By Tsepak Rigzin
The celebration of Losar can be traced back to the pre-Buddhist period in Tibet. During the period when Tibetans practiced the Bon religion, every winter a spiritual ceremony was held in which people offered large quantities of incense to appease the local spirits, deities and protectors. This religious festival later evolved into an annual Buddhist festival which is believed to have originated during the reign of Pude Gungyal, the ninth king of Tibet. The festival is said to have begun when an old woman named Belma (rgad mo bal ma) introduced the measurement of time based on the phases of the moon. This festival took place during the flowering of the apricot trees of the Lhokha Yarla Shampo region in autumn, and it may have been the first celebration of what has become the traditional farmers’ festival. It was during this period that the arts of cultivation, irrigation, refining iron from ore, and building bridges were first introduced to Tibet. The ceremonies instituted to celebrate these new capabilities can be recognized as precursors of the Losar festival. Later, when the rudiments of the science of astrology, based on the five elements, was introduced to Tibet, this farmers’ festival became what we now call Losar or New Year’s festival; it was celebrated at the beginning of the so-called sPyid ra stag month.
Historically, there are three major traditions for determining where the sPyid ra stag month falls during the year. Some claim it is the eleventh month; others, the twelfth; still others claim it is the first. Those who claim it is the eleventh month follow the tradition of Konjo, the Chinese princess who married King Songtsen Gampo. According to this tradition, the Losar celebration begins on the first day of the eleventh month. According to the second tradition, Losar is celebrated on the first day of the twelfth month, corresponding to the Farmers’ Losar celebrated in China since the reign of King Trison Deutsen in Tibet. Finally, according to the system of Lama Drogon Choegyal Phagpa, a lama during the 13th century, the first day of the first month of the calendar is counted as the beginning of each year; hence, the Losar celebration begins on this date. Despite these three major traditions, the Losar celebration is held at different times of the year in various regions of Tibet, in accordance with varied harvest seasons and local customs, in some places, Losar is even celebrated twice each year. But throughout the course of the history of Tibet, one standard Losar celebration at the beginning of the year gradually became a standard practiced for the nation, at least at the official level.
Early in the last month of the year, people start making preparations for Losar. As they begin the many rituals and household activities associated with the lavish festivities to come, they become very busy; hence, one hears the common saying, “Losar is Lesar” meaning “New Year is New Work.” Preparations for Losar basically consist of collecting fresh roasted barley flour for phe mar (sweetened barley flour symbolizing good wishes), gro ma (a small dried sweet potato) bras sil (sweet rice), lo phud (a young sprout of wheat or barley symbolizing the birth of the new year), chang (barley beer), tea, butter, sheep’s heads, butter lamps, fried biscuits of various sizes, and fruits and sweets. Locally produced foodstuffs are preferable. A complete set of these seasonal delicacies is also required for arrangement on the altar. The entire neighborhood is cleaned, and houses are freshly painted. New clothing may be prepared, especially for children, but most adults wear their finest set of old clothing; often, a person will own only one such set of fine clothing, which they usually keep locked in a trunk until an appropriate event, such as Losar or the marriage of their relatives. As the big day approaches, any or all of the eight auspicious symbols are drawn on the kitchen wall with phye mar. the mouths of household vessels such as water cans, clay pots and so forth, are tied with white woolen scarves, and window and door curtains are replaced. Lines are laid down in white said along the sides of the path from the gate to the door, and in the center of the path are drawn symbols such as a swastika, which symbolizes indestructible good fortune, or a conch, which symbolizes the flourishing of the Dharma. Offerings are usually arranged on the altar on the last evening before the first day of Losar. Tibetan bread and deep fried biscuits (khab se) of different varieties are prepared in huge quantities days, weeks, or even months before Losar, according to the need of the household; most families, however, prepare them one day before Losar. Khab se and chang together form the basic medium of exchanging greetings. It is a common occurrence that just a day or two before Losar, during the preparation of Khab se, many families suffer losses from accidental fires caused by the boiling oil. However, there is a common belief that such families, even though they are temporarily undergoing a loss, will thrive and become affluent in the long run. Such a notion should no, however, drive one to deliberately arrange an accident of this nature, as such can act prove detrimental to the family, both in the near future and in the long run. Finally, one of the more tragic requisites for the Losar celebration is the mass killing of animals such as yaks, sheep and goats for their flesh, heads, intestines and so on, to be consumed or displayed during Losar.
