Hundreds of thousands of Buddhists and tourists from home and abroad flocked to a reputed Tibetan monastery to celebrate the kick-off of the annual Shoton festival on Tuesday.
The week-long event, also known as the Yogurt Banquet festival, had its routine start with a grand ceremony of "sunning of the Buddha" in the 600-year-old Drepung Monastery, the largest monastery of Tibetan Buddhism's Gelug Sect.
At daybreak, hours before the Buddhist ritual was due to begin, massive crowds had packed onto a mountain backing the monastery in the outskirts of Tibet's capital of Lhasa.
Around 8 a.m., more than 100 monks unveiled a 1,480-square-meter portrait of Sakyamuni that was knitted with colorful silk.
Pious Buddhists walked around the gigantic work, hurled ceremonial white scarves on it and prayed in a low voice, while excited tourists recorded the sacred rite with their mobile phones or tablet PCs.
"My whole family came here today. Next year, I hope to bring my great-grandchild to be born then to worship the Buddha," said Qoipei Cering, a 72-year-old Tibetan man living in Nyemo County of Lhasa.
An Italian tourist who gave her name as Sofia said it was her fifth trip to Tibet and to watch the "sunning of the Buddha" ritual in a decade.
"The number of people watching the ceremony has grown hugely in the past few years. To my surprise, the order of the holy ritual was not affected, but improved instead," said the woman in her 40s.
Losang Danba, deputy secretary of the Lhasa city committee of the Communist Party of China, estimated that the number of people attending this year's ceremony might break the record of 420,000 in 2010.
The official said the regional government invested more than 14 million yuan (2.28 million U.S. dollars) in broadening major roads leading to the Drepung Monastery, which made trips to the site much easier and safer.
Due to heightened safety concerns aroused by the surge in tourist numbers, in recent years the monastery has demanded that police and firefighters help maintain order during the ritual.
"With their assistance, we effectively avoided accidents like stampedes," said Ngawang Qoinzin, a senior monk at the monastery.
The Shoton festival dates back to the 11th century and was originally a religious occasion, when local people would offer yogurt to monks who had finished their meditation retreats.
Since the 17th century, the festival has become a celebration featuring both religious rituals and civil entertainment. It is now considered one of the most important festivals on the Tibetan calendar.
As part of this year's festival, a grand exhibition on Thangkas, or Tibetan painting scrolls, and several shows of traditional Tibetan opera will be staged at Norbu Lingka, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lamas.
In addition, the organizers will for the first time hold a cycling race during the festivities, with the purpose of raising awareness about environmental protection.
The race, covering 9.5 kilometers, is scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Tibet saw robust growth in tourism in the first half of the year, with its number of tourists reaching 3.43 million, an increase of 21.8 percent from the same period last year. Meanwhile, its tourism revenue surged 32.1 percent year on year to 3.2 billion yuan in the period.
The plateau region normally experiences a three-month peak travel season from July.