Losar: The Tibetan New Year

Losar is the Tibetan word to indicate the New Year and the most important holiday in Tibet. Originally, the ancient celebrations of Losar took place during the winter solstice, and the leader of the gelug school of Buddhism modified it to coincide with the Chinese and Mongolian new years.

It is celebrated for 15 days, but the most important celebrations are held for the first three days. On the first day, people extract a beverage called changkol from chhaang, a type of Tibetan beer. The second day is known as the King's Losar or gyalpo losar. The Dalai Lama exchange greetings with dignitaries from China, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia and other foreign countries.

Subsequently, from the third day onwards, the people and the monks begin to enjoy the holiday season with food and drinks. In many parts of Tibet, Losar is celebrated for 15 days or more, while in India for three days and in other smaller regions, the festivities can last a single day. In Buddhist monasteries, however, the festivities begin on the twenty-ninth day of the twelfth month, the day before New Year's Eve.

Losar is celebrated throughout the area of Indian Himalayas, where they are concentrated Buddhist populations in states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh in Kashmir. Among the minor populations who celebrate Losar there are the Monpa tribe of Tawang and Memba tribe of the Mechuka valley in Arunachal Pradesh. In Sikkim, in the mid 1960, the 16th Karmapa encouraged Tingchim villagers to celebrate the New Year during Losar and not during Losung in December after the harvest. After his intervention, Losung is marked by Buddhist rituals, while the new year is celebrated at Losar.

Traditionally, the Losar is preceded by five days of exercise with Vajrakilaya, a ritual knife. Because the Uyghurs adopted the Chinese calendar, and the Mongols and Tibetans adopted the Uighur calendar, the Chinese New Year and the Mongolian New Year often falls on the same day and occasionally there is difference of one day or one lunar month. Losar is culturally more akin to the Mongolian Tsagaan Sar.

Losar is also celebrated in Bhutan, although the different regions of the country may have different conceptions of the New Year. The Nepali New Year or Lhochhar is celebrated by the Sherpa, Tamang and Gurung people.

The Losar celebration precedes the advent of Buddhism in Tibet, and can be dated to the pre-Buddhist Bön period, during which every winter a spiritual ceremony was held in which the people offered large quantities of incense to the spirits and local deities in order to gain their favour. This religious festival later evolved into an annual Buddhist festival, according to the beliefs originated during the reign of Pude Gungyal, the ninth king of Tibet.

It is said that the festival was born when an old woman named Belma introduced the countdown based on the phases of the moon. The first festival took place in autumn in Lhokha Yarla Shampo region, and was probably the ancestor of the traditional festival of farmers, since it was at that time that were introduced in Tibet the arts of cultivation, irrigation, extraction of iron and the construction of bridges.

The rites instituted to celebrate the new technical knowledge can be recognized as precursors of the Losar celebrations. In fact, when they were introduced in Tibet the rudiments of astrology based on the five elements, the farmers festival took the new name of Losar or New Year's festivities.

On the day the monks offer puja to the deities, and begin preparations for the celebrations of Losar, devoting the last day to the cleansing of the monastery and to welcome the new year. During the last two days of the old year, which is called Gutor, people in Tibet begin to prepare for the New Year. The first day of Gutor is spent cleaning the house. The kitchen must be cleaned particularly well, because it is where people cook for the family, and is therefore the most important part of the house. Even the chimney is swept and dusted.

Special dishes are cooked. One of these is a soup served with small dumplings. The soup is made of meat, wheat, rice, sweet potatoes, cheese, peas, green peppers, radishes and vermicelli. The stuffed ravioli include pieces of wood, paper or pebbles. People cook a particular type of noodles called guthuk, consisting of nine different ingredients including dried cheese and various grains. They also give the batter balls with various materials, edible or not, hidden inside, like pepper, salt, wool, rice and coal.

The object found by every person within its meatball is his character with chilies signify talkativeness, the white ingredients (salt, wool and rice) are bearers of good fortune, coal signify that you are not good people. In monasteries and decorations bids are affixed, called Lama Losar. Moreover, in the early hours of the last day, the monks of Namgyal Monastery offer a sacrificial cake called Tor to the highest member of the hierarchy of deities, the goddess Palden Lhamo.

Traditionally, on the first day of the new year, the hostess will get up very early. After boiling a pot of barley wine for the family, she sits by the window waiting for the sunrise. As the first sunshine of the New Year touches the ground, the housewife takes a bucket and heads for a nearby river, who is going to take the first bucket of water, which is considered as the most sacred, with the clearest water. The family that gets the first bucket of water from the river or from the well is believed to be blessed by good fortune for the coming year.

On New Year's day, the Tibetans get up early and wear new clothes after taking a bath. A tribute is put in front of their home shrines. The offers are generally constituted by animals and demons made with a type of dough called tormas. Also, this is the day when family members exchange gifts. Families also have dinner together, which usually consists of a kind of cake called Kapse and an alcoholic drink called chang, which people drink to keep themselves warm.

Led by the Dalai Lama, people join at the prayer ceremony along with three great monasteries abbots, lamas, or monks reincarnated Tulku, government officials and dignitaries. At the end of the religious ceremony, all present gather in a room for a ceremony of official greetings, called Tashi Delek, sitting on the floor pillows. To wish the Dalai Lama good luck throughout the coming year, the representatives of the three great monasteries of the two tantric colleges give him the sacred pills (ril bu) made of roasted barley dough.

Subsequently, the entertainers called garma perform the lucky dance, Gumpa. Two senior monks then start a Buddhist philosophical debate, ending it with the auspicious verses composed especially for the event, in which they briefly review the most important points of Buddhist teachings.

The Losar festival is characterized by ancient ceremonies that represent the struggle between good and evil, chanting and passing torches of fire into the crowd. Some events like the dance of the deer and fun battles between the king and his various ministers produce a certain lightness in the climate. The Losar festival is characterized mainly by dance, music, and a general spirit of joy. The Tibetans are also set off firecrackers to get rid of the evil spirits that lurk around.