On the first day, in the early dawn, the housewife of the family runs to collect the year’s first bucket of water. She burns incense at the water source, ties a scarf around the tap, and sets out an offering of the first portion phye mar and chang to appease the nagas (subterranean serpent beings) and spirits. On reaching home, she serves boiled chang porridge while awakening every member of the family, bidding them “Tashi Delek.” Then all, now quite awake after relishing the chang porridge (and some perhaps already a bit soused), attire themselves in their best costumes. After performing their devotions before the altar by making prostrations, reciting prayers, lighting lamps and the like, they take their seats, lined up according to seniority within the household. The housewife then serves phye mar, chang phud and sweet rice, followed by tea, sweet soup, boiled chang porridge, and a set of khab se called dkar spro. When this formal family ceremony is over, the household members run off to their next door neighbors’ houses, chewing phye mar and chang phud while shouting “Tashi Delek!” Children especially love to fill their pockets with sweets and show off their new outfits. On this day people neither socialize extensively, nor spend money freely, for it is believed (with or without reason) that if anyone were to do so, the fortunes of their household would diminish.
From the second day of Losar onwards, people visit each others’ houses, gamble, play dice, cards, dance and sing songs. If the lunar calendar predicts that the second day will be favorable, people raise prayer flags, both horizontally and vertically, on their roofs. And while on the roof, they also offer incense, sending great pillars of smoke rising into the sky. This ceremony is primarily, a ritual of appeasement offered in honor of their deities of the home (skye lha); it is also a rite to increase the family’s luck and fortune, as well as to placate gods, goddesses, mountain dwelling spirits (btsan), local spirits (yul lha) and nagas. This incense offering ceremony is also accompanied by an offering of black tea to the gods and goddesses of the home and the locality; it concludes with the shouting of “Ki Ki So So Lha Gyal Lo!” (“May the gods on the side of virtue be victorious!”) three times while holding tsampa between the thumb and the tips of the fingers of one’s right hand. One then throws the tsampa toward the sky, filling the air with a fine mist of powder. When the incense burning and prayer flag ceremony is held in public, the scene is even more lively and lovely. Some playful and naughty people jubilantly polish others’ faces with tsampa to tease them; people of the opposite sex are a favorite target.
The words and methods of making the incense offering are more or less standardized, as most people and institutions use the text that was composed by Guru Padmasambhava after he subdued the malignant spirits and bound them with an oath to be guardians and protectors of Buddhism in Tibet. This basic text which is common to all Tibetans in supplemented by the invocation text of one’s local deity and guardians. These days an officially published standard ritual text is available for all.
In private homes, whether of high or low social status, aristocratic or working class, everyone enjoys the festivities, ongoing rituals and pageants of the Losar festival, while exchanging hospitality and sharing conviviality. The Losar merrymaking lasts for at least a week, and in some places even longer. Some people even get married during Losar to make things especially festive!
In Lhasa, the first day of the new year is officially called Lama Losar. In the early dawn of this day, the monks of Namgyal Monastery, the personal monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, would offer a sacrificial cake (gtor ma) on top of the Potala Palace to the supreme deity of Dharma protectors, the glorious goddess Palden Lhamo. Led by the Dalai Lama, the abbots of the three great monasteries, lamas, tulkus, government officials and dignitaries would join the ceremony and offer their contemplative prayers, while monks of Namgyal recited the invocation to Palden Lhamo. After the completion of this ceremony, all would assemble in the hall called the Excellence of Samsara and Nirvana (srid zhi phun tsogs) for a formal greeting ceremony. Seated on their respective cushions arranged in accordance with their rank, everyone would exchange the traditional greeting, “Tashi Delek.” Then phye mar, tea, sweet rice, stacks of cookies (stop chen dkar spro), butter cubes (mar zan) and bundles of dried fruit would be distributed.
In order to wish the Dalai Lama good luck for the coming year, consecrated long life pills (tse ril) made out of roasted barley dough are offered to him by the representatives of the three great monasteries, the two tantric colleges, and by the institutions known as the zhe sde, the tse mon ling, the sme ru and the lchag po ri (Medical College). Then entertainers (garpa) perform a dance for the amusement of the guests. Two senior monks stage a debate on Buddhist philosophy, and conclude their debate with an auspicious recitation composed especially for the event, in which the whole spectrum of Buddhist teaching is briefly reviewed. A request is made to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as to all holders of the doctrine, to remain for a long time amongst beings in samsara in order to serve them through their enlightened activities. The official ceremony concludes with a ceremonial farewell to the Dalai Lama, who then retires to his apartment.
The second day of Losar is known as the King’s Losar ((rgyal po lo gsar) because officially the day would be reserved for a secular gathering in the hall of the Excellence of Samsara and Nirvana. The Dalai Lama and his government officials, both monastic and lay, would be greeted by a host of state dignitaries, such as representatives of China, India, Ladakh, Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, and other foreign visitors staying in Lhasa. As the Dalai Lam made his entrance to ascent his throne, the monks of Namgyal Monastery would offer prayers of welcome. After the Dalai Lam was seated, the rest of the assembled guests would take their seats. Then the Namgyal monks, led by their abbot, would offer the seven emblems of royalty, the eight auspicious substances, and the eight auspicious emblems, all offered individually in conjunction with verses explaining their significance. This was followed by the granting of an audience to all those gathered, who would receive blessings from the gracious hands of the Dalai Lama. Then tea and other refreshments were served. At this moment, the artists would offer a special dance which was performed only on this one day of the year. Next, members of the zhol bras bug ling operatic troupe would enact a danced called the gar cham. Finally, the newly appointed government officers would receive special blessings at a private function. After all these formalities, a team of sportsmen, traditionally selected from the citizens of Shigatze city, would demonstrate daredevil feats such as sliding down a rope from the top of shar chen chog, the lofty roof of the mighty Potala, to the Zhol Pillar at the foot of the hill. However, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama seeing that this was a dangerous (sometimes fatal) game, banned this particular performance. With such festivities, the day’s celebration came to an end. This day is called King’s Losar because the day is mostly occupied by formal and secular functions for the entertainment of government executives and guests of honor.
On the morning of the third day, the entire host of monastic officials, know as rtse skor (monk officials), would attend an extensive invocation ceremony of all the protector deities of Tibet held at the private chamber of the Dalai Lama in the Potala Palace. Special invocation rites of Palden Lhamo, who safeguards the welfare of the nation, were performed by the monks of Namgyal Monastery. After a break for lunch, the monastic officials (rtse skor) would perform a divination in front of the Palden Lhamo tapestry in the private chamber of the Dalai Lama. The divination, in which balls of dough were tossed in a prescribed manner, concerns the well being of the Dalai Lama, the condition of the Buddhist teachings, and the prosperity of the nation at large. This event is known as the Dough Ball Divination of the Third Day. (tses gsum zan bsgril). It is also on this day that the giant prayer flag of Ganden (dga ldan dar chen) was raised, at the break of dawn. While the monastic officials (rtse skor) gathered at the private chamber, all the lay officials (shod skor), attended a ceremony in which the Nechung Oracle was summoned to possess the medium of Nechung Monastery. In the evening, the government hosted a grant feast at rdzong rgyab, where young artists would sing and dance, and an archery competition was held. The function would then conclude with the offering of white scarves and rewards for exceptional service to the officers from the Treasury Department (bla phyag las khung). This concluded the third day. Later, the Community Leader (mi dpon) would declare that the Ganden Prayer flag had been raised, and early in the morning, the Chief Chamberlain mgron che) would admonish and direct the two monastic disciplinarians (tsogs chen zhal ngo) of Drepung Monastery about the way they were to control and organize the Great Prayer Festival. On the same evening, monks would rush out to the corridor of the Main Cathedral (gtsug lag khang) to occupy their seats for the Prayer Festival (smon lam), during which the senior monastic disciplinarian of Drepung would proclaim the founding edict (bca yig) issued by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, and exhort the monks to observe strict discipline during the festivals. This officially concluded the three days of the New Year Celebration.