The Saga Dawa Festival of Tibet

escapehimalayaFeb 27th 2024
[TOC] Tibet is called the “Roof of the World” and the rich Buddhist culture and tradition of Tibet is known far and wide. With opulent and intricate historical and cultural events pertaining to Buddhism, Tibet is famous for its festivals and Buddhist ritualistic practices. Tibet has various festivals that are commonly performed to worship Lord Buddha throughout the year. Along with Losar- the Tibetan New Year, the Saga Dawa Festival is celebrated to remember and commemorate the birth, life and death of Lord Buddha. Preparations for the festive events are manifested by special offerings to family shrine deities, painted doors with religious symbols and other colorful and jovial jobs to prepare for the event in the country. The Saga Dawa festival is celebrated for a whole month and is one of the most significant festivals celebrated in Tibet. But the fifteenth day of the month of the festival is even more special as Shakyamuni Buddha was born, attained Nirvana (enlightenment) and stepped into Parinirvana (death) on the day. Tibetans believe that immense merits can be accumulated during that particular day by giving generously to the poor, not killing animals or eating meat. Monks chant in monasteries, Cham dancing is performed and many other religious activities dominate the occasion. The Saga Dawa festival is also called the “Qiong Ren Jie” in Chinese which translated to “Day of the Poor”- named as such because the Tibetan people’s generosity towards the poor is well-known.

Tibet- A brief overlook

Saga Dawa festival

(The Yangtze River that originates from the Tibetan Plateau)

Tibet is the highest region on Earth with an average elevation of 4,900 meters. Emerging in the 7th century, Tibet’s economy is dominated by subsistence agriculture, and a growing tourism industry. The dominant religion in Tibet is the Tibetan Buddhism whose traditional and cultural influences reach Nepal’s provinces and areas as well, like Upper Mustang. In addition, there is Bön, which is similar to Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is a primary influence on the art, music and festivals of the region. With the architecture reflecting Chinese and Indian influences, Tibet is an exotic land that is brimming with religious significances. Tibet also has some of the world’s tallest mountains, with several of them making the top ten List. Mount Everest, located on the border with Nepal is at 8,848 meters- the highest mountain on Earth. Several major rivers also have their sources in the Tibetan Plateau as well. Rivers like the Yangtze, the Yellow River, the Indus River, Mekong, Ganges, Salween and the Brahmaputra River originate from the Tibetan plateau. The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, along with the Yarlung Tsangpo River, is among the deepest and the longest canyons in the world. Tibet has also been called the “Water Tower” of Asia with the Indus and the Brahmaputra Rivers originating from a lake in western Tibet, near Mount Kailash. saga dawa festival

(Mount Kailash, a sacred holy mountain that is a pilgrimage site for Hindu and Buddhist people)

The Mountain is a holy pilgrimage site for both Hindu and Tibetan people. The Hindus consider the mountain to be the abode of Lord Shiva. The Tibetan name of the mountain is “Khang Rinpoche” and Tibet has numerous high-altitude lakes.

The Saga Dawa Festival

“Saga” means “the fourth” and “Dawa” refers to “month” in Tibetan. Enthusiastically celebrated on the Full Moon day of the fourth Tibetan Lunar month, the Saga Dawa festival is celebrated by everyone in Tibet. There is the recitation of prayers and monks pray on holy beads. The entirety of the country of Tibet is deeply immersed in the festival and has a shroud of an amazing spiritual atmosphere. According to Buddhist literary sources, the festival of saga Dawa is celebrated to highlight the day when Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. The most important part of the festival is replacing the ‘Tarboche flagpole", the famous huge pole that lies on the way the Kailash round in a place called the “Kailash Kora”. Every year, the flagpole is brought down and a new pole is erected in the place. The pole replacing event is watched by all locals and foreigners alike with utter fascination and amusement. People from all over the planet flock to Tibet to attend the Saga Dawa festival and to attach their small prayer flags to the pole. The whole event is guided and ritualistically instructed by a Lama (a Buddhist teacher). The flagpole should stand upright or else it is believed to bring bad luck to Tibet. The tall flagpole has hundreds and thousands of multicolored prayer flags hanging from it. Each prayer flags represents a prayer that someone wants fulfilled. The flags are left to fly in the air in hopes of an answer to the prayers. Because of the importance of the pole standing upright, only the best pole-setter is allowed to perform the duty. The scenery around the area of Kailash Kora is rugged and beautiful adorned with rocky cliffs and high snow-capped mountain peaks. saga dawa festival

