Losar marks the Tibetan New Year and it is the most important festival of the Tibetan Buddhists. In Tibetan the word losar means New Year (lo = year and sar=new). The Tibetan calendar is lunar, which means it follows the cycles of the moon, so the New Year begins on a new moon. This festival is celebrated by Buddhists in Tibet as well as in many other countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and India. During the festival different rituals are performed in order to turn away negativity and evil spirits, and attract happiness and prosperity in the New Year. Losar-related rituals are divided into two distinct parts. First the negative aspects of the old year are purified and closed. Only after this the welcoming of Losar begins by inviting into life all that is good and auspicious.
The celebration of Losar predates Buddhism in Tibet and can be traced back to the pre-Buddhist Bön period. During the early Bön tradition, every winter a spiritual ceremony was held where people offered large quantities of incense to appease the local spirits and deities. The precursor of the Losar festival may have been initially the traditional farmers' festival. Later when new findings in astrology, based on the five elements, were introduced in Tibet, this farmer's festival became what we now call the Losar or New Year's festival. Initially, Losar was celebrated during the winter solstice, and was only moved to coincide with the Chinese and Mongolian New Year by a leader of the Gelug school of Buddhism. The Losar activities and rituals may differ depending on the specific location or monastery.
Below: Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Losar Prayer Ceremony. Photo: Bruno Baumann
Losar Traditions of Laymen
The celebration starts the day before New year’s Eve and lasts 3 to 15 days. This year, according to western calendar the Tibetan New Year´s Day falls on 27 January. This is the first day of the 1st month of Tibetan Calendar. However, the preparation for Losar begins already about a month ahead of the actual festival. People clean and decorate their houses, and make offerings to Lama Losar. The walls are decorated with drawings of eight auspicious symbols representing the offerings made by deities to the Buddha after his enlightenment. The older prayer flags are burned, and new ones are added.
On the New Year´s Eve, the traditional special noodle soup called guthuk is prepared. The soup includes dumplings that contain nine different fortune symbols - chili pepper, cotton ball, wood, charcoal, sugar cube, wool string, paper, pebble and raw bean. Each symbol obtained by the person represents his fortune in the coming year. For example, a person who finds chili pepper in his dumpling is said to be talkative, wool refers to good-heartedness and charcoal that the one who finds it has a “black heart”. Best would be to find a white item such as sugar or cotton, for these are very good signs. At the dawn of the first day, the members of the family rise early and put on their best new clothes. Housewives cook a pot of barley wine and wait for the sunrise. At sunrise, the leading woman of the house carries a bucket to the nearby river to fetch the year´s first bucket of water. The family members greet one another and drink the barley wine. On the second day, people move out to visit friends and relatives. This day is known as king´s Losar (gyal-po lo-sar). Friends and loved ones are greeted by saying Tashi Delek that means good luck and happiness. In the evening, the Tibetans carry torches across their homes yelling to drive away evil spirits from their abodes. The third day is reserved for visiting monasteries, shrines and stupas and making offerings to the monks and nuns in the form of clothes and food. Apart from Tibet, Losar festival is celebrated by the Buddhist population in states like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh in Kashmir.
Below: Nomad family visiting kloster during Losar. Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Photos: Bruno Baumann
Losar Traditions of Buddhist Monasteries
Losar is an important time for Buddhist monks. Starting weeks before Losar day, monasteries begin their purification rituals aimed at cleaning the world of the negativities and blockages of the old year, so that the new year has a clean slate. This involves many special practices for the guardians and protectors of the lineages. Some of the most interesting of these are the Cham dances, in which monks wear masks and special silk brocade robes, and dance as the guardians of the lineage. Each step and ritual element used in these dances is symbolic and related to Buddhist history and deities, often including symbolic re-enactments of good forces overcoming evil. These dances are very popular among Tibetans, and a great way for regular people to understand the ideas and history of Buddhism.
Below: Cham Mask Dancers, Losar. Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Photos: Bruno Baumann
The tradition of Displaying the Tangka is an important event for a Tibetan Buddhists. This tangka can be of size 30 meters tall and 20 meters wide. A central Buddha figure is displayed on this special tangka and relate it to the local protector deities that normally feature on the periphery of this large painting. It is also special tradition as people can admire the tangka in daylight, since most of the time the tangkas are inside the dark prayer halls often not accessible to all people. It is often shown on a slope specially constructed and designed for this purpose, but it can also be hung from the roof of a major structure into the courtyard of the monastery itself.
Below: Transporting and displaying the Tangka, Losar festival. Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Photos: Bruno Baumann
The Butter Lamp Festival is held at a small number of monasteries, usually the larger ones, towards the end of the Losar festival period. However, central to this festival are butter sculptures, and not butter lamps. Originated in 1409 during Ming Dynasty, Tibetan Butter Lamp Festival was created by Tsongkhapa in honor of Sakyamuni’s victory over other religions during the debate. Occurring on the 15th day of the first Tibetan month, this festival includes activities such as Buddha Dance, puppet show and butter sculpture exhibitions staged by various monasteries, big or small. During daytime, people will steam into monasteries to pray.
As part of Tibetan New Year celebrations the Maitreya the Future Buddha statue is paraded around the exterior wall or perimeter of the monastery. Maitreya the Future Buddha is thought to arrive on earth when Gautama the Present Buddha has been forgotten and the Dharma has been ignored. This will be a low-point for Buddhism and the Maitreya will appear and turn things around. The meaning of parading the statue of Maitreya around the periphery of the monastery is to remind the faithful to ‘keep the faith’ and ensure that Maitreya returns only in statue form once a year to stress the importance of the Buddhist teachings.
During Losar naming of the New Year is also done. The Tibetan New Year is identified by an animal (Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Ape, Bird, Dog, Pig, Mouse, Bull, Tiger), an Element (Fire, Earth, Iron, Water, Wood), and gender that alternates every other year. The year 2017 is a Female Fire Bird year.
Happy Losar and Happy and Colorful Fire Bird Year 2017!
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Welcome! :) My name is Monika. I am interested in crystals, different cultures, and good stories. As a linguist I have always been fascinated with semiotics and symbols, and how people of different cultures interpret them.