Tiji Festival: A Celebration of Triumph Over Evil

  • Ram Khadka
  • Jun 9, 2024
Table of Contents

Tiji festival is the biggest celebration of the year in Mustang. This festival lasts for three days and takes place in the main square of the town of Lo-Manthang, Upper Mustang.

It has been celebrated annually for centuries and involves intricate dance steps mixed with ceremonial chants and prayers.

One of the most famous and respected festivals in Lo, Tiji started as a religious ceremony to chase away evil and end obstacles and suffering that might affect the country. For travelers on the Upper Mustang Trek or the Upper Mustang Jeep Tour, this festival is the perfect chance to understand and celebrate the unique culture and heritage of the Thakali and Lopa people.

During this festival, they worship the deity Dorje Shunu (Vajrakila) who is believed to be very expert in warding off evil forces and removing problems and difficulties.

Because of this, the people in Lo think that Tiji watches over them and credits their good luck to the festival. It is also believed that simply attending the festival is thought to bring good karma to the attendees.

Masked monk with other monks in preparation for Tiji festival

On the first day of the festival, a 400-year-old banner showing Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism to Lo and Tibet, is displayed.

The ceremony is led by a man called the Soho, who has spent months practicing alone to perfect the complex rituals meant to drive away demons.

The first day’s dances include 52 steps that call on the gods and prepare the ground for the next day's dances. On the second day, tourists and locals gather around the square and on top of buildings to witness performances and rituals.

Day two is the core of the festival, with a variety of performances. There are dancers with drums by the main dancers and novice monks, animated wolves wielding swords, warriors, demons, and even an intermission featuring monkey boy entertainers.

Ghost dancers then take the stage, and a figure of a demon is brought out to be ritualistically teased and poked.

After the ghost dancers finish, the main dancers, now wearing animal masks, come back with seriousness to ceremonially defeat the demon. This brings the end of the festival.

Here’s everything you should know about this unique festival in detail.

Tiji Festival dance ceremony

History and Origin of the Tiji Festival

You might be surprised to know that, the original name of this festival is not Tiji, it is Tenpa Chirim.

Tiji is the mispronunciation of the word “Tenchi.” The term “Tenpa Chirim”, means the hope that the Buddha’s Dharma will prevail in all places and among all people of the world.

Tiji is seen as a symbol of hope and peace. It's based on the story of a deity called Dorje Shunu (Vajrakila), who was born again to defeat demons and evil forces causing suffering on Earth.

With his dances and different forms, he beats the demons, bringing peace and prosperity to the land. So, the festival shows how good wins against evil.

Since the time of Lama Lowo Khenchen, who lived from 1456 to 1532 and was the son of Lo’s second King Amgon Sangpo, the tradition of allegiance to the Phurba (Sa Phur) has been followed.

This tradition involves calling upon the furious deity Dorje Shunu to remove obstacles. This influence may have come from visits by the renowned Sakyapa master Ngorchen Kunga Sangpo, who Amedpal, the first ruler of Lo, invited.

Lowo Khenchen was a highly respected Buddhist teacher who helped spread Buddhism in Mustang.

The Tiji festival is believed to have started during the time of Lowo Khenchen and continued with great excitement for centuries after.

It became one of Lo's main festivals during a prosperous period when Buddhism was practiced by both the royal family and the people.

Monasteries were built, and the country flourished. However, during the reign of the 15th King of Mustang, Ahang Jamba Dadul, around the early 19th century, Lo faced unrest and economic downfall.

To address these challenges and ensure the continuation of Buddhist traditions, Ngachen Ngawang Kunga Sonam, a respected Sakyapa master from Tibet, was invited to visit Lo.

During the festival, it's said that this master performed the masked dances as the main dancer.

Legend says there's a mound outside the city walls of Lo Manthang where the master buried the arrow he used to drive away demons, leaving an imprint on the mound.

This place is called Sa Kawo or the “White Land” and still exists today. After Ngachen Ngawang Kunga Sonam's visit, the festival regained its popularity.

However, around the mid-19th century, political changes in Nepal affected Mustang, leading to the abolition of many old traditions, including Tiji.

Although the main ceremony in the city square stopped, Choede Gompa, the central monastery of Lo Manthang, continued celebrating the festival within the monastery, even without financial support from the people.

This tradition started in 1963 and continues today, even though the main festival has been revived.

There's an interesting story about how the Tiji festival was revived recently.

It's said that a spirit appeared to Pemba, a local from Lo Manthang, and warned that if the Tiji festival wasn't practiced, terrible things would happen to Lo. There would be diseases, death, suffering, and poverty everywhere.

So, the Late King Jigme Dadul Palbar Bista, along with other important figures, decided to restart the festival.

By the 1970s, the main festival in the square in front of the King's Palace, within the high city walls, was celebrated again with great excitement.

Despite facing challenges, the tradition of Tiji has never really stopped and continues in its original form today.

Tiji Festival in Lo Manthang, Upper Mustang

Dates and Duration of Tiji Festival

Tiji Festival 2025 starts on May 24 and ends on May 26. The festival lasts for three days and always happens between the 27th and 29th day of the third Tibetan month, Dawa Sumba, which is around mid to end of May. It takes place in the square in front of the Tashi Gephel Palace, inside the walled city of Lo Manthang.

First Day of Tiji

On the first day, which is the 27th of the third month, the morning starts with monks gathering and offering Vajrakila prayers in Choede Gompa.

In the afternoon, there's a lot of activity in the square. Traditional long copper horns called dungchen are played along with drums and cymbals.

A huge scroll painting called thangka, showing Padmasambhava, is hung on the south wall of the square. This thangka is over 400 years old and hand-embroidered with Padmasambhava's image and two dakinis.

After burning incense, tantric practitioners from Lo Manthang offer six bowls of grain and torma on a wooden altar.

Then, monks wearing red pointed hats arrive and sit below the thangka. The abbot of Choede Gompa sits on a higher platform in the center, with monks playing dungchen at the far end.

The masked dances begin with their performances with chanting and prayers, and the gathered crowd eagerly watches.

The masked dancers, also known as black hat dancers, begin their dance at the Tashi Gephel Palace.

The main dancer, easily recognized by their intricate headgear, makes offerings to start the ceremony. Then, they gradually leave and move down to the square where the public is waiting.

For about 2 hours, they perform the Tsacham, a slow and graceful masked dance with gentle movements and turns.

The main dancer, surrounded by others, dances in the center forming a mandala, which is a meditative diagram.

They perform around 52 different steps, symbolizing the preparation and invocation of gods and the purification of the ground for the dances.

The main dancer directs the others with verbal commands, guiding them through each step.

Second Day of Tiji

On the second day, which is the 28th day of the third month, the morning starts with prayers to Vajrakila and a gathering in the monastery.

In the afternoon, another large thangka, similar to the first but newer, is displayed. It also shows Padmasambhava with the eight forms of the guru, along with the King and Queen making offerings below.

The masked dancers on this day are more energetic and aggressive. They include dances with weapons and animal forms, symbolizing different ways to ward off evil.

The dances on the second day are:

  • Ngacham: The drum dance, where a straw effigy is brought out.
  • Menle dhakey do: A series of dances symbolizing the defeat of the demon, interspersed with dances representing the main deity of the Kings of Mustang, which is why the royal family participates.
  • Animal mask dances: These represent 20-24 different animals such as tigers, deer, yaks, crows, vultures, and horses, representing the followers of Phurba (Vajrakilaya).

The finale is the Dhakey, where the main dancer pierces the straw effigy with a religious dagger, symbolizing the defeat of the evil demon Dorje Shunu. Then, the effigy is thrown into the air.

Third-Day of Tiji

On the third day which is the 29th of the third month, the morning starts with monks in the monastery offering prayers to Vajrakila again.

In the afternoon, the lead dancer presents a ceremonial drink as a request for assistance from all the deities.

Before and after cutting the effigy, there are more dances by masked monks representing animals.

Then, a dough effigy is brought out, and while prayers are chanted and dances performed, the main dancer pierces it with a symbolic dagger facing northeast.

This symbolizes defeating and destroying evil. The effigy's head is buried in front of the Palace's main entrance, while the rest is disposed of later.

The dances end with a loud procession led by the masked dancers, followed by the King, royal family, village representatives, and people.

