unfolding Ritual, then features a series of performances like yak racing and tests of horsemanship.
Early on the morning of the first day of the Shoton Festival, amongst the sound of horns and the curling smoke, lamas from Drepung Monastery unfold a huge Buddhist Portrait. Numerous followers and visitors cross their hands and lay prostrate in worship.
On the second day of the festival, people carry items such as food and tents before gathering in Norbu Lingka or the Park of the Dragon King opposite the Potala Palace. The opera is performed from 11 o'clock till the twilight comes. People sit around, watching the opera and chanting the name of Buddha.