The origin of Great Prayer Festival was to mark the display of the Buddha’s miraculous powers and the defeat of his doctrinal opponents in the town of Shravasti in ancient India. Following his victory, the Buddha delivered a discourse to a large assembly of devotees among whom many developed an altruistic aspiration for enlightenment.
Tsong Khapa established the First Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa in 1409, to be held on the 3rd or 4th day of the first lunar month. The First Monlam was marked by the completion of a major restoration of the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. The preceding year, all the statue makers in the areas were summoned to clean, wash and repair the statues in the Jokhang. The celebrated Skyamuni statue, brought to Tibet in the 7th century by the Chinese Princess married to King Songtsen Gompo, was offered a new gold crown and ear pendants.
The Great Prayer Festival brought together all the monks from the great monasteries around Lhasa. Through the fifteenth of the first lunar month, they recited prayers, and held the celebrated Geshe exams, during which the contenders hold dialectical debates which determine their depth of their knowledge in the scriptures.
Major monasteries in other Tibetan regions, such as Labrang Tashikyil Monastery in Amdo, also began holding their own Monlam Festivals. Many rituals and religious happenings are held during that time, including the unfurling of the Great Kyigu, an enormous thangka, which is taken in procession to a spot across the river from the Monastery and unrolled on a designated spot on the hill. There are also displays of butter sculptures, intricate and sometimes several meters highs, which are viewed by the public. Another important ritual held during that time is the Throwing of Ritual Cakes, a ceremony during which harmful forces are sent back to where they came from, clearing obstacles for the coming year. On the last day, the Maitreya procession takes places, during which a statue of Buddha Maitreya is paraded on the monastery’s circumambulatory route. This is also tradition begun by Tsonkhapa in the 15th century and it marks the close of Great Prayer Festival.