They go through narrow lanes to the main gate, where monks carry five large red tormas from Thupchen monastery.

A brief dance is performed outside the gate while the King fires a few musket rounds into the air. Then, they head to Jhiwa Chhorten, a stupa outside the walls, where more prayers are said.

The procession's final stop is Solang, outside the walls, where the main dancer prays to the gods.

Different weapons are used symbolically to defeat evil, and the tormas are thrown to the ground. 

Finally, the demons are banished amid cheers and musket shots. Participants shout "Lha Gyalo" (May God be Victorious), marking the end of the three-day ceremony.

At night, the people of Lo celebrate with joyful songs and dances in the town square.

Monks at Tiji Festival with pointed red hats.

Pre Festival Preparations

There are a lot of preparations for this festival.

Choosing the Key Dancer

The key dancer or tsowo is the monk who is the leader of the ceremony. He is regarded as the deity Dorje Shunu, who slays the demon and wards off all evil.

The tsowo is chosen from monks of Lo Manthang’s Choede Monastery, based on their seniority and ranking (the number of years of monastic training they have accomplished after the novice level).

To embody the deity, the tsowo needs to have received the Phurba empowerment, preferably from a high lama of the Sakyapa lineage.

He should be well versed in the scriptures about this particular dance practice, and be able to recite it orally during the dance.

He should have adequate knowledge of the entire ritual procedure, know all of the very subtle and difficult dance steps, and be able to lead the masked dance over three days.

Before he executes the dance itself, he must go on a 3-month solitary retreat, remaining in isolation in the monastery.

During this time he prepares his mind and soul and purifies himself while reciting the Dorje Shunu mantras. He cannot speak with or meet anyone other than one person he has chosen to help him complete the retreat.

Vajrakila prayers (Dubchoe) are offered by the monks for 2 days before the festival is performed in Choeda Gompa.

Masked Dance Practice

The key dancers and other monks practice dance steps before the main ceremony. These traditional and intricate dance steps have been passed down over the years from one teacher to another.

Teachers are said to have studied the art of the Tiji Dance at the Sakya Lhakang Chenmo in Tibet, the seat of the Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

Making of Torma(sculptures made of butter and barley flour) Offerings

A day before the ceremony, offerings are made by the monks of the Choede Gompa in preparation for the festival.

This was initially done in the Kangyur Lakhang (prayer chapel) of Tashi Gephel Palace in Lo Manthang, but due to a lack of space (the number of monks has increased over the years), since 2006 this preparation has been done in Thupchen Gompa.

The tormas are made from roasted barley flour to which sugar, butter, and herbs, have been added, and then kneaded like dough.

The torma is made into various forms and sizes, then painted red or white to indicate wrathfulness(red) and peace (white) respectively.

Forty to fifty tormas are made, along with one in the form of an effigy that represents the demon that is to be destroyed during the festival.

Five large tormas are made in triangular shapes and are colored red with flame designs etched along their border.

Costumes and Masks

Different masks are used for the dances, showing gods and animals. They are locally made from mud, onto which cloth is applied in many layers, and interspersed with glue( that dries until a thick hard mask is formed).

This hardened shell is then removed from the mud, smoothed, and painted according to the prerequisites of the design.

Most of the existing masks were made or renewed by the late Khempo of Choede Gompa. The costumes are also locally made and are long and flowing, multi-layered gowns of silk and brocade.

The costumes for each masked dance come in various colors and shapes, and they are complemented by intricate headgear of different styles.

Two dancers with bright costumes perform a ritual dance.

Festival Highlights

  • Masked Dances

Performed by monks over the three days, these dances tell the story of Dorje Shunu (Vajrakila) defeating the demon and bringing peace. The dances become more energetic and aggressive as the festival progresses.

  • Unique Costumes and Masks

Made locally from mud and cloth, the masks and costumes are unique and represent various gods, animals, and characters from the festival's story.

  • Thangka Display

Large hand-embroidered thangkas depicting Padmasambhava are displayed during the festival.

Other festivals beyond the Tiji Festival in Mustang

In Mustang, people are very religious, and festivals like Tiji are a big part of their culture. Almost every village has its own monastery. Along with Tiji, they celebrate many other festivals throughout the year such as:

Yartung Festival

Every year in August, the Thakali people in Lower Mustang throw a huge celebration called Yartung Mela to celebrate the end of the harvest season. It lasts for 3 fun-filled days.

