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17february201102Dharamshala: The XVIth Shoton Festival has started in Orissa on Wednesday (16 February) "amidst fanfare and jubilation", reported Tenzin Lhaksam, secretary of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA). More than 230 artists are gathered in Phuntsokling, one of the largest Tibetan settlements in East India to perform Tibetan Opera for one week.

It was held during the first month of the Tibetan calendar, the festival celebrates the coming of spring and plentiful harvests. Also known as the "Yoghurt Festival" outside Tibet (as "sho" means "curd", and "ton", "festival" in Tibetan), the popular event carries a long and still enigmatic history.

According to TIPA, "there exist two main theories to explain the origins of the Shoton (...), derived from two historical events surrounding the Drepung monastery." One of them, "the more factual and supported by written accounts", links the event with the opening ceremony of Drepung monastery in 1416. The celebration took place at the same time with the the monks' summer retreat, when "all the nomadic people had plentiful stocks of dairy products. The curd, being white in color, represents auspiciousness. During the Drepung ceremony, they served the sho to all the monks. Therefore, this particular day is called Shoton."

The Drepung Shoton also became a Tibetan Shoton through the efforts of the Tibetans in exile, after Chinese authorities destroyed Drepung monastery and began to lead a policy against Tibetan culture and tradition. The revival of the Shoton is described as a way to fight against the loss of this rich heritage and to highlight a strong cultural identity.

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself has specially advised the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts to establish a separate body that would work towards revival of Tibetan opera and also in organizing the Shoton Opera Festival in various settlements, other than Dharamshala, the hub of Tibetan exile community", says Tenzin Lhaksam, quoting Sonam Choephel Shosur, Director of TIPA.

During the annual celebration, organized by TIPA and supported by the Heinrich Boell Foundation (Germany), artists perform various opera stories on an open stage with public all around and musicians accompanying their songs and dances with drums and cymbals.

This year, seven opera associations among the nine opera companies in exile are taking part in the festival.