(Colorful Prayer Flags that are hoisted up on the Tarboche Flagpole)

According to the Tibetan tradition, when Buddha was dying, he instructed one of his followers not to honor him merely with flowers, incense and lights after he died but by striving to follow his teachings about living a noble life and being kind and compassionate. He urged people not to grieve about his death but to remember that all compound objects like the human body must eventually disintegrate. In various Buddhist countries, people celebrate the holiday in different ways and on different days. In china, non-Tibetan Buddhists tend to celebrate the holiday on May. In Tibet, the people celebrate the festivals on June. Some of the main activities involved in the Saga Dawa festival is going to temples, raising the Tarboche flagpole and lighting lots of butter lamps for the occasion.  Along with remembering Buddha and his activities, the main point of the festival is to pray. It is said by many that the goal of the festival season is to pray for the long life of the holy gurus of all traditions, for their survival and for the spread of Buddha’s teachings in all the minds of all sentient beings and for World Peace. saga dawa festival

(The Potala Palace- a site for offering prayers during the Saga Dawa festival)

Tibetan Buddhists go to monasteries and temples to pray during the Saga Dawa festival. One place in Lhasa where crowds of Tibetans gather is the Potala Palace. Hundreds of people lie down or stand to pray in front of it. People also visit the park near the palace for a large-scale outdoor picnic in the late afternoon. The park is called the Dzongyab Lukhang Park and is very beautiful. In the temples, more butter lamps are lit. The butter lamps are simply clarified yak butter or vegetable oil in a bowl with a wick. Producing a smoky light, the sight of the thousands of butter lamps enriches the pious ambiance of the place. In Tibetan Buddhist traditions, lots of lights together are conducive for meditation and for the focus of the mind. According to the Root Tantra of Chakrasamvara, “If you wish for sublime realization, offer hundreds of lights”. Thus, on the occasion of the Saga Dawa festival, people and monks at the temples light thousands of lamps. For many, the Saga Dawa festival also marks the beginning of the holy month. This ancient Saga Dawa festival is celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists by trying to do what Lord Buddha said and give alms and pray. saga dawa festival

(The festival of Thousands Lights- Monks lighting prayer lamps for the Saga Dawa festival)

Alms giving, praying and doing acts of benevolence during the Saga Dawa festival and in the holy month is thought to multiply the merits return to the giver far more than regular days. During the month, many Tibetans also refrain from killing animals. Many Buddhists around the world call the day “Vesakha” or “Vesak”, from the Sanskrit name “Vaisakha”. The first Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhist concluded in 1950 urges the day of the full moon in the Lunar month be a day to honor Lord Buddha. Though the holiday is still celebrated on different days around the world, it is considered by many to be the most important Buddhist festival. In this year of 2017, the Saga Dawa festival will be celebrated in Tibet on the date of 9th June according to the solar calendar. saga dawa festival

(Hoisted Prayer Flags that add a sense of spirituality)

Many Tibetans also visit the sacred Mount Kailash for prayer offerings as well during the Saga Dawa festival. Because of the monks following the ritual of not killing animals and giving generously to the poor, the Saga Dawa festival is also known as “The Festival for Releasing Living Things”.

Sights of the Saga Dawa Festival

  • Hundreds of Tibetan people circumambulating around the Barkhor, Tsekhor (Circuit around Potala) and Lingkhor.
  • Liberation of fishes in the Lhasa River (Kyichu) and other animals.
  • Monks reciting prayers in the Assembly hall in monasteries and serving butter tea during intermissions.
  • Hundreds of Tibetan people lining up in the Drepung kitchen for making their donation for the monks while chanting prayers in the assembly hall.
  • Tibetan people will never eat meats during 15th day of the Saga Dawa festival and you can see every Tibetans eating vegetables in restaurant after finishing their circumambulation.
  • Tibetan peoples busy with visiting various monasteries.
  • Tibetan peoples’ generosity to the poor people by giving them material help.
  • After finished visiting monasteries, Tibetans will go for picnics in different picnic centers around Lhasa.
  • Rosary beads and small prayer wheels in the hands of older monks mumbling prayers.
The Saga Dawa festival is a great way to learn about Tibetan traditions and culture. It is a spiritual experience that perfectly encapsulates Tibet's religious aura.

escapehimalayaFeb 27th 2024

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