The festival starts with a special blessing from the head monk. Then, each day is dedicated to someone special.

On day 1, they honor the village chief. On day 2, monks take center stage with prayers and rituals. On day 3, the biggest celebration is done. Everyone joins in with horse races, singing, dancing, and eating delicious food and drinks.

During this festival, people also thank Lord Buddha and receive good wishes of luck from the chief.

Dumji Festival

The Dumji festival is celebrated in Mustang every June. It's a big celebration to mark the end of the harvest season. The festival lasts for three days. 

The first day is the Lama Dance Day. This is when people gather to pray and give thanks to their gods. Monks from local monasteries perform a special dance called Chham, all accompanied by traditional tunes and chanting.

Next comes the Public Dance Day, where the whole community gets involved. There's dancing, singing, and games. Everyone gets dolled up in beautiful clothes and jewelry. Plus, there's a market where locals trade their goods.

Last but not least is Closing Day. This is the day to wrap things up. More prayers, ceremonies, and blessings are given. And of course, there's a big feast where everyone shares delicious food and drinks with loved ones.

Saga Dawa

Saga Dawa is a big celebration for people who follow Tibetan Buddhism. This festival likely happens in Mustang too.

It falls in June and is also called the "Triple Blessed Festival" because it remembers three very important events in Buddha's life: his birth, when he became enlightened, and his passing away.

The festival lasts for three days, each with its own meaning. The first one is "Buddha's Birth Day." People celebrate by praying and giving food to monks.

Then comes "Buddha's Enlightenment Day." It's a special time for prayer and meditation. Many also do good deeds like helping others.

Last is "Buddha's Death Day." This is a day to remember Buddha's passing with prayers and offerings. People often show kindness to others.

During Saga Dawa, people also do many traditional things such as lighting butter lamps, setting animals free, and hanging prayer flags. Butter lamps bring light to darkness, releasing animals shows compassion, and prayer flags spread good vibes.

Losar (Tibetan New Year)

Losar, or Tibetan New Year, is celebrated in Mustang, Nepal. The people of Mustang celebrate two types of Losar: Chhegu Emma (Ghyalpo Lhochhar) and Chegu Semma (Sonam Lhochhar).

  • Chhegu Emma (Ghyalpo Lhochhar)

Chhegu Emma is the start of the new year in the Tibetan calendar, celebrated two days before the Tibetan New Year, Shingba Sonam Dhawa.

The festivities last three days: Ngishyu ghu, Namkang, and Chewa Chik respectively.

During this time, families come together for prayers, hoping for a joyful and successful year ahead. This special celebration takes place in the 12th Tibetan month, Nepali month of Magh(Jan/Feb).

  • Chegu Semma (Sonam Lhochhar)

Chegu Semma is another version that starts at the beginning of the Tibetan calendar, in the Nepali month of Falgun(Feb/March).

It's pretty much like Chhegu Emma, starting a couple of days before Shingba Sonam Dhawa and lasting three days. People come together, pray, and wish for good times in the upcoming year.

The best places to witness the festival activities in Mustang

Festival celebrations are mostly held in Lo-Manthang and Muktinath. Festivals such as Tiji are celebrated in Lo-Manthang, Upper Mustang, while festivals like Yartung are celebrated in Muktinath, Lower Mustang.

If you want to experience these festivals, our Upper Mustang Trek package gives you a full exploration of Lo-Manthang including other places of Upper Mustang.

If you’re not much of a trekker, our Upper Mustang Jeep Tour package is perfect for you.

Etiquette for respectful observation of the festival

  • Be quiet and respectful while watching the dances. Avoid eating, drinking, smoking, or making loud noises.
  • Taking photos is okay, but be polite. Don't get too close to the dancers, don't use flash, and ask permission if taking pictures of people.
  • Remember these are more than celebrations - they're religious ceremonies. Have fun, but be respectful.
Ram Khadka
Ram Khadka

CEO and Managing Director at Sublime Trails Trekking, Ram has been leading adventure-hungry souls into the mountains of Nepal for over 15 years.