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Monlam Great Prayer Festival

Photographer: Roman Pilipey

 

Considered the most important event for Tibetan Buddhists, the Monlam Great Prayer Festival starts three days after Lunar New Year in western China's ethnic Tibetan region and is held for almost two weeks. During Monlam, millions of pilgrims head to monasteries to pray for good fortune in the New Year and make offerings to their late relatives.

 

One of the most popular destinations among pilgrims is Labrang Monastery in Xiahe County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, China. The monastery founded in 1709 is one of the six largest monasteries of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism and home to thousands of monks outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The festival's main events are held on the last days. First there is the ceremony of 'Unveiling the Buddha' that sees Tibetan Buddhist monks carry a huge 30 meters by 20 meters thangka (sacred painting on cloth) depicting Buddha up the hillside above Labrang Monastery to show it to thousands of worshipers. The next day, Tibetan Buddhist monks costumed as deities and Dharma protectors perform the Cham Dance. With slow and repetitive movements the many hours long ritual is performed for the destruction of bad spirits and the greater good of humanity. Devout Buddhists use this dance to meditate and spiritually connect with the portrayed deities. After that everyone joins a huge procession.

 

In the evening of the next day, all monks and pilgrims head to see sculptures made of yak butter by Tibetan Buddhist monks that traditionally represent an offering to Buddha and deities. On the last day of the festival, a final procession is held, when Tibetan Buddhist monks carrying a statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, make the Kora (pilgrimage circuit) around Labrang Monastery together with thousands of pilgrims following them. Although the Chinese Communist Party is atheist, it recognizes five religions, with one of these Buddhism, as well as many folk beliefs. Most ethnic Tibetans practice a distinct form of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism.