Transformation of Tibetan Horse Race Festivals
The memories of traditional horse race shared by four elder Tibetans in south India reveals how horse festivals played social, political, and cultural roles in old Tibet. The Tibetan government would collect tax during the event, local disputes were settled, younger generations learned traditional dances and other customs from the elders, who were mostly men because working class wives could not leave their daily chores at home. Those who could attend would witness the ancient horse culture of the red-faced men who invented polo and invaded their neighboring kingdoms, including China and India. “It was a very happy time,” one of the men tells Tibetan Oral History Project. “It was a time when everyone lived with peace. There was no war, no conflicts.” After the reestablishment of the horse festivals in post Cultural Revolution, the significance of it has been largely changed. Although the actual race and arts involved in riding horse continued, Beijing changed the traditional dates of many horse festivals so to incorporate with the founding day of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The purpose of the festival became more for tourist attraction and government propaganda. At the same time, the event also become a stage where the Tibetans demonstrate their loyalty to the Dalai Lama when they stopped wearing the wild animal pelts that the Chinese officials and tourists might have found amusing to see at the horse festivals. In 2007, a Tibetan nomad named Rong-gye Adrag called for the return of the Dalai Lama during a horse festival, which some people believe has shaken off the nerve of Tibetans who rose up the following year to protest against China’s rule. While the number of new horse festivals still emerging, they became inconsistent because of political sensitivities.