By Phurbu Thinley
The Tibetan New Year is already here around the corner and it all means time to enjoy traditional feasts and guzzle down sour Tibetan beer-Chang-tasting a tinge of sweetness in it. It also means traditional group dances and overflowing sounds of songs. For Tibetans, New Year is also a time for prayers and togetherness- an occasion to keep oneself in rejoicing spirit with family members, relatives, friends and neighbours.
Of the countless festivals held all over Tibet, the most important, the most popular and the much awaited of all in a year for Tibetans is their New Year Celebration. Tibetans call it LOSAR (Lo meaning, Year and, Sar means New) and is usually celebrated for three days.
Tibetans follow lunar calendar, so dates for Losar may vary every year vis-à-vis Christian calendar. This year, the New Year falls on February 18, and is the Fire Pig Year-2134.
Significance of Losar:
As Tibetans around the world gear up to celebrate their biggest celebration of the year; it is not surprising to know that Losar is the most special occasion for them to exchange warmest greetings to their fellow relatives, family members and neighbors and to everyone around.
Losar, for Tibetans, means mass celebration, complete relaxation and, plenty of festivities with abundance of festive-meals and being in best dressing clothes. Offering Khatas (traditional greeting scarves) on the home altars, in monasteries and around each other with heartfelt Tashi Delek greeting all mean flourishing auspiciousness and greater prosperity.
"It is time again for prosperous Losar," Tibetans would generally exult.
It's time of the year for ultimate family gathering, lavish spending and joyous atmosphere at home. It is a valued culture for Tibetans to be kind hearted, hospitable and welcoming to guests, but it is on Losar days that these cherished values are most visible.
Tradition has it that one has to be very warm hearted, generous and welcoming during Losar celebration. A bright and jovial mood on Losar is supposedly believed to ensure that a person will be blessed with good and happy expression throughout the year.
A guest to a Tibetan family during Losar is always received with utmost hospitality. Among other things, a hearty meal and overflowing Chang will always await a guest. So do, Tibetans extend heartfelt welcome to guests during Losar.
The Build-up to the Tibetan New Year
Preparations for Losar usually start weeks before the Day and the count down for it may begin even much earlier; especially among the young ones waiting with anxious hope for New Year presents.
Preparation for Losar includes people arranging religious offerings, a lot of shopping for new clothes or Losar dress-up they call it and, food and drink for the feasts.
Losar feasts include, the most popular traditional Tibetan Dish, Dresi, sweet buttered rice with raisins and dromas (small fibrous potatoes); substantial amount of meat variety, fruits, breads, chang, butter tea, among other ingredients; and Khabse, a fried sweet or salted baked snacks that comes in different shapes and forms. Tibetans are supposed to see in the Losar with Khabses piled high up on their tray.
In monasteries and at homes, religious altars are decked up with special New Year adornments of thankas, scarves and, finest edible and related traditional offerings.
Besides, Tibetans observe the following two significantly important occasions marking the final build-up for the Losar celebration.
Gutor-The day before Losar Eve (29th Day of the 12th Lunar Calendar)
To Tibetans, the year's end is also of special importance and Tibetans observe Gutor while they are just two days away and busy preparing for the New Year's Day.
Gutor is the day before New Year Eve and Tibetans come together on this day to enjoy themselves. Filled with the atmosphere of the year's end, Tibetan families eat Guthuk, gruel-soup with dumplings, in the evening on Gutor.
“Traditionally, Tibetans say that Gutor is the only day when all Tibetans, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, eat the same food.”
The dumplings contain symbolic items or revelations wrapped inside them that might give possible indication of fortune or nature of a person whoever gets it. On opening the dumpling, one will find an "Oracle": a thread is for longevity, white wool indicates a Pure Heart, a charcoal for Black Heart, a chili might mean foul or sharp tongue etc. For a large Guthuk gathering, written note is more preferable.
While soup is being served, everyone delights in showing off their "Oracle" to one another that will definitely draw in lots of funny comments- a good way to usher in for the year's end in hearty laughter.
Following this, everyone participates in a religious ceremony to exorcise evil spirits from the previous year, which is the original purpose of the Gutor. Everyone puts some left over gruel soup and a fisted-dough containing a piece of clothes from one's clothes over a doll representing a fierce god. The godly effigy is then set-off with fireworks or firecrackers at a distant road junction. Doing these symbolise driving away of personal obstacles, and is believed to keep you untouched by sickness and misfortunes all through the year.
Namkhan- New Year Eve (30th Day of the 12th Lunar month)
New Year's eve itself is for cleansing houses, giving final concluding touches to the house decoration and altar offerings and, quiet relaxation and wait in anticipation for the following day's ultimate festivities.
So, Namkhang puts one whole year behind. Just hours away from ushering into a new year, Tibetans look forward to Losar as a harbinger of greater prosperity and auspiciousness to start another new year all over again in a brand new way.
LOSAR (1st to 3rd day of the first lunar month)
With mellow smell of traditional snack-KHABSE and sweet sour odour of Chang overflowing in the air; Losar begins by tossing chang and Chemar offerings and exchanging greetings by saying Tashi Delek (meaning-Prosperity, Sound Health and Goodness!) to family members and neighbours.
On New Year’s Day even young Tibetans wear Chuba (traditional Tibetan attire) and pay their first visit of the year to a temple with their family early in the morning. After that, Tibetans do nothing but feast on the food and drinks that they have so painstakingly prepared. The New Year’s Day is for family celebration and everyone spends time with family or the neighbours.
From the second day onwards, they then visit their relatives and family friends. They visit each other’s feats and have parties full of drinking and singings and dances. On Losar days, Tibetans don’t miss an opportunity to enjoy gambling, with games of Sho (Dice), or, Pakchen (Mah-jongg). In recent times, many have fallen to playing-cards too. For young Tibetans, Losar is the time to thicken their pockets with lots of gift money.
On the third day, as the festivity continues, Tibetans replace the year-old Dhar-choks and Dhar-shings (hoisting of prayer flags) on the roof of their houses with new ones and burn thick bunches of Sang (Incenses). Upon hoisting, barley flour is tossed into the air screaming Kyi-kyi So-So Lha Gyalo!!! (Happiness, Happiness and let Victory be to God).
New Year Prayer Festivals (4th to 15th of the first Lunar month)
In a follow up to the Losar, from 4th to 11th day of the 1st Lunar month, a great Buddhist service Monlam (Prayer Festival) is held and Cham (Buddhist dances) are performed at monasteries. The largest of such prayer festival used to be held in Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city, where most monks from the monasteries around Lhasa would gather and hold Monlam Chenmo or Great Prayer Festival.
The 15th day or the full moon day of the first Lunar month, Choenga Choepa, also called ‘Butter Lamb Festival’ is held, which becomes the highlight of the Monlam.
Perhaps because the prayer festival too strongly encourages Tibetan identity, the Communist China banned it during the Cultural Revolution and although it was revived later, it was prohibited again in 1990.
Similar events, which used to be part of the prayer festival held in Lhasa are now carried out in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama led Tibetan Government in Exile is now located.
From New Year’s Day until the end of Monlam, Tibetans continue to eat, drink and make merry.
Popularly, Losar is celebrated in the first Lunar month, but this may not be the same all over Tibet. A large section of Tibetans even celebrate Losar a month earlier in the beginning of the 12th month. In both the case, after so much feasting, it is no wonder that the festive mood may sometimes linger on for days even after the initial three days of celebration with lots of lingkhas (public picnics) in Tibet. But things have changed over the years.