By Jampa Yangchen
The Tibetan New Year or Losar falls on Friday, February 12, 2021: the year of the Female Iron Ox- Year 2148 of the Tibetan Calender
Losar is an event that is very much anticipated by all Tibetans for it is not only the beginning of a new year, but also a day when everyone becomes a year older according to the Tibetan calendar. Preparations are made well ahead of time; houses are cleaned or refurbished weeks before. Images or statues of deities are brought out from their shrines and wiped clean. In some cases, the brocade and silk garments from the shrine are replaced. This is also a good time to look through one’s household items, and clothes and either give or throw away those that you no longer need or that are damaged. New clothes are also made for the entire family to wear on Losar day. All of these are done to ensure that we celebrate Losar with as much auspiciousness as possible and enter the new year renewed and refreshed with hopes of good fortune, good health and well-being.
Another important task undertaken several days before Losar is the preparation of a deep-fried delicacy made from dough called Khapseys ཁ་ཟས།. These crispy snacks come in different shapes and proportions. Some of them are much larger than the rest and are stacked crisscross in twos on top of each other. These stacked Khapseys are offerings and are an integral part of the Derka སྡེར་ཁ། display. and have their own special names. The biggest, 8-12 in number are stacked at the bottom to form the base. They are called Bongkuu-Amchok བོང་བུའི་ཨམ་ཅོག, (Donkeys Ears). This delicately balanced construction is then topped with other variations in the following set order: 2-4 Nyashak ཉ་གཤག ; 2-4 Tashi Mug Thung བཀྲ་ཤིས་སྨུག་དུང་།; 2-4 Kongchey ཀོང་ཆས། ; 1-2 Bulug འབུ་ལུགས། and finally at the top of the stack, 1 Pinpin-Toktok སྤིང་སྤིང་རྡོག་རྡོག.
It must be noted that although not part of this decorative ensemble, the first thing that must be deep fried before any of the Khapseys is a scorpion shaped dough. This deep-fried scorpion is then placed at a prominent location in the kitchen. The scorpion represents Lue or a spirit who is believed to inhabit the kitchen where fire, water, wood exist. These are believed to be the dwelling places of the Lue. It is widely believed that if angered, the Lue can inflict illness. Therefore, on Losar day, people try their best not to burn food or cause tea or milk to boil over for fear of angering the Lue. Even on a regular day, such culinary mishaps are thought to be a bad omen. A special Khatak is also tied to the kitchen pillar these days but in the past, a whole set of Derka offering is placed in the kitchen to appease the Lue.
About five days to one week before Losar, some barley seeds are sown in a small pot so that by Losar, they grow about 5 inches in height, this is called Lophu ལོ་ཕུད། and is another important offering item.
The evening of the 29th day of the 12th Tibetan month is observed by eating a special soup called Guthuk དགུ་ཐུག and the ritual that accompanies it signifies our safe passage into the New Year. That we cleanse ourselves and our living spaces of all the obstacles and negative elements of the past year, is an important part of observing this tradition.
The Tibetan word Guthuk constitutes two words, Gu དགུ། nine in Tibetan) and Thuk ཐུག abbreviation of Thukpa ཐུག་པ། (which is the general name for different types of pasta in broth). The combination of these two words literally translates to ‘Nine Soup’. In Tibetan custom, the general belief that all odd numbers are auspicious dates back to the pre-Buddhist era. The number 9, in particular is considered very lucky, therefore, it is believed no less than 9 ingredients must go into the Guthuk and individuals must consume 9 bowls of it. This special Thukpa is prepared in the same way as Bathuk བག་ཐུག, a popular Tibetan soup dish, however, the most outstanding characteristic of Guthuk and perhaps a unique practice that adds a flavor of playful fun to this occasion is the custom of adding dough-balls to the dish. One might think of them as a fortune cookie. These large dough balls clearly stand out amongst the rest because they contain small rolled up pieces of paper and on these pieces of paper are written certain words that stand as metaphors for certain human characteristics, both positive and negative. In most circumstances, having Guthuk is a family affair and as each family member sits around the dining table, Guthuk is served into individual bowls randomly, therefore, some might get two or three large doughs balls and others none. Each dough-ball revelation or “divination” is said to represent the innate disposition of the person. The following are the list of what is usually put in the dough balls and their meanings:
* Incense stick སྤོས།= honest person
* White cotton སྤྲིན་བལ་དཀར་པོ།= pure hearted person
* Droma གྲོ་མ།= warm hearted person
* Apricot མངའ་རིས་ཁམ་བུ།= good fortune, good health
* Wool བལ།= gentle person
* Charcoal སོལ་བ།= cold hearted person
* Porcelain དཀར་ཡོལ།= person who avoids work
* Paper ཤོག་བུ།= foolish person
* Hot chilly སེ་པན།= person with quick temper, sharp tongue
* Pea སྲན་མ།= stingy person
* Salt ཚྭ།= lazy person
* Thorn གཟན་པ་རྭ་ཀོག= sensitive, easily hurt
* Inward woven thread སྐུད་པ་ནང་སྒྲིམ།= person who put his family welfare above others
* Outward woven thread སྐུད་པ་ཕྱི་སྒྲིམ།= person who does not put family welfare first
* Stone རྡོ།= stingy person
* Dama-ru ཌ་མ་རུ།(hand-drum)= person with double face
* Glass ཤེལ།= delicate person or transparent person
* Sun and moon ཉི་མ་དང་ཟླ་བ།= glory and fame
* Mother carrying child ཨ་མ་ཕྲུ་གུ་འཁྱེར་བ།= person carrying Karma from previous life
* Square mat གདན་གྲུ་བཞི།= easy going person
* Lama Konchok བླ་མ་དཀོནམཆོག(Tsok shape)= honest person
* Scripture ཆོས། (picha)= pious person
At the end of each bowl of Guthuk, one should not finish it completely but rather leave a little leftover in a separate cup. This then is emptied into a broken or cracked container into which a dough effigy is placed. This effigy represents the people of the household. Following this, each person is handed a piece of dough the size of a ping-pong ball called Pagchi སྤགས་ཕྱིས། which literally means a cleansing-dough. Each person then skims the Pagchi over different parts of the body, particularly touching areas where you have pain, discomforts or sickness. Next, it is squeezed in your left hand, making sure all your fingers are imprinted on it. These imprints represent your whole body. It is believed that doing this takes away your pain and ailments by absorbing them into the Pagchi. When this is completed, the Pagchi is placed into the same broken or cracked container along with the dough effigy and left over Guthuk. At the same time, a little left over tea leaves, a little left over Chang ཆང་། malted barley or rice wine and two strands of straws made in the shape of a cross as well as a strand of your hair, a thread from your clothes etc. are thrown into broken container. What comes next is the most dramatic part of Guthuk night. One member of the family carrying a lighted torch goes from room to room and around every nook and corner shouting “Dhon sho Ma་(དོན་ཤོག་མར།)” or “Come out!”, demanding that the spirits of the old year dwelling in these spaces to leave. The torch-bearer is followed by a person with a broom who begins to sweep the rooms the torch-bearer just visited and empties the dusts into the container along with the dough effigy. In this way, our body and spirit, and our living space are cleansed or exorcised from the negativities of the old year and is absorbed in the dough effigy. At this point, the dough effigy becomes the Lue ཀླུས།, the carrier of all things negative. A butter lamp or a lit candle is placed in front of the Lue and a khatak ཁ་བཏགས།(white Tibetan scarf) loosely wrapped around it to hide it from onlookers. In this manner, the Lue is carried out of the house to a three-way intersection and left there. As the Lue leaves the house, firecrackers are set off after it or banging of pots and pans to make a loud noise and everyone shouts and demands the Lue to leave and take away and erase all the obstacles and negative karma that have accumulated in the past year. In Tibetan it is said as follows:
Lo chig dawa chung-nyi ལོ་གཅིག་ཟླ་བ་བཅུ་གཉིས།
Shama sum-gya-drukchu ཞག་མ་སུམ་བརྒྱ་དྲུག་བཅུ།
Gegwang bachey thamchey shewar gyur!
May all the obstacles accumulated during the twelves months of the year and 360 days of the year be gone!
The person who carries the Lue to the three-way intersection must not look back until he reaches his destination. No visitor should enter the house after this ritual of exorcism. Ladies must not wash their hair according to popular belief and no one should leave the house after this ritual. The Lue is left at a three-way intersection because that is where spirits are believed to gather. The Lue effigy can be made very simple or very elaborate with more human features and even dressed elaborately
In general, this is how Guthuk is observed on the evening of the 29th day of the 12th Tibetan month. The observation of this event and the meanings of the dough balls can vary from region to region and even from household to household and in general, everyone takes the meaning of the doughballs lightly and often with great sense of humor.
The 30th day of the 12th Tibetan month is called Nam-ghang when the Derka སྡེར་ཁ། and Chopu ཆུ་ཕུད། the religious offering are set up. The Derkha consist of a Bo ཕྱེ་མར་འབོ།, a dual compartment decorative wooden container in which the Droso-Chema གྲོ་སོ་ཕྱེ་མར། are placed in the mounds. One compartment is filled with grains of barley གྲོ། and other with Tsampa རྩམ་པ།, roasted barley flour. On top of each mound is placed a Tsido རྩེ་སྒྲོ།, a small wooden banner decorated with pictures of auspicious symbols. A special flower called Losar Metok ལོ་གསར་མེ་ཏོག, Losar Flower, some young sprouts of barley are also placed on top of the mound. As part of the Derka, a bowl or a pitcher of Chang ཆང་།, with a little butter attached on three sides and wrapped in khatak ཁ་བཏགས། , one Lophu ལོ་ཕུད། wheat sprouts in a pot and a Luog-go ལུག་མགོ, head of a sheep made either from dough or porcelain are placed together. And finally, with the special stacked Khapseys, the Losar Derka is complete. Of course, one can elaborate the display by adding bowls of fruits, vase of flower and in small bowls, assorrted dry fruits, sweets and nuts.
Chopu ཆུ་ཕུད།, the religious offering is made of these five items, the Chopak མཆོད་པ།; Yonchab ཡོན་ཆབ།; water bowls, Poey སྤོས། incense, Choemey མཆོད་མེ། butter lamps and Metok མེ་ཏོག flowers, these are placed in front of the shrine. The water bowls are filled with water and incense and butter lamps lit early in the morning of Losar. Wearing their best clothes, the families all greet each other with – Losar Tashi Delek. One member of the family will offer the rest the Droso-Chema where a pinch first from the grain is taken and thrown three times into the air and next do the same with Tsampa, but a tiny morsel is kept between thumb and forefinger and tasted, Next a pitcher or bowl of chang is offered where it is dipped with the fourth finger and flicked three times in the air and a drop taken on the tongue, all the while repeating – Tashi Delek Phusomtsok, Ama Bato Kunkham Sang, Tandu Dewa Thob Par Shog.བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས། ཨེ་མ་བག་གྲོ་སྐུ་ཁམས་བཟང། གཏན་དུ་བདེ་བ་ཐོབ་པར་ཤོག Next, family members will offer Khatak to their deities in the shrine room and observe prayers for a short time. When the prayers are over, younger family members will offer the elders Khatak and wish them Tashi Delek again. When all of this is done, everyone will partake in the auspicious Losar food like Doma-Deysi, sweetened rice with doma, Chang-Kol, hot barley or rice wine, Drothuk a thick soup made from either oats or barley and Tibetan tea. The first day of Losar is family time and everyone stays home to enjoy each other’s company and the delicious food.
I wish everyone of you good health, prosperity and good fortune this coming Losar, TASHI DELEK!
(Views expressed are her own)
The author is an alumni of Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio majoring in Social Work and served at Tibetan Children’s Village. She is based in San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA.