Top 10 Interesting Facts about Tibetan New Year
Tibetan New year, or Losar, is one of the most important celebrations in the Tibetan calendar. The practice of Losar predates the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, and has its roots in the winter incense-burning festival of the Bon religion.
Tibetan New year
1. Tibetan New Year Is Not January 1st or Chinese New Year
Losar is set according to the lunisolar Tibetan calendar, and normally corresponds to a date in February or March of the western Gregorian calendar. It should not be confused with the Chinese New Year, sometimes known as the Spring Festival, although a few of the traditions are similar.
2. Losar Lasts 15 Days
The celebrations for the Losar Festival normally lasts for around 15 days, giving the people plenty of time to celebrate. The main celebrations happen during the first three to seven days, depending on the region. The period before Losar is the time when people prepare for the celebrations, and decorate their houses and the streets, as well as preparing food for the celebration.
3. The Tibetan Zodiac Is Similar to the Han Zodiac
The Tibetan zodiac is very similar to that of the Han Chinese, and the calendar follows a 60-year cycle, known as the Vrhaspati cycle, which was first introduced to Tibet from India. The cycle is counted by the number of years, but each year in the cycle is not numbered, rather it is given a name, in much the same way as Chinese years.
Each year is associated with an animal and an element, with 12 animals and five elements making up the total 60-year cycle. The elements, in order of use, are: Fire, Earth, Iron, Water, and Wood. The animals used in the cycle are: Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pic, Rat, Ox, and Tiger. Each of these are used during each twelve-year cycle of the elements, meaning the complete 60-year cycle starts with the Fire Rabbit, and ends with the Wood Tiger.
4. Losar Is Also Celebrated by Tibetan People across Tibet
Anywhere that there are Tibetan people, you will find the celebrations of Losar going on. Some of the rituals differ from those in the Tibet Autonomous Region, although majority of the celebrations are done in much the same way. For example, in the Amdo region, people will climb to the tops of mountains to burn cypress and juniper branches as rituals to the deities, and then visit the elderly of their village to greet them on New Year’s Day. And in the Tsang region of Tibet, around Shigatse, people will pray to the gods of the land and the guardian deities on the second day, and on the third day set prayer flags on the roofs of their houses to pray to the other deities.
The people hold a feast.
In the Gongbo area, the New Year actually begins on the first day of the tenth month of the Tibetan calendar. On the eve of the New Year, the people hold a feast where they let a dog take the first taste of the food, as a sign of what lies ahead for them. If the dog eats cheese or ghee, then it signifies a blossoming pasture, while if it eats tsampa or cake then it means a good harvest. However, if the dog first chooses meat, then it is an unlucky sign that there may be a death or serious illness in the family. They then eat as much as possible to prevent being carried away by ghosts, and on the morning of the New Year, eat only barley gruel. This strange tradition of having an early New Year dates back to the time of one of the Gongbo kings, who ordered the men to celebrate their festivities early, to ensure they focused on defending against the risk of an invading army during the traditional Losar.
Similarly, there are many other Tibetan people who celebrate New Year at a different time, such as those living in pastoral northwest Sichuan, who celebrate on the 15th day of the first Han lunar month, and the Jiarong Tibetan people, who celebrate on the 13th day of the 10th Han lunar month, and name it as “Tsampa New Year”.
5. Red Envelopes for Children Are Also Popular
Just as they are used in China, red envelopes or packets containing monetary gifts are given to children at Losar. Taken from the Chinese Spring Festival tradition, it has become customary for the relatives of children to give the red envelopes with money in them to the children of the family, to signify the wishes that they will also have a prosperous year, and wish them good fortune in their life ahead. The envelopes are believed to help ward off evil spirits, and protect the young people from sickness and death. Traditionally, the money in the envelopes should be an even number, and the amount should not contain or be in multiples of four.
6. Eating "Guthuk" Is One of the Most Special Customs
Guthuk is a traditional noodle soup – a variation of the common dish. Thukpa bhatuk - that is normally eaten two days before the New Year itself. The Gutor ceremony is a religious ceremony that means, literally, “offering of the 29th”, and is held on the 29th day of the last month of the Tibetan calendar, known in Tibet as “nyi-shu-gu”. The ceremony focuses on driving out all the negative energy, evil spirits, and misfortunes of the previous year, in order to start the New Year in a peaceful and auspicious way. The family will eat the Guthuk and set off firecrackers, burn grasses, and chant mantras to force the evil spirits to leave the house.
Guthuk is a traditional noodle soup.
Guthuk usually contains nine ingredients, often including such things as onions, garlic, beef, mutton, dried cheese, beef stock, spinach, tomatoes, cilantro, radish, peas, ginger, etc. Eat pot of Guthuk contains nine balls of dough made from barley flour, similar to dumplings, each of which contains a small item that bears a special meaning to predict the eaters New Year fortune. The “fortunes” in each dough ball are different, and can include such things as a raw bean, charcoal, wool, wood, folded paper, a pebble, a chili, and many other items. Each has its own meaning, such as wool symbolizing kind-heartedness, a coin meaning prosperity and fortune, and charcoal representing meanness. This has changed a lot since the origins of the Guthuk dumplings, which would once have contained things like shards of old pottery and even small lumps of yak dung.
7. The First Day Is Only for Family
Tibetans stay at home on the first day of the New Year, to spend it with their family, the most important people in their lives. On the morning of the New Year, the people rise before daybreak to burn pine rosin and place dyed barley and ears of wheat on the roof of the house, as a wish for a prosperous New year. The women also get up early to collect water from the nearest river or lake. The first water of the new year is considered auspicious, and the family wait at home for the women to return, so they can wash their faces with the auspicious water.
Tibetans stay at home on the first day of the New Year
Once they are washed, and any livestock are fed, the family will dress in their finest clothes. Men put on fine robes and leather boots, while the women dress in colorful aprons known as “Bangdian” and headdresses decorated with corals, pearls, agate, and other precious gems. The mother of the family will then proffer the family’s Qiema box to each member of the family, and each will take a little tsampa from the box. As they take the food, they give thanks to the mother and the rest of the family with prayers and traditional greetings such as “Tashi Delek” (all the best, or Blessings and good luck).
Sharing food with each member of the family.
Other greetings abound in the Tibetan home at Losar, and each has a defined meaning and is intended for specific persons within the family. For example, “lo” means year and “sar” means new, Making “losar” mean exactly what it is, New year. Phrases such as “Losar bey Tashi delek” is a common greeting in Tibet during New year, and translated means “Blessings and good luck for the New Year. Other common greetings and prayers used during the celebrations are:
Kra Shis Bde Legs Phun Sum Tshogs - Meaning “longevity and good fortune”, this is a traditional greeting from the children of the family to the senior members of the family.
A Ma Bag Gro Sku Khams Bzang - Meaning Longevity and health, this is normally used for greeting people of the same age or generation, both within and outside the family.
Ama badro kunkham Sang - Meaning “good health for mothers”, this is a traditional greeting of respect for the women of the family, as they are normally in charge of kids, housework, cooking, etc., and are afforded much respect from other family members.
Gtan Du Bde Ba Thob Par Shog - Meaning “happy and prosperous New Year”, this is a general greeting to other people outside the family.
On the second day of the New Year, Tibetans spend their time visiting friends and other relatives, to greet them with blessings for a good and auspicious new year. The host greets all visitors with the Qiema box, and the hostess pours tea and chang for their guests. Officially known as King’s Losar (gyal-po lo-sar), this second day was reserved for a secular gathering of the high rank monks and the government to exchange greetings with monastic and civil dignitaries, as well as representatives of other countries and other foreign visitors.
From the third day of Losar, the people start the celebrations in earnest, and enjoy the break that the festive season brings. Across the region, many festivities are held to celebrate, such as the Weisang ceremony, where people burn cypress and pine branches and chant sutras to pray for peace, health, and a good harvest. Prayer flags are also hung everywhere, and the activities such as horse racing, wrestling, and tug of war all start.
8. Tibetans Begin to Prepare New Year’s Celebration as Early as Early December
While the celebrations of Losar last for fifteen days, conversely, the preparations for the celebration normally take just as long. Traditionally, Tibetan families start to prepare for Losar from around the early of the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar. The initial preparations are all about food, which is a huge part of any Tibetan festival. Families prepare the food they will eat on during Losar, such as making the butter, brewing the chang (highland barley wine), preparing the beef and mutton, making the Guthuk soup and the dough balls to go into it, as well as many other things.
Part of the preparation days includes the eating of Guthuk, on the 29th day of the 12th month, the eve of New year’s Eve. Before the traditional Gutor ceremony, the family will deep-clean their entire house, making sure all the dirt and rubbish is cleaned from the house, and dumped at a crossroads or intersection. This follows the Tibetan belief that all the things that are harmful to the health of the body and soul are thrown out, and cannot come back.
Families prepare the food they will eat on during Losar.
After eating the Guthuk, the family use the firecrackers and burning grass to tempt the evil spirits out of the house, yelling for them to “come out” as they run from the house to the nearest crossroads. There they throw the burning grasses and firecrackers into the middle of the intersection to where the evil spirits will follow it. Then they walk away without looking back, to prevent the spirits from following them back into the house, thus bringing good fortune for the New Year. Coincidentally, this is very similar to a Christian belief that demons reside at a crossroads, and can bring bad fortune on those who tarry too long there.
On the eve of New Year, the families clean up their gardens and courtyards, and spray water over it to clean the dust away. Then they decorate the windows and doors with colorful, fragrant cloths similar to hada. On a table inside is placed a Qiema (a box that contains barley, tsampa, and butter sculptures, used to express their wish for a good harvest and an auspicious year ahead), a butter-sculpted sheep’s head, some Qinke wine or chang, fruits and vegetables, and other things.
9. Tibetan Show and Tibetan Talking and Singing Are Popular
During the festivities of the New Year, it is a popular practice to watch shows, such as plays and Tibetan opera, and for the people to sing and dance. The whole proceeding is a merry affair of celebration, that continues until the fifteenth night of the first new moon. Just like at any other festival throughout the year, Tibetans love to have a good time, and spend long hours chatting with friends and relatives over bowls of tea and mugs of chang and barley beer.
10. Actually, It's Really a Good Time to Travel Tibet
Lhasa is an ideal place to go for the Losar celebrations, as there are many things to see during the celebrations, and it is a great time to experience one of the most important festivals in Tibet. Jokhang temple and the Potala Palace, are filled with people, and the kora around Jokhang, which runs along Barkhor Street, is one long line of pilgrims walking and chanting as they perform their holy kora, often prostrating themselves every other step.