Tiji festival

Celebrated for over seven centuries in the former Himalayan Kingdom of Lo, the Tiji Festival is the most important religious event for the predominantly Tibetan community in Upper Mustang, Nepal. Occurring at the beginning of summer, this three-day spectacle commemorates the triumph of good over evil and pays homage to spiritual protector Tiji.

Centered around ceremonial dances and arts, the elaborately costumed Tiji celebration is symbolic of the endurance of the Tibetan culture in Nepal and its resistance against extinction. Regarded as a vital expression of intangible cultural heritage, Tiji provides insights into shared Tibetan heritage across borders and the community’s collective identity. The visually resplendent festival also highlights the influx of Tibetan Buddhism into the Upper Mustang with the arrival of spiritual masters several centuries ago. By exploring the mythology and unique rituals of the Tiji Festival, one can better understand the cultural essence of the Upper Mustang and its people.

Origin, Historical Background and Legends

The Tiji Festival is steeped in vibrant myths and legends that provide fascinating historical context.

According to one popular legend, Tiji was a compassionate spiritual figure with supernatural abilities to benefit humankind. However, the demonic duo of Tenma and Yullha sought to destroy Tiji but failed despite years of pursuit. Finally, Lord Buddha intervened and upon subduing the demons, entombed their spirits within the cliff caves of Lo Gekar.

The myths also suggest how Tiji possibly draws from the Tibetan opera which traveled with the caravans between Lhasa and Lo over the trans-Himalayan salt trade route historically. The name itself derives from the ancient Tibetan language to mean ‘auspicious celestial offering’. Scholars trace the earliest records of the festival’s celebration by Tibetan kings ruling the Guge and Purang empires in the 10th Century.

When masters like Rinchen Zangpo arrived here during the Buddhist revival era around the 14th century, they instituted Tiji as a symbolic dance marking the triumph of Buddhism over pre-existing Bon traditions including the banishing of demons Tenma and Yullha. Thus, over centuries, Tiji emerged as an embodiment of cultural struggles and sync of Tibetan identity with Buddhism in the region.

Festival Duration and Timing

The Tiji Festival is celebrated over 3 days as per the Tibetan lunar calendar, typically corresponding to May or June as per the Gregorian calendar.

The key dates for the festival are the 13th, 14th, and 15th days of the fourth Tibetan month called Saka Dawa. The timing bears special spiritual significance as Saka Dawa marks the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and Parinirvana attainment. It is believed that good deeds and prayers hold greater value if performed during Saka Dawa.

In the year 2023, Tiji was celebrated from May 29th to May 31st in Lo Manthang and surrounding villages. The first two days centered around ceremonial mask dances by Buddhist monks while the third day involved parading costumes and effigies ultimately destroyed on Tiji day marking victory over evils plaguing humanity .

The festival date changes annually as per the lunar calendar. But the sequence remains fixed with Monlam Pujas on the 13th Saka Dawa, ceremonial dances on the 14th, and Tiji Parade for the subjugation ritual on the full moon 15th day, signifying ghosts’ destruction through the power of goodness.

Rituals and Ceremonies

The Tiji Festival involves dramatic rituals and sacred ceremonies led by Buddhist monks over three days.

It commences with chanting of holy scriptures, hoisting of religious flags, and special Mahakala Puja seeking protection from local deities. The monks prepared for months to perform the mystical Cham dances while donning huge masks representing different Dharma protectors like Mahakala, Vaishravana, and Palden Lhamo.

The dances depict the story of Tiji’s divine deeds and battle with demons over several rounds that stretch through the first two days. The festivities culminate in the Tiji Parade on the final morning led by senior monks alongside towering Tiji effigies and sacred thangka. Locals also display colourful garments and amulets on poles believing it to absorb evil forces before effigies are annihilated.

The entire ceremony emphasizes spiritual regeneration and collective merit-making highlighting Buddhism’s deep cultural entrenchment through such festivals in Mustang over centuries by the monk diaspora migrating from Tibet.

Cultural Performances

The Tiji Festival is renowned for its mesmerizing cultural shows and theatrical dances by trained monks that bring ancient tales and moral parables to life.

The highlights are the dazzling Cham dances featuring giant masks of deities, imaginative costumes, and synchronized movements representing Tiji’s magical feats including chain dances by coupled performers. The subjective Cham dance routines are unique to Tibetan Buddhism serving ritual purposes. The style was hugely patronized under kings in the old imperial kingdoms of Lo imparting an additional regal flavor.

Folk singers also showcase traditional Tibetan opera with candor through songs, music, and humor interludes even as an age-old tale unfolds of virtues vanquishing vices. The vocals fluctuate from high pitched to intensely resounding across Lo Gekar cliffs almost transporting audiences to a bygone era of Imperial Tibet witnessing its majestic arts first hand. Sometimes the songs depict the anguish of leaving native Tibet thus providing profound insights into the diaspora’s struggles.

The entire atmosphere lends an unmistakably dramatic quality, almost suspended in time but simultaneously exalting human creativity and resilience against adversities - spiritually or in exile.

