Horse racing (རྟ་རྒྱུགས། tagyuk) is one of the most popular sports in Tibet, held during festivals and Lunar New Year celebrations. It’s a component of the annual Dzongsar Summer Festival, where 21 villages gather together for three days, representing their three overarching townships.
The number three is auspicious in Tibetan culture, connecting the sun, moon, and star; the sky, earth, and underground; and the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Each day the festival starts with prayers by the monks of Dzongsar Monastery, followed by horse races and horseback target shooting. According to the elders, kings in ancient Tibet invented and promoted the sport of shooting at targets by horseback to save money on military training, which could instead be used to support education in monasteries and other needs.
As a result, young males became very well-trained snipers and riders, at no cost to the Tibetan kings. When the kings needed an army to defend their territories, they could pick any man at any time and expect a high level of expertise.
Although shooting at a target from the back of a racing horse has been practiced for centuries in Tibet, a new method is evolving. Now cars are used, which many see as a threat to Dzongsar’s cultural heritage.
Dawa Drolma is a Tibetan photographer, filmmaker, and entrepreneur passionate about documenting and sustaining Tibetan culture and traditions. Since 2016, she has worked with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on Lag Zo, a Smithsonian Artisan Initiative project to support Tibetan artisans in China, by conducting fieldwork and producing of short films featuring Tibetan craft traditions.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Festival Blog, produced by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.