Costume and Mask Traditions

The flamboyant costumes and exaggerated masks worn by monks during various Tiji dances make for a riot of colors and formidable sights.

The costumes appear influenced by eccentric opera aesthetics using contrasting colors, asymmetric patterns, fur trimmings, and rich textiles. The robes feature patchwork aprons, printed aprons similar to traditional Tibetan styles. Even face paints in red, white, and black comprise the loud dress palette.

The symbolism pervades the grotesque masks that embody various spirits - from the bulging red faced Mahakala projecting fierceness to three-eyed blue masks for the god of prosperity. The wide eyes, ornate headgear, and flowing robes of heroes, nobles, and village clowns transport in Tibetan folk stories. Materials like sheep wool, yak hair, and semi-precious stones are intricately worked into conspicuous headdresses.

Through such flamboyant masking and dressing, the dances reify within ritual space various abstract virtues and vices assumed living identity for imparting moral lessons. Ultimately the spectacle aids in transmitting cultural motifs unique to old Tibet now preserved in exile culture across the Himalayas.

Community Participation

The entire village community participates actively in organizing the grand Tiji Festival which underscores its immense social significance.

As a collective religious duty, locals assist the monastery and resident monks with logistics like preparing venues, arranging food supplies, constructing effigies, and disseminating event information. During the final parade, people also display personal or clan flags, and amulets on poles as marks of auspiciousness which are later discarded - almost metaphorically casting off ill fate.

For locals who endured extremely cold inhospitable conditions over history, the sudden surge of merriment bonds them powerfully with cultural roots and neighboring mountain communities. Locals dressed in the finest traditional woolen and exotic jewelry turn up almost competing in their ethnic splendor.

The three days are all about community camaraderie with people welcoming visiting artists and reaffirming old ties through social calls as senior monks go around the village seeking alms in the morning. While the grand spectacle enthralls visitors, Tiji at the core recalls profound social dynamics beyond just dazzling dances and arts.

Tourist Experience

The remote location and limited accommodation often restrict the direct participation of foreign tourists during rituals. However, visitors are welcomed as observers provided certain etiquette is followed given the religious sanctity.

Tourists should avoid interfering in proceedings and rather immerse as students in soaking the unique cultural extravaganza. Locals appreciate if one displays a willingness to understand the regional history and their struggles as a community-in-exile upholding threatened Tibetan identity. Some basic blessings by senior monks are permitted upon request.

Wearing traditional dresses is encouraged while taking photographs to respect local sentiments. The native hospitality draws several Westerners into the community through marriage bonds over the years.

While umpteen questions arise regarding dying classics like Cham moves or those towering Tiji effigies, tourists must exercise patience given language barriers and allow celebrations to unfold naturally. The government regulates tourism influx recently and appropriate permits are required for the upper Mustang area, costs for which cover community funds.

For quintessential Tibet admirers, Tiji often serves the first real encounter with the homeland culture beyond just reading meaningfully and answering spiritual calls of history.

Challenges and Preservation

While deeply etched in Mustang’s cultural fabric, experts have concerns about sustaining ancient art heritage like the Tiji festival, especially given existing geo-political realities.

Factors like climate change leading to migration, expanding modernization, and assimilating youth interests risk eroding symbolic rituals like Cham dances or costuming skills despite governmental safeguarding.

However, the Tiji festival instills much hope by fostering young monk troops and reviving defunct practices. Local monasteries receive UN cultural grants for hosting free workshops, even attracting global artists to leverage tourism. Efforts are ongoing to train more monks in sophisticated spiritual arts and mask-making artisans to address the scarcity of teachers and reference materials on endangered practices.

Besides just protecting old festival dance routines and costumes, the focus has shifted to reinterpreting their relevance through modern narratives. Blending modernity with exclusive heritage now serves priority for institutions like the Lo Manthang-based Tritan Norbutse monastery complex housing priceless Tibetan thangka collections and leading Tiji preparations annually. Support from scholars and transnational artist networks also helps traditionally isolated villages like Lo to open their eyes to the outside world, helping them shape their futures with dignity and choice.


In conclusion, the culturally resplendent Tiji Festival stands distinguished as one of the few remaining public spectacles dramatizing Tibet’s imperial splendor and complex exile dynamics in the modern era through artistic ritual symbolisms.

Beyond sheer visual opulence exuding from elaborate costumes and sacred Cham moves, Tiji underscores Tibetan Buddhism’s dominance secured through dance, music, and homilies institutionalized by the Tibetan diaspora in Lo permanently through this festival annually. For locals shouldering isolation and hardship over centuries shielding endangered heritage, the Tiji season means exhilarating freshness, camaraderie, and cultural replenishment.

The three-day affair educates outsiders on shared Himalayan transcultural exchanges, and community kinships, apart from Tibet’s little-known history in Mustang explained accessibly through dramatic dances and amusing songs. As global citizens seeking progressive, just futures, witnessing living treasures like Tiji provides the rare privilege of peeking into unique lifestyles, inspiring stories of human fortitude against oppression, and ultimate victory of native creative expression.